Sinclair employs a spare, journalistic style that tries to convey an exacting realism, which had a precedent in American fiction in novelists such as Theodore Dreiser, who wrote about the social problems of industrialization, and Stephen Crane, who grimly portrayed the horrors of the Civil War in The Red Badge of Courage. But while these earlier authors’ realism had a more literary pedigree, Sinclair’s realism comes from journalism—muckraking journalism, which exposes misconduct on the part of an individual or business, in particular. Sinclair splatters the page with a surfeit of details that are intended not so much to create atmosphere as to drive home a message. The facts presented are never neutral or ambiguous. Sinclair’s occasional use of the second person (“to spend such a sum, all in a single day of your life”) heightens the reader’s sense of experiencing the life that Sinclair describes in full, gritty detail.
During the period of industrialization at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, the millions of poor immigrants that flocked to the United States met with terrible working conditions and barely livable wages. Moreover, they encountered hostility and racism from the citizens of their new homeland. Their unfamiliar cultural practices were regarded as a threat to traditional American culture. To build a case for socialism, Sinclair had to persuade the American reading public to sympathize with the very people whom many regarded with suspicion and hostility. In the opening chapters, Sinclair endeavors to reduce the alien character of the Lithuanian immigrant family that occupies the center of his narrative by showing them in an extremely sympathetic setting—a wedding feast. Nevertheless, he doesn’t pretend to portray them as entirely assimilated to American culture, since doing so would diminish their cultural heritage. Rather, of course, the wedding feast is held according to Lithuanian tradition. In this way, though the novel opens with the Lithuanian custom of the veselija, Sinclair emphasizes that the immigrants share a great many social values with the American reading public. The central values expressed in the veselija are family, community, and charity: according to custom, the community charitably shares in the expense of the celebration and donates money to help the new couple start out in life. The celebration is an expression of commitment to community and tradition as well as to the institution of marriage.
Just as Sinclair wishes to inspire sympathy for the immigrant family by getting his readers to identify with their social values, so too does he attempt to sway opinion against the unwholesome social values that menace the immigrants. The young con artists and the corrupt saloonkeepers, who represent dishonesty and thievery, respectively, have assimilated the brutal, predatory values of consumer capitalism. They value their personal gain above the social values of family, community, and charity. Hence, Sinclair identifies capitalism as hostile to American moral values; in this way, the opening chapters of the novel immediately begin to build a case for socialism.
Moreover, Jurgis and Ona’s family immigrates to America in search of the American Dream, the advertisement by which America sells itself as the land of freedom and opportunity. This myth, represented in Chapter 2 by the character of Jokubas, promises them that hard work and commitment to social values will win them success. But Sinclair immediately begins to portray this dream of America as a naïve fantasy: Jokubas is a struggling delicatessen operator, not a thriving capitalist. Furthermore, from the moment the immigrants arrive in the country they fall prey to various greedy individuals who profit unfairly from their ignorance. Sinclair means to depict these events as a betrayal of the very values upon which the American identity is based. Jurgis’s response to the con artists taking advantage of the veselija is “I will work harder.” Again, Sinclair wishes to identify the immigrant laborer with the values of the American reading public. Jurgis calmly faces adversity and expresses a profound belief in the ethic of work, a fundamental American value.