What are some examples of "figurative language" in The Jungle?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In looking at figurative language in any work, the critical element is finding examples of text that means more than what is on the page.  Sinclair is deliberate in his attempts when writing The Jungle.  He understands the implications of what he is writing and what he wishes from it.  As a result, there are distinct example of figurative language employed in the text.

One example of figurative language is evident when Sinclair describes the hopes and dreams of immigrants that come to the United States in search of a better life.  This dream extends to the people their families, as well.  Sinclair articulates the way in which Jurgis initially views Packingtown and its promise of work:  

 All the sordid suggestions of the place were gone—in the twilight it was a vision of power. To the two who stood watching while the darkness swallowed it up, it seemed a dream of wonder, with its talc of human energy, of things being done, of employment for thousands upon thousands of men, of opportunity and freedom, of life and love and joy.

The figurative language in describing Packingtown with its" dream of wonder" and "its talc of human energy" are ways in which figurative language is used to capture the sensibilities of the immigrant.  Jurgis comes to America and does so filled to the brim with hope and aspiration.  It is with this sense of promise and possibility that he views America, and specifically, life in Packingtown.  An extension of this comes when Sinclair, as narrator applies this vision to all immigrants:  "So America was a place of which lovers and young people dreamed. If one could only manage to get the price of a passage, he could count his troubles at an end."  In comparing America to a voyage in which one needed to pay "the price of a passage," Sinclair is able to effectively add another dimension to the equally figurative idea that in America, "the streets are paved with gold."

As bad as it was for the men in Packingtown, Sinclair writes about the far greater difficulties that women had to face.  Sinclair's  use of figurative language is effective in conveying this idea:

Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave-drivers; under such circumstances immorality was exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it was under the system of chattel slavery.

The invoking of "chattel slavery" is figurative.  The 13th Amendment had abolished slavery.  Legally, it did not exist.  However, the use of figurative language is deliberate in articulating the condition that women faced.  It was not actual and literal slavery, but its effects were much the same. Sinclair uses figurative language to detail how the conditions that many men and women experienced in America was worse than slavery because it came as a complete surprise to them.  The use of figurative language in describing the lives of pain and suffering that immigrants experience heightens the experience for the reader, confirming again that Sinclair really did strive to hit the "public's heart."

Finally, the truth about life in America emerges to Jurgis.  Sinclair seizes this moment to use figurative language in amplifying the experience:

Jurgis could see all the truth now -- could see himself, through the whole long course of events, the victim of ravenous vultures that had torn into his vitals and devoured him; of fiends that had racked and tortured him, mocking him, meantime, jeering in his face. ...And they could do nothing, they were tied hand and foot -- the law was against them, the whole machinery of society was at their oppressors' command!

The figurative language employed crystallizes Jurgis's experience.  Being "the victim of ravenous vultures" and experienced being "devoured" while "the machinery of society" is poised against people like Jurgis are examples of how specific language is figuratively employed.  Its usage is deliberate.  In being able to articulate this type of reality, Sinclair is able to convey why the need to change things is so profound in Jurgis' life and the reader's. Sinclair is able to articulate the need for transformation through the use of figurative language.

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