The JungleThe Jungle is one of the most famous American novels ever written. Most people associate The Jungle with the federal legislation it provoked. Americans were horrified to learn about the terrible sanitation under which their meat products were packed. They were even more horrified to learn that the labels listing the ingredients in tinned meat products were full of lies. The revelation that rotten and diseased meat was sold without a single consideration for public health infuriated American citizens. They consumed meat containing the ground remains of poisoned rats and sometimes-unfortunate workers who fell into the machinery for grinding meat and producing lard. Within months of The Jungle’s publication, the sale of meat products dropped dramatically. The public outcry of indignation led to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, less than a year after the novel’s publication.
However, contrary to what many people believe, Sinclair did not write The Jungle to incite the American government into regulating the sanitation of the meat packing industry. The details regarding the unsanitary and disgusting conditions in meat packing factories are background details of a much larger picture. Sinclair wrote his novel to provoke outrage over the miserable working conditions of industrial wage labor. He detailed the lack of sanitation in the factories in order to provoke sympathy and outrage for the impoverished factory workers. The germs and disease inside the meat packing establishments were indeed a public health concern, but it was far more of a concern for the workers. Sinclair portrays the various sicknesses they suffer as a result of their working environments.
Sinclair wrote his novel as an appeal to Socialism, a political theory based on the writings of Marx. He follows Jurgis’s Lithuanian immigrant family into the disgusting tenements and meat packing factories of Chicago. There, they suffer the loss of all their dreams of success and freedom in America. They find themselves leashed to the grinding poverty and misery of the city slums despite all their best efforts. Sinclair’s purpose is to display the evils of capitalism as an economic system. Sinclair was bemused by the public reaction to his phenomenally successful novel. He said that he had aimed for America’s heart, but had ended by hitting it in the stomach.
Jurgis suffers misfortune after misfortune. He joins the union only to see the union fail to improve working conditions. His wife and child die in rapid succession. He becomes a wandering tramp, the victim of the casual cruelty of those better off than he. Finally, he joins the Chicago criminal underworld where money comes easily to him for the first time since his arrival in America. However, that fails to save him as well. He returns to the remnants of his family only to discover that Marija has become a prostitute. Marija’s entrance into prostitution culminates in the essential accusation that Sinclair levels at capitalism. Throughout the Jungle charges capitalism with trafficking in human lives. Human beings are regarded as useful resources, and they are used until they are worn out and then they are thrown away. The prostitute is the concrete embodiment of the sale of human bodies. Moreover, Sinclair often compares wage laborers to slaves, another form of trafficking in human bodies.
In his novel, human lives are bought and sold although most wage laborers do not know they are part of a vast market in human flesh. Moreover, the prostitutes are a form of slavery as well. Women are often kidnapped and forced into the occupation. They are chained with threats, debt, and drug addiction to their work. Another member of the family, Stanislovas, is dead, having been eaten alive by a swarm of rats in an oil factory. This final degradation beats Jurgis down further. It is then that he happens upon a Socialist political meeting. At this point, Jurgis truly is a beaten man. However, when he listens to the political speaker, he finds that he expresses the essence of all his pain and frustration. He takes Socialism to his heart, believing that it is the only political philosophy that can save his kind.
These characters do not show any control over the direction their lives take. Pre-existing social, political, and economic forces beyond their control shape the inevitable course of their lives. This is the primary element to The Jungle until Jurgis joins the Socialist party. Therefore, The Jungle does make use of literary conventions in order to promote Socialism as a viable political goal. It is through the devotion to Socialism that the disenfranchised working poor can regain control of the political, economic, and social machines that currently drive them to their ruin and their deaths.