by Upton Sinclair
The Jungle Society and Class Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
The young fellow [Jack Duane] had an amused contempt for Jurgis, as a sort of working mule; he, too, had felt the world's injustice, but instead of bearing it patiently, he had struck back, and struck hard. He was striking all the time—there was war between him and society. He was a genial freebooter, living off the enemy, without fear or shame. He was not always victorious, but then defeat did not mean annihilation, and need not break his spirit. (17.37)
Here, Sinclair is imagining crime as "striking all the time" against the injustices of society. What do you make of the morality of Sinclair's depiction of genial safe-cracker Jack Duane? To what degree is Sinclair asking us to forgive [Jack Duane] for his violent crimes because he has bad stuff in his own past? Is it ethical to excuse crime because of social injustice? Why or why not?
There came no answer to it, however, and at last, the day before New Year's, Jurgis bade good-by to Jack Duane. The latter gave him his address, or rather the address of his mistress, and made Jurgis promise to look him up. "Maybe I could help you out of a hole some day," he said, and added that he was sorry to have him go. (17.42)
Whatever we may make of the ethics of Jack Duane's situation, we can't deny that he is pretty much the only guy in the whole novel who reaches out to Jurgis without an immediate expectation of profit. What kind of social statement might Sinclair be making here? How does it fit into Sinclair's politics to make a criminal character more generous than Jurgis's legitimate bosses?
Of these professional tramps a great many had, of course, been shiftless and vicious all their lives. But the vast majority of them had been workingmen, had fought the long fight as Jurgis had, and found that it was a losing fight, and given up. Later on he encountered yet another sort of men, those from whose ranks the tramps were recruited, men who were homeless and wandering, but still seeking work—seeking it in the harvest fields. Of these there was an army, the huge surplus labor army of society; called into being under the stern system of nature, to do the casual work of the world, the tasks which were transient and irregular, and yet which had to be done. They did not know that they were such, of course; they only knew that they sought the job, and that the job was fleeting. (22.52)
Sinclair is identifying a class of people – migrant farm workers. They are "the huge surplus labor army of society," but, because they do not work regularly or together, they "[do] not know" that they are part of such a big social group. In other words, they have no consciousness of themselves as part of a collective. This struggle to organize a group of people who scarcely ever see one another over the course of their working lives is exactly the task César Chavez tackled in the 1960s and 1970s. It's interesting to read The Jungle and find passing references to social issues that will become huge over the course of the twentieth century.