The Jungle is indisputably Upton Sinclair’s best and most influential book. He was, nevertheless, never entirely happy with its reception. While it contributed to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 and other consumer protection legislation, his intent was to lay bare the capitalist system and demonstrate the need for democratic socialism. This message was largely ignored.
The Jungle’s critique of capitalism is unrelenting. Sinclair depicts a world that is dominated, as his title suggests, by might rather than right, a world that pits everyone against everyone else and metes out rewards on the basis of clout rather than merit. People are lured to the cities in droves and then discarded when they no longer serve the purposes of the powerful. They are maimed, forced to work in unsafe and unsavory conditions, and pushed, psychologically and physically, well past their breaking points.
Even as Sinclair describes the wedding feast in the opening chapter, he mixes images of gaiety and trays of piping-hot food with vignettes that chronicle the hardships of those forced to work as canners, picklers, beef boners, and general laborers. These workers’ tales are tragic, yet the workers refuse to admit defeat.
Jurgis personifies their defiance, constantly vowing to work harder and refusing to accept the systemic causes of his sufferings. He dedicates himself to achieving the American Dream and is convinced that through his own resolve and determination he can provide for his family and loved ones and rise through the system.
Characterizing Jurgis as a strict individualist who believes that anyone can succeed, Sinclair makes a direct appeal to his nonsocialist readers. The characters in The Jungle are not slackers; they are working men and women with simple dreams and expectations who are more than willing to contribute their fair share.
To bring his point home, Sinclair depicts a family more than willing to make sacrifices in order to become full-fledged members of the larger social order. Even Jurgis’s father, who is clearly too old to endure the ruthless conditions of the factory, pours his energies into securing employment so the family can afford the basic necessities and provide the youngsters a proper education.
From the beginning, it is clear to the readers that Jurgis and his family are fighting against the odds. Each new detail makes it abundantly clear that the system tempts people with unrealistic dreams and then erects insurmountable barriers to prevent the...
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