Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights
As you read The Jungle, note Sinclair's use of metaphors for the following items:
Capitalism. Referred to as the “Great Butcher,” capitalism is compared to a beast that preys upon the innocence and helplessness of the common man. This message is directly and indirectly repeated throughout the novel.
Animals. Hogs and cattle, described with humanistic qualities, are a metaphor for humanity. Both animals and man are in need of leadership. Likewise, the animals' fate emphasizes Sinclair's view of how industry treats humankind.
Industry. The mechanistic industrial system that is constructed of thousands of people is referred to as “the machine.” Machinery and materialism are worth more than human life, which is valued only so long as it contributes to the output of a saleable product.
Workers. Stockyard employees are compared to animals; people are treated as cruelly and are as expendable as the animals. Just as animals would be fed less if cost for food increased, workers are paid less and less; as long as men and women are available to work for these meager earnings, the food industry, as portrayed in The Jungle, will pay them less.
Society. Society is similar to a jungle because people are forced to work against each other for survival. On a daily basis, Chicago's lower class struggles to obtain food, shelter, work, and protection from more powerful citizens. The poor can never escape their situation. Sinclair points this out as a major flaw of capitalism.
Be aware of the following concepts Sinclair uses:
As the title suggests, Packingtown is a jungle, from which there is no escape. The business owners and politicians are the predators, and working-class citizens are the prey. The stronger among the poor are made weak, and the weak are used and preyed upon until they can no longer serve the needs of the strong. Then they are discarded. Jurgis, at the beginning of the novel, is a strong and powerful man; he becomes weak and pitiful through the actions of the powerful.
The role of women
Throughout the novel, women lack control over their situations. Marija sacrifices a bright future with her fiancé to help the family survive, and she ultimately becomes a prostitute to avoid starvation. Ona, who is young and naïve, is forced to sleep with her employer to save her family, but loses her husband in the process. Teta Elzbieta struggles to maintain a dignified life, but must frequently beg for money.
The dualistic nature of humankind
Several characters exhibit both virtuous and immoral actions throughout The Jungle. Jurgis struggles to support his family, only to become an enforcer and a thief. Marija and Ona perform immoral acts in their futile attempts to save the family.
Man's inhumanity to man
Cruelty to one another is pervasive in The Jungle. Packers, police, and politicians attain money and power by abusing members of the working class. A crooked businessman deceives Jurgis' family. The stockyards have deplorable work conditions. Money and a lack of simple humanity seem to be the norm.
Exploitation of immigrants
Immigrants in Packingtown are exploited until they are deemed useless and then discarded. Politicians tell the people how to vote, and owners work their employees until the immigrants are unreliable, injured, or dead. Immigrants fight for dangerous, low-paying jobs and live in squalid conditions.
Unwholesome food manufacturing
The Jungle reveals the deplorable food processing industry of Chicago's stockyards. Rotten and diseased meat is mixed with uncontaminated meat. Sinclair had expected his book to help create the establishment of a socialist government in the U.S. However, the main effect of The Jungle's publication was the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, regulating the meat industry.
Socialism is portrayed as the best alternative to the inequities of capitalism. Jurgis and his family suffer at the hands of a capitalistic system, but he finds hope in the empty promises of socialism. The main characters, though, are, by the book's end, reduced to stock figures in Sinclair's arguments promoting socialism as a cure-all for American society.
Many states created laws prohibiting child labor in industrial settings as early as the 1830s, but these laws were usually not enforced, especially in rural areas. By the late nineteenth century, states had passed over 1,600 laws limiting or forbidding child labor. But many of the laws did not apply to immigrants; as a result, they were often exploited, with entire families working long hours for inadequate pay. In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee was organized as a further attempt at child labor reform.
Note the historical elements that Sinclair provides to create an accurate depiction of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Chicago. These elements include:
Depictions of the stockyards, their geographical location, structural description, and details of their operations, including the filth and lack of safety
An explanation of union procedures and both the positive and negative influence of unions on the working class
The election of 1904 in the Chicago area, including the numerous political meetings and various illegal campaign strategies
A depiction of the nomadic class, comprised of transients and unemployed men, that resulted from widespread industrialism
The deplorable, unhealthy, and tenuous living conditions for Chicago's working class and immigrants
Chicago's corrupt judicial and political system, which was based on money and influence.
The 1904 stockyard strike that affected meat manufacturing on a nationwide level and management's methods of dealing with it
A portrayal of child labor and its effects on children
The impact of socialism on Chicago's working class during the early twentieth century
union – an organization that represents workers; labor union