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.