How does Sinclair depict the failure of attempts to improve wage laborers’ lives by working from within capitalism? Think especially about legal, social, and philanthropic efforts.
Sinclair argues that meaningful change cannot be effected from within the system of capitalism because of the fundamental and endless need for money. In the world of The Jungle, child labor laws don’t bring an end to child labor—wage laborers must keep their children working because they cannot survive without this additional income. The owners of the harvester factory in which Jurgis works make an attempt to provide more pleasant working conditions than most factories. But the factory shuts down periodically after the rush season just like the other factories, leaving thousands of laborers without the necessary income to survive. The factory’s enriching qualities thus do nothing to change the precarious existence of wage laborers: the essential relationship between the capitalist who needs big profit margins and the laborer whom the capitalist hires as a means to that end remains intact. Again, working from within capitalism fails to provide wage laborers with a secure, decent living. Similarly, the recommendation that Jurgis gets from a young woman, though it secures him a job, doesn’t remedy the steel mill’s dangerous working conditions. Sinclair’s chief contention is that the working class cannot rise in a capitalist system because such a system works toward the preservation of the wealth and power of those in charge and must necessarily exploit the working class to achieve this end.
What do the vast stockyards, packed with animals, symbolize?
The stockyards symbolize the plight of the common laborer, who is shuffled through the machinery of capitalism as a means to the end of corporate profit. Just as the stockyards are crammed with animals being herded to slaughter, so too are they packed with laborers systematically being destroyed by economic forces beyond their control. The factory owners have concern for the suffering of neither the animals nor the workers, viewing both as essential components of the meat-packing industry. In a sense, the laborers are nothing more than pieces of meat themselves—stripped of his identity, each laborer is merely a mass of muscles that, by helping the meat-packing plant run, factors into the general equation of consumption. Additionally, the crowded animal pens of the stockyards symbolize Packingtown’s crowded living quarters for workers. With almost no personal space or privacy for the individual, Jurgis and his family are dehumanized by their accommodations. Similar to an animal, Jurgis exists, from a severe capitalist point of view, only to carry out his function at the meat-packing plant.
How do Sinclair’s political intentions affect the characters, style, and structure of the novel?
In an effort to win converts to socialism, Sinclair constructs every formal element in as simple and transparent a way as possible. The narrative structure follows one long descent into the hellish reality of capitalism until Jurgis discovers socialism and is saved in a manner not unlike the evangelical Christian idea of being born again. Sinclair fleshes out this capitalist hell with a realistic style that relies heavily on stomach-churning description. Sinclair’s realism falters with his characters, however. At times, they seem less like portraits of realistic people and more like one-dimensional representations of particular classes and social forces. While abstract forces such as capitalism and socialism do shape and sometimes suppress individual identities, one can argue that there is a tension between the flatness of Sinclair’s characters and the human qualities with which he tries to instill them. Jurgis, for example, is called upon to represent an entire class of society and be a loving father, devoted husband, pitiful victim, and hero. He is asked to be a glorified abstraction and a particular person, but his role as representative of the proletariat seems to rob him of the real humanity that would make his struggle worthwhile. Along similar lines, the socialist characters exhibit a frightening degree of conformity and live with each other without antagonism or complexity. Their idealization runs seems somewhat at odds with the novel’s claim, implicit in its style and setting, of being realistic.
1. How does the title of The Jungle relate to the themes of the novel? Give specific examples.
2. In what ways does Sinclair depict capitalism as destructive? Consider the characters’ personal lives and social interactions.
3. Do you find Sinclair’s argument for socialism persuasive? Why or why not? How does Sinclair try to persuade the reading public to accept socialism?
4. The Jungle was one of the few works of art in American history to have a substantial and immediate impact on society. Does this social impact compensate for what some critics consider the novel’s aesthetic shortcomings?