Study Guide

The Jungle Visions of America

By Upton Sinclair

Visions of America

Of these older people many wear clothing reminiscent in some detail of home – an embroidered waistcoat or stomacher, or a gaily colored handkerchief, or a coat with large cuffs and fancy buttons. All these things are carefully avoided by the young, most of whom have learned to speak English and to affect the latest style of clothing. The girls wear ready-made dresses or shirt waists, and some of them look quite pretty. Some of the young men you would take to be Americans, of the type of clerks, but for the fact that they wear their hats in the room. (1.23)

One of the most common visions of America is that it is a melting pot: millions of people from different countries arrive on these shores and eventually assimilate into the dominant American culture. While Sinclair doesn't actually use the term "melting pot" (primarily because that phrase had not been popularized by the time The Jungle was published), the idea here is the same. The older generations of Lithuanian immigrants are still wearing "clothing reminiscent in some detail of home," while the younger kids "have learned to speak English and to affect the latest style of clothing."

In the meantime there was going on in another corner of the room an anxious conference between Teta Elzbieta and Dede Antanas, and a few of the more intimate friends of the family. A trouble was come upon them. The veselija is a compact, a compact not expressed, but therefore only the more binding upon all. Every one's share was different – and yet every one knew perfectly well what his share was, and strove to give a little more. Now, however, since they had come to the new country, all this was changing; it seemed as if there must be some subtle poison in the air that one breathed here – it was affecting all the young men at once. They would come in crowds and fill themselves with a fine dinner, and then sneak off. (1.31)

Teta Elzbieta insists particularly on maintaining the practices of the old country: she feels that it would be a social shame if they did not host a wedding feast for Ona and Jurgis. Back in Lithuania, though, the guests wind up paying for these feasts (the "veselija"), who bring monetary gifts for the newly married couple. Here in America, however, the culture of individualism means that people will take advantage even of these wedding feasts by eating and drinking and then sneaking off without paying. So, Ona and Jurgis are on the hook for yet more money before they have even started their married lives together. Yet, we have to ask, is it fair to assume that everyone will be equally familiar with these customs in "the new country"? Teta Elzbieta's inflexible traditionalism is also at fault for this financial disaster.

Ona might have married and left them, but she would not, for she loved Teta Elzbieta. It was Jonas who suggested that they all go to America, where a friend of his had gotten rich. He would work, for his part, and the women would work, and some of the children, doubtless – they would live somehow. Jurgis, too, had heard of America. That was a country where, they said, a man might earn three rubles a day; and Jurgis figured what three rubles a day would mean, with prices as they were where he lived, and decided forthwith that he would go to America and marry, and be a rich man in the bargain. In that country, rich or poor, a man was free, it was said; he did not have to go into the army, he did not have to pay out his money to rascally officials – he might do as he pleased, and count himself as good as any other man. (2.7)

So, this is an indirect articulation of the American Dream: in the States, you can make good money, and "rich or poor, a man [is] free." Sadly, the rest of the novel is about debunking this view. What is your perception of the American Dream? Is this an ideal that Americans still find compelling? Has it been replaced by other national ideals?

Beyond this dump there stood a great brickyard, with smoking chimneys. First they took out the soil to make bricks, and then they filled it up again with garbage, which seemed to Jurgis and Ona a felicitous arrangement, characteristic of an enterprising country like America. […] This, too, seemed to the newcomers an economical arrangement; for they did not read the newspapers, and their heads were not full of troublesome thoughts about "germs." (2.23)

This dump can work as a metaphor for Sinclair's perception of America. Mike Scully, powerful businessman, has this plan where he digs out the soil of Packingtown to make bricks. Then, he fills the giant hole with garbage and covers it over as reclaimed land. So, even though it looks good, underneath it's all decaying trash. Metaphorically speaking, this describes Jurgis's experience of the United States: when he first arrived, he is immediately impressed by the modern machinery he sees all over the place. It's only after some personal experience that he realizes all of this fine-looking new stuff is hiding a rotten center.

For every one that Jurgis spoke to assured him that it was a waste of time to seek employment for the old man in Packingtown. Szedvilas told him that the packers did not even keep the men who had grown old in their own service – to say nothing of taking on new ones. And not only was it the rule here, it was the rule everywhere in America, so far as he knew. (4.4)

Early on, Jurgis's father absolutely insists on looking for a job. No one wants to employ such an old man, though. There is no Social Security or pension to support Antanas in his old age (Social Security was not signed into law until 1935), so he has to keep trying to avoid being a burden to his family. People still differ about what kind of work older people should be allowed to do. For example, there is discussion about changing the retirement age from 65 to 70 or even higher. Now that Americans are routinely living into their eighties, why should people in some professions be forced from their jobs by an arbitrary number? At the same time, as a nation, Americans work incredibly hard. We have many fewer vacation days per year than most European nations, for example. Shouldn't there be a time when we are just allowed to relax and enjoy life? Poor Antanas is living before any of these security nets for older people are in place, though, so he essentially works himself to death.

One of the consequences of all these things was that Jurgis was no longer perplexed when he heard men talk of fighting for their rights. He felt like fighting now himself; and when the Irish delegate of the butcher-helpers' union came to him a second time, he received him in a far different spirit. A wonderful idea it now seemed to Jurgis, this of the men – that by combining they might be able to make a stand and conquer the packers! Jurgis wondered who had first thought of it; and when he was told that it was a common thing for men to do in America, he got the first inkling of a meaning in the phrase "a free country." The delegate explained to him how it depended upon their being able to get every man to join and stand by the organization, and so Jurgis signified that he was willing to do his share. Before another month was by, all the working members of his family had union cards, and wore their union buttons conspicuously and with pride. (8.14)

The amazing thing about an ideal like the American Dream is that, even if it is out of reach at the time Sinclair is writing, it is still an ideal. It is something that we can keep striving to make true. One direct way that Jurgis learns to try and create the freedom he had hoped to find by coming to America is by joining a union. Unions are not perfect in this novel: they don't help save Jurgis from poverty, and they are subject to misuse by Jurgis himself, when he uses his union membership to help rig Mike Scully's election later in the novel. Even so, the fundamental idea that workers can band together to lobby for things like higher wages, shorter work weeks, and better working conditions is a powerful concept. The union presents a much different (and more positive) vision of America than we find anywhere else in this novel, as a nation in which oppressed people can work together to make things better for themselves. What role do unions play in today's society? What perception do you have of contemporary unions?

There were hardened criminals and innocent men too poor to give bail; old men, and boys literally not yet in their teens. They were the drainage of the great festering ulcer of society […] Into this wild-beast tangle these men had been born without their consent, they had taken part in it because they could not help it; that they were in jail was no disgrace to them, for the game had never been fair, the dice were loaded. They were swindlers and thieves of pennies and dimes, and they had been trapped and put out of the way by the swindlers and thieves of millions of dollars. (17.40)

In Jurgis's first visit to jail, he finds a bunch of thieves and evildoers. They are also the product of the society they live in ("the great festering ulcer of society," as Sinclair puts it so revoltingly). After all, these are the guys who get caught for petty crimes. To Sinclair, though, the entire system of capitalism is a crime, in which rich businessmen steal money and cheat the little guy.

All day long this man would toil thus, his whole being centered upon the purpose of making twenty-three instead of twenty-two and a half cents an hour; and then his product would be reckoned up by the census taker, and jubilant captains of industry would boast of it in their banquet halls, telling how our workers are nearly twice as efficient as those of any other country. If we are the greatest nation the sun ever shone upon, it would seem to be mainly because we have been able to goad our wage-earners to this pitch of frenzy; though there are a few other things that are great among us including our drink-bill, which is a billion and a quarter of dollars a year, and doubling itself every decade. (20.41)

Competition keeps American workers laboring incredibly hard for profits that the "captains of industry" collect. Of course, this claim that American workers "are nearly twice as efficient as those of any other country" has really changed over the twentieth century. We have outsourced many of our manufacturing jobs to other, poorer nations, where people are willing to work harder for less money. What do you think Sinclair's response to current labor and economic practices in the United States? Would he see higher salaries and more social benefits as a sufficient solution to what he saw as the problems of capitalism?

Excepting for that one walk when he left jail, when he was too much worried to notice anything, and for a few times that he had rested in the city parks in the winter time when he was out of work, he had literally never seen a tree! And now he felt like a bird lifted up and borne away upon a gale; he stopped and stared at each new sight of wonder—at a herd of cows, and a meadow full of daisies, at hedgerows set thick with June roses, at little birds singing in the trees. (22.16)

At last, Jurgis gets out of the city. After Baby Antanas dies, Jurgis walks straight out of town and into a pleasant summer landscape. Up until this point, we had completely forgotten that the United States has a countryside, The Jungle seems so dominated by urban landscapes. At the same time, even this pleasant scene of "meadow[s[ full of daisies" and "hedgerows set thick with June roses" is not a real alternative to the hell of Packingtown. There is still no permanent work for Jurgis here, even if the environment is more pleasant.