Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The main theme of The Jungle is the evil of capitalism. Every event, especially in the first twenty-seven chapters of the book, is chosen deliberately to portray a particular failure of capitalism, which is, in Sinclair’s view, inhuman, destructive, unjust, brutal, and violent. The slow annihilation of Jurgis’s immigrant family at the hands of a cruel and prejudiced economic and social system demonstrates the effect of capitalism on the working class as a whole. As the immigrants, who initially possess an idealistic faith in the American Dream of hard work leading to material success, are slowly used up, tortured, and destroyed, the novel relentlessly illustrates that capitalism is to blame for their plight and emphasizes that the characters’ individual stories are the stories of millions of people. The Jungle is not a thematically nuanced or complicated novel: capitalism is simply portrayed as a total evil, from its greedy destruction of children to its cynical willingness to sell diseased meat to an unsuspecting public. Sinclair opts not to explore the psychology of capitalism; instead, he simply presents a long litany of the ugly effects of capitalism on the world.
In Sinclair’s view, socialism is the cure for all of the problems that capitalism creates. When Jurgis discovers socialist politics in Chapter 28, it becomes clear that the novel’s attack on capitalism is meant to persuade the reader of the desirability of the socialist alternative. When socialism is introduced, it is shown to be as good as capitalism is evil; whereas capitalism destroys the many for the benefit of the few, socialism works for the benefit of everyone. It is even speculated that a socialist state could fulfill Christian morality. Again, there is no nuance in the book’s polemic: The Jungle’s goal is to persuade the reader to adopt socialism. Every aspect of the novel’s plot, characterization, and conflict is designed to discredit the capitalist political system and illustrate the ability of a socialist political system to restore humanity to the downtrodden, exploited, and abused working class.
Because the family that Sinclair uses to represent the struggle of the working class under capitalism is a group of Lithuanian immigrants, the novel is also able to explore the plight of immigrants in America. Jurgis, Teta Elzbieta, and their family come to America based on the promise of high wages and a happy, good life. From the outset, they maintain an unshakable faith in the American Dream—the idea that hard work and morality will yield material success and happiness. But Sinclair exposes the hypocrisy of the American Dream as the family members attempt to plug themselves into this naïve equation: virtually every aspect of the family’s experience in Packingtown runs counter to the myth of America to which they subscribe. Instead of a land of acceptance and opportunity, they find a place of prejudice and exploitation; instead of a country where hard work and morality lead to success, they find a place where only moral corruption, crime, and graft enable one to succeed materially.
Because he wants his readers to sympathize with Jurgis, Sinclair goes to great lengths to ensure that this immigrant family doesn’t seem alien or foreign to the American mind. He repeatedly emphasizes that their values of hard work, family togetherness, honesty, and thrift are those of the American reading public. Sinclair doesn’t attack the American Dream; instead, he uses the disintegration of the family to illustrate his belief that capitalism itself is an attack on the values that support the American Dream, which has long since been rendered hollow by the immoral value of greed.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
As Jurgis and his family members experience harder and harder times in Packingtown, they find themselves surrounded increasingly with signs of immorality and corruption—laws that are not enforced, politicians out for their own gain, salesmen who lie about their wares—a whole community of people trying desperately to get ahead by taking advantage of one another. At the beginning of the novel, the signs of corruption are slight; a few people neglect to leave money to pay for the wedding feast. By the end of the novel, however, Jurgis has been a thief, mugger, strikebreaker, and an agent in a political vote-buying scheme. The family itself has been subject to swindles, grafts, manipulation, and rape. As the corruption motif recurs with increasing levels of immorality, it enhances the sense that things are growing worse and worse for the family. Sinclair heightens the atmosphere of grim tragedy and hopelessness to such an extent that only the encounter with socialism in Chapter 28 can possibly alleviate Jurgis’s suffering and give his life meaning.
Counterbalancing the motif of human corruption and depravity in the novel is the positive portrayal of the essential goodness of family and social traditions such as the wedding feast in Chapter 1. One of the novel’s central criticisms of capitalism is that it has a destructive effect on the family. For Jurgis’s family, economic hardship at various times helps disintegrate the family: Jonas disappears, Jurgis abandons the family, and Marija becomes a morphine-addicted prostitute. As the novel progresses, the role of family diminishes as the individual characters become increasingly battered and beaten: when Kristoforas dies, for instance, Jurgis is relieved because it means one less mouth to feed in the house. But because of the strength of Teta Elzbieta, the character who most directly represents the home and family, the clan is never quite destroyed. After Jurgis’s reunion with Teta Elzbieta at the end of the novel, not long after his discovery of socialism, the book even brings a measure of optimism into its portrayal of the family’s future, as Teta Elzbieta welcomes his earning power back into the family.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Perhaps the novel’s most important symbol is the animal pens and slaughterhouses of Packingtown, which represent in a simple, direct way the plight of the working class. Just as the animals at Packingtown are herded into pens, killed with impunity, made to suffer, and given no choice about their fate, so too are the thousands of poor immigrant workers forced to enter the machinery of capitalism, which grinds them down and kills them without giving them any choice. Waves of animals pass through Packingtown in a constant flow, as thousands of them are slaughtered every day and replaced by more, just as generations of immigrants are ruined by the merciless work and the oppression of capitalism and eventually replaced by new generations of immigrants.
Historically, The Jungle’s most important effect was probably the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, enacted in response to public outcry over the novel’s portrayal of the meat industry’s practice of selling rotten and diseased meat to unsuspecting customers. Sinclair uses the cans of rotten and unhealthy meat to represent the essential corruption of capitalism and the hypocrisy of the American Dream. The cans have shiny, attractive surfaces but contain a mass of putrid meat unfit for human consumption. In the same way, American capitalism presents an attractive face to immigrants, but the America that they find is rotten and corrupt.
The novel’s title symbolizes the competitive nature of capitalism; the world of Packingtown is like a Darwinian jungle, in which the strong prey on the weak and all living things are engaged in a brutal, amoral fight for survival. The title of the novel draws attention specifically to the doctrine of Social Darwinism, an idea used by some nineteenth-century thinkers to justify the abuses of wealthy capitalists. This idea essentially held that society was designed to reward the strongest, best people, while inferior people were kept down at a suitable level. By relating the story of a group of honest, hardworking immigrants who are destroyed by corruption and evil, Sinclair tries to rebut the idea of Social Darwinism, implying that those who succeed in the capitalist system are not the best of humankind but rather the worst and most corrupt of all.