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The Jungle is Serious Biznez. It has Important Ideas to get across, and it has doesn't really have time to entertain you. The adventures of the Family Rudkus are like chocolate coating on a bitter pill: the story is supposed to attract your interest so that you swallow the socially conscious message at the novel's center. In practice, this means that The Jungle is heavy on plot and light on character development. The characters are just window-dressing to get you to keep reading, and none of them are particularly three-dimensional or interesting for their own sake.
Yes, The Jungle pretty much focuses on one character – Jurgis Rudkus – but Jurgis is also, in a sense, Everyman. As Everyman, pretty much every horrible thing that can happen to a guy in Packingtown happens to Jurgis. Laid off? Check. Injured on the job? Check. Wife raped? Check. Reduced to begging? Check. Young brother-in-law eaten by rats? Check. (We just can't get over that last one.) Every chapter in this book is incredibly eventful because Upton Sinclair is trying to jam in details about all the (many, many) horrible things that go on in Packingtown. With so many details about chemical sores in the pickling rooms and diseased hogs in the sausage, there is little space left over to consider the psychology of the characters in any real depth. All the characters in this book come across as types rather than as individual people.
Jurgis Rudkus is a young, strong guy from Lithuania, in Eastern Europe. He comes from a peasant family that has had special permission to live on the land of a local lord for generations. He has lots of traditional values – he believes that he should earn money to provide for his future wife, Ona, and their children to come. He also wants his children to become educated men and women; he believes in leaving the next generation better off than he has been. Where can Jurgis fulfill his wish for a new, better life? Why, in the United States, of course! Following the promise of the American Dream, Jurgis travels to the US with his father, his fiancée, and his fiancée's family so that they can all become rich and happy.
Jurgis's disappointment with American industry is the entire subject matter of Upton Sinclair's novel. This is a book about the failures of the capitalist system to provide a fair shake to all of those immigrants who have come to these shores looking for a better life. We are supposed to learn alongside Jurgis about the ways in which American business keeps the working man down. So Jurgis is more like an object of study than a real, three-dimensional character.
Jurgis starts out absolutely ignorant of American business because he is a Lithuanian peasant by birth. The fact that Jurgis comes from a peasant family is actually really significant to the message Upton Sinclair is trying to get across in The Jungle. According to traditional socialist histories, all human societies develop from feudalism, which is a primitive economic system based on farming and serving a lord. This system is fairly stable and unchanging. You are born into a place in society and you die in that same place. This feudal system is where Jurgis comes from. Still, Jurgis is not content to stay put in this traditional economic structure. He wants to acquire wealth. Where do you go to acquire wealth? You have to turn to for economic development: capitalism.
When Jurgis's family decides to try out life in the United States, what they are looking for is a country in which you can work your way to the top. Capitalism is the current American economic system, in which people compete with one another for better jobs and higher wages. The idea behind capitalism is that you can be born poor and become rich just so long as you are willing to work hard. Jurgis totally buys into this dream of capitalism when he first arrives in America. In fact, he is so thrilled to be part of the modern capitalist system that he feels that, "to be given a place in it and a share in its wonderful activities was a blessing to be grateful for, as one was grateful for the sunshine and the rain" (3.43). In the first few chapters of The Jungle (before he actually starts to work in Chicago's meatpacking plants) Jurgis believes all the hype about the American Dream without question.
Of course, then Jurgis realizes that his family has bought a house they do not like very much for a price they cannot afford. They might be evicted at any minute, so they have no security at all. He sees his father worked to death without any care from his bosses at the meatpacking plants. He learns that his wife has been raped and intimidated into prostitution so that the rest of her family can keep working. He sees dozens of industrial accidents – a couple of which he suffers himself. He sees his wife's cousin laid off from work in the dead of winter simply because business is slow, leaving all of her colleagues out of work in the freezing cold. He witnesses most of his wife's young half-brothers and -sisters sent into downtown Chicago to work selling papers rather than staying in school. And he hears of his wife's youngest surviving half-brother, one-legged Juozapas, filling himself up with food scraps he has picked up in the dump.
A capitalist system based on competition for who gets the best salary may seem fair (because if you work hard, you can get ahead), but in the world of the novel it's totally unfair. After all, if you're poor, you start with a huge disadvantage because you have no education and no social influence. So, already, the kinds of jobs that you can get have been predetermined by the status of your family. Even though it appears that there is no class system in the United States, there absolutely is one – it's just more hidden than the class systems of feudal societies like old Lithuania. In 1906 America, if you are an ordinary factory worker, you can only work as long as your body is healthy and strong. If you are unlucky enough to be sick or elderly or hurt in an accident, you're screwed. Because the workers have to compete with each other to get jobs, it's a dog-eat-dog situation with every man for himself. According to Upton Sinclair's vision of American business, capitalism encourages greed and corruption.
After Jurgis has lost both his wife and his son to the desperate, bitter life they have been leading in Chicago's slums, he resolves to make the capitalist system work for him. Jurgis has been systematically cheated out of everything he owns by the businessmen who evicted his family from their home and forced him to work himself to exhaustion just to make ends meet. When Jurgis attacked Connor, the man who raped and prostituted Ona, the judge refused to believe Jurgis's story because all the courts in the country are cozy with American businessmen. A boss will always be believed over a laborer.
So, Jurgis returns to Chicago after a summer as a hobo determined to become a criminal. He starts mugging people. He manipulates his old union contacts to arrange elections for a corrupt businessman, Mike Scully. Worst of all, when his union declares a strike, Jurgis decides to stay on the job. He no longer has any sense of himself as part of a group. He refuses to help his fellow workers. Staying on the job means a promotion for Jurgis (and unemployment for some poor union guy who walks out, trusting his position will be waiting for him after the strike). Jurgis has chosen to put himself in front of everybody else. In Upton Sinclair's vision, Jurgis has become the natural outcome of capitalism. Jurgis started out as an honest family man, but the brutal competition and exploitation of American business has made him isolated and anti-social.
Jurgis has become so self-absorbed that he thinks he has total control of the system of Packingtown. But even though capitalism looks like a classless system on the outside, it really isn't. The guys with more money and influence have more power. Although Jurgis is richer and more powerful than he has been at any point in the book after the stockyard strike, he is still pretty low down on the totem pole. Jurgis gets into trouble with Connor (Ona's rapist) a second time and has to leave Packingtown to avoid a year in jail. Jurgis has hit bottom, he is begging, his wife and son are dead, his wife's family are all relying on Marija Berczynskas's prostitution to get by – there is no hope left for Jurgis as an individual. So, rather than thinking of himself as a person who might be able to rise in the capitalist ranks (because he can't), Jurgis starts thinking of himself as part of a group again. That group is the Socialist Party. Jurgis may not be able to succeed in America, but he can help workers as a group to get a better deal.
Jurgis starts to see the capitalist system is based on divide-and-conquer logic: keep workers competing against each other for jobs, and they will never notice that the real enemies are their bosses, who control all the money and power in the system. The only way to make sure that everyone in society gets a fair deal is by getting rid of extremes. Sinclair's message is that to eliminate poverty, you can't have people who are extremely rich hoarding all the dough. This realization that Jurgis is part of something larger than himself – a laboring class that is organizing politically to put socialist candidates in elected office – gives Jurgis something new to have faith in. He has lost his immediate family, but he has recognized his place in the much larger family of workers in the United States. He has followed the classic socialist trajectory from feudal peasant to capitalist to socialist, and his conversion to socialism is supposed to be a model for all of Upton Sinclair's readers.
The day when Jurgis seeks a warm place out of the Chicago cold and stumbles on a Socialist Party gathering appears almost like a religious conversion for poor, oppressed Jurgis. Consider Sinclair's description of Jurgis at the end of this first meeting:
And Jurgis was a man whose soul had been murdered, who had ceased to hope and to struggle [...] and now, suddenly, in one awful convulsion, the black and hideous fact was made plain to him! [...] he stood there, with his clenched hands upraised, his eyes bloodshot, and the veins standing out purple in his face, roaring in the voice of a wild beast, frantic, incoherent, maniacal. And when he could shout no more he still stood there, gasping, and whispering hoarsely to himself: "By God! By God! By God!" (28.52)
The words of the Socialist Party speaker are like those of a religious preacher who has shown Jurgis the sorry state of his soul. He stands, hands clenched and raised as though gesturing to Heaven. He is shouting without even realizing what he is saying, feeling so full of faith after being lost in greed and despair for so long. What is more, once Jurgis has become a socialist, he goes on missionary duties. He tells all of the people he knows that socialism is the way to a more perfect future (even though many of them, Teta Elzbieta included, do not believe him).
This resemblance between Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and religious conversion stories is no accident. In the advertisements running up to the publication of The Jungle, Sinclair promised that The Jungle would be "fundamentally ... identical" to Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) (source). Harriet Beecher Stowe's book is largely credited with cementing public opinion in the Northern states against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. She appealed to the sentiment of her audiences by using fiction to attract their sympathies to the terrible situations of American slaves. She also worked hard to prove Tom the slave's moral character by showing his deep Christian faith. In The Jungle, Sinclair is writing a similar novel of faith; it's just that, in this case, the faith in question is socialism and not Christianity.