In 1906 Upton Sinclair shook the late-Victorian social culture with his muckraking novel, The Jungle. The conflict of his story revolves around the fortunes of Jurgis Rudkus, a young Lithuanian immigrant who comes to America with his fiancée and family in search of a better life. Rudkus soon finds himself working in the Chicago stockyards, and he is caught up in a ruthless political system which ultimately degraded and impoverished him. Sinclair’s descriptions of the meat-packing industry’s filthy killing-beds and fertilization process prompted a change to food hygiene laws in the United States. However, beneath the surface of the family’s story lies Sinclair’s attacks on the early twentieth century view about capitalism and corporate America. Sinclair seeks to change America through the symbolism, motifs, and themes of The Jungle.
Symbolism appears with the use of the stockyards, rotten meat, and the jungle image. The most important symbol is the animal pens and slaughterhouses of Packingtown which represent the plight of the working class. Just as animals are forced into pens and then killed, so too are immigrant workers forced into capitalism only to be slowly beaten down and destroyed. Rudkus knows that other immigrants have failed to get the demanding stockyard jobs, but he depends on his strength and health, a strategy that works until the long, hard years take their toll (23). Generations of immigrants were ruined by slaughterhouse work only to be replaced by newer, fresher immigrants.
Rotten meat is another symbol used by Sinclair to represent the corruption of capitalism and the hypocrisy of the American Dream. Just as the cans have shiny surfaces to mask the rotten meat inside, so too American capitalism presents an attractive face to immigrants, but all they find is rot and corruption. In the end, the rotten meat symbol’s biggest effect on the American society was the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 which was poetic irony.
Sinclair’s jungle symbolism means the competitive nature of capitalism. Social Darwinism was at its zenith in the beginning of the twentieth century, so Sinclair pictures Packingtown as a Darwinian jungle where the strong prey upon the weak in a fight for survival. However, Sinclair believes that the strong are not the best of mankind, but the worst and most corrupt of all.
Sinclair also addresses the two motifs of family and tradition versus corruption. He positively portrays the family and social traditions of the Rudkus family such as the wedding feast in the beginning of the book. Despite the hardships that attack the family, including famine and death of loved ones, the strength of the grandmother holds the family together. Family and tradition prevail for a time.
Although familial ties are strong, corruption increases around the Rudkus family. The few lawmakers the family interacts with were corrupt (ix). At the beginning of the novel, corruption remains hidden; but by the end of the story, corruption is revealed in all its ugliness. Rudkus transitions from a hard-working, loving father into a thief, strikebreaker, and political agent. The whole family is subjected to swindles, manipulation, and immorality. Sinclair contrasts the original family values with the deep tragedy and hopelessness that capitalism produced.
Sinclair also embraces two themes in his novel to promote his political views: socialism as a remedy for the evils of capitalism and the immigrant experience in pursuing the hollow American Dream. The main theme of The Jungle is the evil of capitalism. The economic and social systems of the Chicago landscape slowly annihilates Rudkus’s family. When Rudkus discovers socialist politics, it is clear that Sinclair means to persuade the reader that socialism answered the problems of capitalism (291-298). Every aspect of the story discredits capitalism with the desire to embrace socialism.
Sinclair also pursues the immigrant experience and the hollowness of the American Dream. Since the largest wave of immigration during the early twentieth century came from Eastern Europe, Sinclair writes about a Lithuanian immigrant family. Rudkus’s family comes to America on the promise of high wages and a happy, good life (25). The family firmly believes that hard work and morality will bring success. Once in America, however, the Rudkus family is rejected, exploited, and ruined. Sinclair uses the disintegration of the family to illustrate his beliefs that capitalism destroys the very dream it claims to offer.
Sinclair’s The Jungle fits into American social history by offering a window into the muckraking journalism of the early twentieth century. By making the Victorian public aware of the labor camp, Sinclair became a muckraking reformer whose greatest gift to society was the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs and Meats Inspection Acts of 1906. Sinclair wrote The Jungle to persuade America to embrace socialism, but Americans missed his message. Instead, they passed legislation regulating the meat-packing industry to protect themselves from rotten food. Sinclair later mourned that “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach” (Horowitz 59).
– Hannah S. Bowers
Horowitz, David. The People’s Voice: A Populist Cultural History of Modern America. Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing, 2008.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.