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. Continue reading