Study Guide

The Jungle Power

By Upton Sinclair


So in the summer time they had all set out for America. At the last moment there joined them Marija Berczynskas, who was a cousin of Ona's. Marija was an orphan, and had worked since childhood for a rich farmer of Vilna, who beat her regularly. It was only at the age of twenty that it had occurred to Marija to try her strength, when she had risen up and nearly murdered the man, and then come away. (2.8)

Oppression and brutality: it's not just for capitalism anymore. Marija comes to America to escape the unfairness of her working situation back in Lithuania. So it makes it even more unjust that what she finds in America – the Land of Opportunity – is more subtle and pervasive exploitation.

Now and then a visitor wept, to be sure; but this slaughtering machine ran on, visitors or no visitors. It was like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory. (3.32)

Perhaps the worst part of the oppression of Jurgis and other workers like him – here symbolized by hogs going to the slaughter – is that it goes largely unnoticed. There is no direct expression of power or statement from a single dictator or tyrant that makes Jurgis miserable. It's a much larger, systematic, widely distributed kind of power: the entire structure of the American economy is at fault, and how can you hope to remedy that?

Before the carcass was admitted here, however, it had to pass a government inspector, who sat in the doorway and felt of the glands in the neck for tuberculosis. This government inspector did not have the manner of a man who was worked to death; he was apparently not haunted by a fear that the hog might get by him before he had finished his testing. If you were a sociable person, he was quite willing to enter into conversation with you, and to explain to you the deadly nature of the ptomaines which are found in tubercular pork; and while he was talking with you you could hardly be so ungrateful as to notice that a dozen carcasses were passing him untouched. This inspector wore a blue uniform, with brass buttons, and he gave an atmosphere of authority to the scene, and, as it were, put the stamp of official approval upon the things which were done in Durham's. (3.35)

Sinclair maintains a lot of anger at the close relationship between business and the government in the United States. This means that regulations against poor hygiene or child labor are never appropriately enforced in this novel; government inspectors are always ineffective and not interested in their duties. Yet, much later in the book, the socialists put their faith in successful elections of their candidates to solve many of the problems Sinclair is pointing out. Why does Sinclair have faith that socialist city council members would not be susceptible to bribery? Why does he assume that socialist government inspectors would be uniformly competent? Perhaps Sinclair is overestimating human nature in his idealism.

Ona's heart sank, for the house was not as it was shown in the picture; the color scheme was different, for one thing, and then it did not seem quite so big. Still, it was freshly painted, and made a considerable show. It was all brand-new, so the agent told them, but he talked so incessantly that they were quite confused, and did not have time to ask many questions. There were all sorts of things they had made up their minds to inquire about, but when the time came, they either forgot them or lacked the courage. The other houses in the row did not seem to be new, and few of them seemed to be occupied. When they ventured to hint at this, the agent's reply was that the purchasers would be moving in shortly. To press the matter would have seemed to be doubting his word, and never in their lives had any one of them ever spoken to a person of the class called "gentleman" except with deference and humility. (4.11)

The real estate agent who bullies Jurgis and his family into buying this house they don't even like that much is profiting on the specific insecurities of these new immigrants. They have never spoken to a gentleman "except with deference and humility" – in other words, their cultural background emphasizes maintaining class differences. So they feel too shy to be direct in asking this well-dressed stranger some important questions about their new house purchase. The agent is intimidating them without showing obvious aggression or anger; he's subtle enough to frighten them through cues like nice clothing, quick answers, and rapid speech. His expression of power is like that of the capitalist system more generally in this novel. His power is not obvious and his exploitation is hidden and difficult to pinpoint. Once it becomes clear that he has cheated Jurgis's family, though, they have no recourse to solve the problem. They have absolutely no authority in this situation.

In Packingtown the advertisements had a style all of their own, adapted to the peculiar population. One would be tenderly solicitous. "Is your wife pale?" it would inquire. "Is she discouraged, does she drag herself about the house and find fault with everything? Why do you not tell her to try Dr. Lanahan's Life Preservers?" Another would be jocular in tone, slapping you on the back, so to speak. "Don't be a chump!" it would exclaim. "Go and get the Goliath Bunion Cure." "Get a move on you!" would chime in another. "It's easy, if you wear the Eureka Two-fifty Shoe." (5.2)

The laborers in Packingtown work in unsafe conditions to make almost no money. Once they've taken that money home, the corporations they work for use ads to try and sucker them into giving that money right back. Businesses in Packingtown are profiting two ways: first, by forcing people to work for not enough money and then, second, by encouraging them to spend that money on products they don't really need.

The peculiar bitterness of all this was that Jurgis saw so plainly the meaning of it. In the beginning he had been fresh and strong, and he had gotten a job the first day; but now he was second-hand, a damaged article, so to speak, and they did not want him. They had got the best of him – they had worn him out, with their speeding-up and their carelessness, and now they had thrown him away! And Jurgis would make the acquaintance of others of these unemployed men and find that they had all had the same experience. (12.14)

Sinclair is applying a classic form of Marxist philosophy in this analysis of Jurgis's troubles. According to Karl Marx, the communist philosopher, in early modes of economic development, people sell things that they have made. The price of these things is based on the materials that have gone into them. So, if you are selling a quilt, you base the price on cost of fabric, needles, band-aids for when you have pricked your fingers, etc. However, in a capitalist system, when you want to profit off objects for sale, you start to factor in the cost of your labor. How long did it take you to make the quilt? How much will the buyer be willing to pay you for that time? As capitalism evolves, what is made totally stops mattering. The price of an object is all about how much the buyer is willing to pay; it no longer depends on raw materials at all.

Once price becomes based on market value, the incentive is for the boss to pay his laborers as little as he can while he charges the consumer as much as they will pay. Thus, laborers who are willing to work a lot of time for a little money will get jobs over those who demand higher wages. The content of the work is no longer important; all that matters is the willingness of the worker to put in long hours without much reward.

To take the example of Jurgis, Jurgis works for several companies and it never matters what he makes – at different points in the novel, he works in a meatpacking plant, a factory for making harvesters, and a steel mill. In Marxist terms, this means that he has become alienated from his work. He is no longer directly profiting from the things he makes; he is simply one small part of a much large profit-making system. He is (more or less literally) a cog in a machine. When cogs get overworked and worn out, they get replaced. (Again, this is all according to Marxist thought – to read more, check out Marx's extremely famous foundational text Capital.)

The unfortunate result of capitalist development is that these cogs in the machine are often people, poor souls like Stanislovas running the lard canning machine or Marija trimming cattle. Once Stanislovas develops his terrible fear of cold and Marija injures her hand with a dirty knife, they can both be easily swapped out for other, less worn-down workers. There is no inherent respect or value attached to the worker in this system. This is why Jurgis can complain that his employers "had worn him out […] and now they had thrown him away!" These systems dehumanize workers, which means they get no consideration when they hit patches of bad luck.

She was a "settlement worker," she explained to Elzbieta – she lived around on Ashland Avenue. Elzbieta knew the place, over a feed store; somebody had wanted her to go there, but she had not cared to, for she thought that it must have something to do with religion, and the priest did not like her to have anything to do with strange religions. They were rich people who came to live there to find out about the poor people; but what good they expected it would do them to know, one could not imagine. So spoke Elzbieta, naively, and the young lady laughed and was rather at a loss for an answer—she stood and gazed about her, and thought of a cynical remark that had been made to her, that she was standing upon the brink of the pit of hell and throwing in snowballs to lower the temperature. (21.9)

This settlement worker (in other words, a wealthy person who has come to live in poor areas to assist in poverty alleviation) has moved to the slums with good intentions. She really wants to help Teta Elzbieta and her family. First of all, though, she doesn't have access to the kind of resources it would take to save even one family, let alone everyone in the slums. Second of all, there is still a power difference here that Teta Elzbieta is very aware of: "rich people who came to live there to find out about poor people," she thinks. Still, the rich people will always be able to go home eventually. If they lose interest or fail to follow up – as appears to happen with this particular settlement worker and Teta Elzbieta – the poor people are left in the same condition they were when these settlement workers first appeared. What kinds of charities have been most successful in improving the lives of poor people? Is it possible to remedy some of the injustices of our society from within, or do huge issues like poverty require systemic change?

As it chanced, [Jurgis] had been hurt on a Monday, and had just paid for his last week's board and his room rent, and spent nearly all the balance of his Saturday's pay. He had less than seventy-five cents in his pockets, and a dollar and a half due him for the day's work he had done before he was hurt. He might possibly have sued the company, and got some damages for his injuries, but he did not know this, and it was not the company's business to tell him. (23.23)

Jurgis burns his hand badly working for a steel mill. Again, as with sanitation and child labor laws elsewhere in the book, there is a huge gap between laws on the books and enforcement. Jurgis is entitled to some help from the company, but he does not know this and there is no one around to tell him. This is the problem with power inequalities: people who are poor and oppressed are often too unfamiliar with legal and government systems to understand their rights.

The evangelist was preaching "sin and redemption," the infinite grace of God and His pardon for human frailty. He was very much in earnest, and he meant well, but Jurgis, as he listened, found his soul filled with hatred. What did he know about sin and suffering—with his smooth, black coat and his neatly starched collar, his body warm, and his belly full, and money in his pocket—and lecturing men who were struggling for their lives, men at the death grapple with the demon powers of hunger and cold!—This, of course, was unfair; but Jurgis felt that these men were out of touch with the life they discussed, that they were unfitted to solve its problems; nay, they themselves were part of the problem—they were part of the order established that was crushing men down and beating them! They were of the triumphant and insolent possessors; they had a hall, and a fire, and food and clothing and money, and so they might preach to hungry men, and the hungry men must be humble and listen! (23.30)

The Jungle is ambivalent on the subject of religion. This evangelist who is preaching to Jurgis means well, but Jurgis resents the fact that the man is talking as though he understands the struggles of the poor. How can this preacher understand when he has food and shelter, neither of which Jurgis has? Later in the novel, Mr. Lucas argues strongly that socialists should use the New Testament to bring faithful Christians to their cause. Dr. Schliemann, though, answers that church hierarchies can also be exploitative money-making machines as bad as any big corporation. This ambivalence has its roots in old school Marxist theory. Marx famously commented that, "Religion is the opiate of the people." What he meant is that religion is one way that people suffering under the yoke of economic hardship and pain try to soothe themselves. Religion allows people to bear oppression that they should not have to tolerate. In the end, though, this illusion is also preventing the people from rising up against the system that is keeping them down. So, religion is both good and bad in socialist terms; certainly, Sinclair seems unwilling to come down explicitly on one side or the other.

The finishing of pants did not take much skill, and anybody could learn it, and so the pay was forever getting less. That was the competitive wage system; and if Jurgis wanted to understand what Socialism was, it was there he had best begin. The workers were dependent upon a job to exist from day to day, and so they bid against each other, and no man could get more than the lowest man would consent to work for. And thus the mass of the people were always in a life-and-death struggle with poverty. That was "competition," so far as it concerned the wage-earner, the man who had only his labor to sell; to those on top, the exploiters, it appeared very differently, of course – there were few of them, and they could combine and dominate, and their power would be unbreakable. And so all over the world two classes were forming, with an unbridged chasm between them – the capitalist class, with its enormous fortunes, and the proletariat, bound into slavery by unseen chains. The latter were a thousand to one in numbers, but they were ignorant and helpless, and they would remain at the mercy of their exploiters until they were organized—until they had become "class-conscious." (29.24)

This is the most straightforward summary of Sinclair's socialism in practically the whole book. We've got the worker alienated from his labor ("the man who had only his labor to sell"; check out our note on quote #6 above); the idea of socialism as a world struggle ("all over the world two classes were forming"); and the concept of "class-consciousness," an awareness of oneself as belonging to a larger social collective based on status. Here is where the novel seems to drop any pretense that it is fiction; it is really blurring the boundaries between fiction and philosophy. As a reader, how do you respond to this change of tone? How effective do you find Sinclair's lobbying efforts for socialism at the end of The Jungle?