UK Poet, Philosopher & Artist Ivor Griffiths' Official Website

The Jungle

This essay will critically examine the ways in which the urban environment
in The Jungle represents the collapse of traditional values and its
effect on the individual. In so doing it will be demonstrated that the novel
contains a political message that advocates a socialist solution to the social
problems highlighted and exposed by the text, in the first decade of twentieth
century Chicago. The disintegration of the central characters, Jurgis and his
family symbolise the destructive power of capitalism. The novel concludes with
Jurgis discovering socialism and emerging from a corrupt and criminal lifestyle
that the city, and its representatives, in the form of police, politicians,
employers and criminals, has driven him to. There are many tragic deaths in
the text but it is not a tragedy in the strict literary sense, as Jurgis, the
hero, does not die. The text explores the injustices endured by immigrants
to America, they were routinely exploited: in terms of pay and housing, which
are described in detail by Jon Yoder (Yoder, 1975).
An urban environment, for the purposes of this essay, is a man made environment,
in which people live in pre-built housing, sharing utilities such as water,
roads, police, courts and electrical power. Typically, the inhabitants will
eat processed, pre-packaged or precooked food. Upton Sinclair used the Packingtown
Meat Factory as a metaphor for urban society and the pig as the inhabitants.
He shows how the pig descends through the plant all of it had been rendered,
even bad meat being used and sold. In chapter fourteen we are told of “…..that
old Packingtown jest–that they use everything of the pig except the squeal.” (Sinclair,
1906, p.42). The pigs, like the immigrant workers of Chicago, are cruelly treated
and exploited by the owners, who are capitalists. Food is fundamental to the
human condition; Sinclair was astute in his choice of metaphor, the book caused
such an outcry from the public that the Department of Food and Drugs Administration resulted,
and laws passed, regulating the food industry as a direct result. President
Roosvelt described Sinclair as a ‘muckraker’, a term he used to
describe journalists that exposed malpractice. There are many examples
of similes and metaphorical references throughout the text, notably the foundry
described in such a way as to portray it as akin to Dante’s Inferno,
a hot unnatural, hostile and dangerous environment for men and women. Ironically,
men compete with each other for an opportunity to work in bad conditions for
very low pay: the owners and capitalism are at fault for exploiting the workers.
The novel’s title reflects the negative representation of the urban setting
as a jungle; the metaphor is reinforced constantly throughout the text and
Chicago is further described as:
a city in which justice and honor, women’s bodies and men’s souls, were for
sale in the marketplace, and human beings writhed and fought and fell upon
each other like wolves in a pit, in which lusts were raging fires, and men
were fuel, and humanity was festering and stewing and wallowing in its own
corruption….a wild beast tangle. (p. 198)
The text implies that greed, envy and a ruthless competitiveness are the conditions
in which unfettered capitalism thrives and a place in which money is all-powerful.
Chicago is a jungle the guiding Darwinian rule: it is the survival of the fittest.
The meatpacking plant is “a seething cauldron of jealousies and hatreds;
there was no loyalty or decency anywhere about it, there was no place in it
where a man counted for anything against a dollar.” (p. 74) In chapter
fifteen, Ona has the “eye of a hunted animal,” (p. 170) and Jurgis
pants “like a wounded bull.” (p. 182) finds Connor, his wife’s
rapist, “this great beast.” (p. 182). He fights “like a tiger,”(p.
182), and like a jungle cat sinks “his teeth into the man’s cheek.”(p.
182). Having obtained satisfaction Jurgis is himself caged and in prison at
Christmas: further underlying the uncaring assault on traditional family values
by capitalism. To compound the injustices Jurgis’ wife dies during childbirth.
Real estate agents, manufacturers of roach powder, trolley car companies and
saloonkeepers, all swindle Jurgis. He, and the reader, experience Chicago’s
underworld in which “nothing counted but brutal might, an order devised
by those who possessed it for the subjugation of those who did not” (
p. 278) and maintains that in Chicago “it is a case of
us or the other fellow” (p. 302)
All of these metaphors, symbols and similes create images of destruction and
violence, showing traditional values and family life as under severe threat
from capitalism. Traditional values as an ideal, and a phrase, has many meanings,
to many people. In the historical context of the text, as a concept, those
values that support heterosexual, Christian family life, in which the main
provider for the family is the husband (for the parents will be married). The
text in the first sentence begins at a wedding to underline the importance
of family as a foundation of traditional values and to suggest a paradise lost.
The husband will work hard, be honest, support the police and be patriotic.
Self-sufficiency, hard work and family life are at the core of this definition.
Sinclair utilises a pastoral device: Jurgis and his family have left a utopian,
communal and agrarian life in Lithuania suggesting to his contemporary readers
that the characters adhere to a set of traditional values consistent with those
of most Americans, creating empathy between the intended audience and the characters.
Although not a Naturalist Sinclair adopts several of Emile Zola’s techniques
of characterisation. Removing Jurgis and his family from this utopian pastoral
environment, and placing them in an urban jungle, is akin to a laboratory experiment.
The narrative invites the reader to see events depicted in the text from Jurgis’ perspective;
in effect, the reader becomes Jurgis. He sees his Father die from hard oppressive
work, as well as exploited and having to pay to actually do the job. His only
real respite is when he leaves Chicago and lives as a hobo.
Like Zola
Sinclair is a Realist and gives vivid, often harrowing, accounts of the oppressive
and unforgiving nature of the capitalist urban environment. He describes in
incredible detail working life in a brothel, eating frozen rubbish, criminal,
political and judicial corruption, blacklists, working life in a foundry and
a slaughterhouse; utilising all of the senses, the reader can almost experience
the life that Jurgis and others endured. Using powerful imagery the reader
is effectively taken on a tour of urban life in early twentieth century Chicago.
Jurgis survives, although his wife, child and father do not providing Sinclair
with a literary device to demonstrate the alternative of socialism, which he
duly provides in the last part of the book. He does not develop the characters
fully and consequently they are shallow; the narrative is a medium by which
Sinclair wished to promote the socialist alternative to capitalism and so pays
far more attention to the detail of working conditions and environment than
the emotions and depth of the characters. Sinclair quickly establishes the
character of Jurgis as simple, guileless and artless; like a child, with a
naive charm, unsuspecting and credulous. At the beginning of chapter two Jurgis
dismisses stories “about the breaking down of men,” because “he
was young, and a giant besides… he could not even imagine how it would feel
to be beaten.” (p.47) this confirms his status within the text as a naïve
country boy who does not know his way around the urban jungle. When he is described
as having “… come from the country, and from very far in the country,” (p.28)
this adds to the image of Jurgis as naïve, but also as a decent family
man with a positive self image and a respect for traditional values. The fact
that he is naïve is not a negative trait, this reinforces the representation
of the urban environment of the city as oppressive and hostile to ordinary
decent people; in juxtaposition to the utopian alternative of traditional country
life, that implicitly incorporates traditional values. (Ferraro T., 1993)
The remainder of the text deals with the readers’, and Jurgis’,
tutelage in the reality of life in an unfettered and unregulated, almost anarchic,
violent urban capitalist environment. Swindled, “used up” and exploited
as employees, swindled by real estate agents, manufacturers of cockroach powder,
trolley car companies and bar owners. A vivid portrayal of the actual fabric
of the city turning on its more vulnerable occupants occurs when Jurgis’ son
dies, by drowning, in the mud of the unsanitary streets. The text suggests
direct responsibility laid with the corrupt city officials and elected representatives,
who have effectively killed him by neglecting to perform their civic duty because
of corruption caused by the capitalist system. They are supposed to serve the
people but simply maintain the status quo; even the electoral system is shown
as fixed, so there is no real democracy. Jurgis’ wife being raped and
yet Jurgis being sent to prison by an uncaring Judge is another example of
corruption of the judicial institutions by the capitalists. Even Judges are
repressing the working person. Sinclair thus expands upon and develops his
central themes concerning his representation of urban capitalism, through Jurgis’ eyes,
as having a reckless disregard for the health and well-being of workers, the
exploitation of children, and the suppression of workers by blacklisting, the
corruption of the judicial and political systems and so on. By using Jurgis
as an example, the text is telling the reader that it could happen to anyone
in any city in America. This allows Sinclair to expound upon his political
ideal and suggest that a socialist model of living will overcome all of the
social problems highlighted. In so doing, he also suggests that the American
Dream is illusory in the tradition of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby,
which highlighted the plight of immigrants, in a juxtaposition of characterisation,
by focusing on how an apparent example of the American Dream fulfilled is also
illusory, and tragic.
Families are at the core of any Western definition of traditional values and
Jurgis’ immediate and extended family are symbolic of the concept that
traditional values cannot survive in any capitalist urban environment any more
than individuals can. Capitalism is responsible for the deaths of two adults
and three children as well as Jonas, another family member, disappearing. Marija
becomes a prostitute, Elzbieta a sick woman whose children pick up “wild
and unruly” ways on the streets. These characters are symbolic of the
oppression and exploitation of women and children in this capitalist society:
no more than commodities and no better off than the pigs in Packingtown. Incompatible
with the demands of a competitive urban capitalist system, traditional family
life also becomes impossible. Ultimately destroyed by the environment in which
Sinclair places it. In chapter ten, after Antanas is born, Jurgis declares
himself “irrevocably a family man.”(p. 129) However, the hours he
is required to work do not allow him to spend much time with his son, only
when he is out of work with an injury can he do so. Similarly, husbands and
wives cannot enjoy a fulfilling marriage or any meaningful traditional family
life. Ona and Jurgis had “only their worries to talk of- truly it was
hard, in such a life, to keep any sentiment alive” (p. 148). Ona becomes
a boss’s mistress and ironically, for the sake of the family, she gives in
to his demands. This symbolises the utter power of capitalism to invade the
intimate privacy of the relationship at the core of traditional values: that
of man and wife. This is a powerful argument to make to a male workforce that
one desires to empower. It is an astute use of symbolism.
The narrative voice is a powerful warning, to the point of preaching, against
the unfettered power of capitalism and the inevitability of its destructive
power. The purpose of the text is to show that old world traditional communal
values cannot survive in the jungle that is capitalist Chicago and that every
facet of urban life is corrupt or tainted: the food, the housing, the workplace.
The streets are dangerous and destructive. The text concludes with the suggestion
that socialism is the only alternative to the system of capitalism as portrayed.
At the time the novel was published the idea and promise of socialism was real,
an alternative political system in which traditional values are respected and
work is not an oppressive form of slavery; corruption in the civic administration
and judicial system would both be removed.

Primary Source
Sinclair U. (1906) The Jungle, Reprinted 1986, New York: Penguin Classics
Secondary Sources
Ferraro, T. J. (1993) Ethnic Passages: Literary Immigrants in Twentieth-Century
Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Smith, Carl S. (1984), Chicago and the American Literary Imagination, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press
Bloodworth, William A. (1977) “The Jungle” Upton Sinclair. Boston:
Twayne Publishers
Yoder, Jon A. (1975) “The Muckraker” Upton Sinclair. New
York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company

One Response to “The Jungle”

  1. metroman Says:

    I just want to know the metaphores of this story!

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