Friday, May 29, 2009

Survival on less than nothing: "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair

I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.
-- Upton Sinclair

The Jungle is one of those books with a reputation -- you can't read it without comparing the book it is with the book you expected. In the case of The Jungle, I expected a heavy-handed Socialist propaganda story mixed with a horrifically shocking description of filth being sold as food. It didn't exactly meet my expectations on either count.

The part about food preparation was disgusting, to say the least. Yet, strangely, it didn't shock me that much because I'd already heard about the worst parts before (the rotten meat coated with rat-dung getting thrown in to be sold as food and treated with chemicals to remove the stench, etc.).

Also, the story was more interesting than I expected. The socialist part is there, to be sure, but interestingly it's just at the end. Essentially, the story stops and then we're treated to a three-chapter discourse on Socialist theory, including a big plug for the Socialist newspaper that commissioned the work. It's like you're reading along then all the sudden it's "...and now, a word from our sponsor." Note that the discourse is about what today we'd call Communism (a command economy), not the modern usage of "Socialist" (which has come to refer to an economic strategy that uses both public and private organizations).

Up until that end bit, however, it's a living, breathing human story. Jurgis starts out with hopes, dreams, and ambitions; with a family and responsibilities. Through the course of the story, we see all of these things stripped away from him and more. The stress of the family's precarious position is almost unbearable as they struggle not to lose their investment in their house, and are fighting for their lives not to lose the basics of survival: food, clothing, shelter, and emergency medical care. Once that struggle is lost, Jurgis's life as a penniless hobo is comparatively simpler, despite his grief at the loss of his wife and son. Sinclair seemed to be demonstrating that "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," until, sadly, even that turns out to be false. Before the end, Jurgis loses every shred of decency and self-respect that he'd once had, going from having nothing to having less-than-nothing. A family member (who ends up as a prostitute) matter-of-factly sums up their mutual lesson: "When people are starving, and they have anything with a price, they ought to sell it, I say."

Sinclair did an amazing job of covering every single option that was available to Jurgis, from all different types of factory work, to migrant labor, to petty crime, to organized crime (political graft), to begging. And the reader can understand why Jurgis took each step and how he felt and how he changed. Sinclair -- despite the fact that he himself didn't have the limited options of an unskilled Eastern European immigrant -- shows remarkable empathy. In that sense it's like Zola's Germinal and unlike Uncle Tom's Cabin (where the author is horrified by the cruelty the slaves endure, but really only relates to the free, white characters).

Even though Sinclair explicitly aimed to illustrate the cruel injustice of Jurgis's plight, it's not a simplistic black-and-white caricature. For example, during the meat-packers' strike (which I gather Sinclair passionately supported), his protagonist (Jurgis) is a scab, and the reader still sympathizes with him and his plight. Sinclair really captures the complexity of the problems the unskilled immigrant laborers faced, which is why -- aside from the end -- the story isn't reduced to the heavy-handed propaganda and moralizing you normally get from ideologically-centered works.

That's also the reason the end part is so jarring: The problem he portrays is too complex to be neatly wrapped up with a simple solution.


Holly said...

great review. I've always avoided reading "The Jungle," for reasons relating to the reputation you mention. I'll have to add this to my "to read" list. Thanks.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Holly!!!

Yeah, it really surprised me. Once I got started on it, I couldn't put it down.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this book. It's one of those books - "with a reputation" - that I always knew I should have read, but hadn't gotten around to reading. The literati assignment gave me an opportunity to correct that.

After reading Sinclair's slaughterhouse scenes, I had difficulty eating meat for several days. I still find myself examining it a bit more closely and considering it more carefully as I chew. I may never again enjoy meat quite so much as I once did.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Chaplain!!!

It's true, it has definitely made me think twice about eating meat at all.

Actually, the book Fast Food Nation had about the same effect on me when I read it a few years ago. It's non-fiction, but it has a similar focus (showing some of the disgusting parctices of meat preparation today as well as how the workers' lives are affected). Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, wrote a foreword for my edition of The Jungle; an appropriate choice.

Ben said...

For all of you, who might prefer to just read the online version... The Jungle is also on Gutenberg.

I always preferred It Couldn't Happen Here, a satire about the rise of Fascism in the US written in the 1930's.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ben!!!

Ooh, I've never read that one. Sounds interesting!