Updated Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, is a worthwhile piece of literature that can contribute to the understanding of human development within the last century. It is a story of an immigrant family who experiences incredibly difficult and trying hardships in early 20th-century America. The purpose of this essay is to contrast the author's thesis of the story with my own personal interpretation of this novel. It is my understanding that Sinclair wrote this book in support of a socialist, political movement. By dedicating this work to "the working man," this theme is consistently introduced throughout each chapter. In my opinion, Sinclair's unbalanced approach to the truth of the issues, undermined his socialist views of the day. The author's often hyperbolic and exaggerated nature of despair distracts from practical and truthful reflections of the time which could lead to actual social change towards Sinclair's polemic view.
In order to best contrast these two stances, I'll examine several of the main characters of the novel and describe how their experiences in the Chicago stockyards reflected both Sinclair's dedication to the socialist movement and simultaneously created an environment that possesses the ability to over stimulate the reader into an emotional frenzy. Each character provides a viewpoint and a connection to these ideas through a relative and personal experience providing a useful instrument to dissect and understand this well written and interesting novel into an argument that is practical in today's world.
Jurgis is a Lithuanian immigrant who has recently traveled to America to live in the country that in his hopes will provide him with material wealth and a new approach on life. Jurgis is the central character in Sinclair's novel. This man serves as the archetypical immigrant, marked by strong physical features and a naive, if not dimwitted intellectual approach towards life. Sinclair immediately creates a sympathetic attitude towards Jurgis as his wedding with Ona is described in the first chapter in a melancholy fashion with sad commentary. When the wedding is surprisingly underfunded due to violations of cultures and customs from Lithuania, Jurgis does not dispair when he should, "do not matter it will not matter to us. We will pay them all somehow. I will work harder " (p.19).
This sets the tone for the rest of the novel as the main character is treated almost as an animal and without much common sense or intellect. This technique creates a sympathetic viewpoint for the reader, but it distorts the true ignorance of the characters. It must not be forgotten that this family traveled from Lithuania to capitalize on the economic benefits that capitalism provides. Not understanding the true nature or essence of the American way, or capitalism seems to be the problem. Jurgis is never forced to continually degrade himself in varying jobs. His pride and other emotional deficiencies carry him throughout the novel for better or for worse.
Throughout the story Jurgis faces incredible hardship and disaster. His wife and children die before him, shortly after his older father is buried in eight inhumane fashion. The family Jurgis traveled to America to protect, eventually desert's him and provides a source of negative emotions that are carried out in continually morally reprehensible tasks. What is unique about this interpretation is that Sinclair always seems to blame the system itself. Jurgis is treated with sympathy and not empathy. It is important to note this distinction. The temptation for Jurgis' deceit with material wealth cost him with much of his immaterial wealth.
Sinclair seemed to excuse Jurgis' behavior throughout the novel. He is treated as a dumb animal in many cases, much like the cattle and pigs the stockyards are littered with throughout the streets. The ideal working man is summarized with in this character. Blind ambition without proper intellectual and mental capacities are detrimental at any socioeconomic level. While many of the members of his family seemed to be more grounded within the materialistic realm of seems to suggest that the working man has no other alternative than to follow a higher power from something other than himself. Sacrificing this individualistic principle not only supports to lessen the attraction of the socialist movement Sinclair was trying to promote, but ironically serves to undermine its own benefit by overemphasizing the helplessness of its main character, Jurgis
Jurgis' wife, Ona provided some balance to the main male character. Integrating with her husband, Ona is a teenager, fragile and weak and over analyzing her own misery. Her story is sad explained during her sexual assault at her workplace by her boss. Only after recently giving birth, with a weak and fragile body, she is overpowered mentally and physically by her boss Phil Connor and she is forced into a life of prostitution. Sinclair's Packingtown is hell for this family and Ona's despair deepens throughout the novel's progression.
Eventually Ona died giving birth to a sick child. Sinclair successfully described the scene in emotional manner, "she was covered with a blanket, but he could see her shoulders and one online bear, she was so shrunken he would scarcely have known her, she was all but a skeleton and as wide as a piece of chalk. Her eyelids were closed and she lay still as death. He staggered toward her and fell upon his knees with a cry of anguish: 'Ona! Ona!'" (p.226). She was given this treatment throughout the entire story. As a frail and helpless immigrant woman, young and beautiful at first, but eventually through maltreatment suffers a loss of the will to live.
The brutal treatment of immigrants that this community demonstrates were summed up best in this character of Ona. Once again, Sinclair overdoes the brutality of this scenario. The increasingly bad experiences marked by her death and her children's death coupled with the poverty, humiliation and violence experience on a day-to-day basis must bring the reader to question how is this self-destructive behavior inspired? The ignorance of the immigrants is only matched by the cruelty of the capitalists. The treatment of females represented in this character further polarizes the socialist movement from individual responsibility. Taking responsibility for actions of free will is mandated only upon the evilness of the world according to Sinclair in this novel.
Teta Elizabieta provided the most balanced character throughout this novel. She completed the family on the move to America from Lithuania as she is the stepmother of Ona. Elizabieta was the only character to question Jurgis' decision-making skills throughout the story. She keeps the most balanced approach throughout the entire story even though she suffered great hardship as well. Sinclair described her: "Elizabieta was one of the primitive creatures: like the angelworm, which goes on living though cut in half, like a hand, which deprived her chickens one by one, the mother the last that has left her. She did this because it was her nature, she asked no questions about the justice of it nor the worthwhileness of life in which destruction and death ran riot" (p.231).
Elizabieta is the only character not to lose humanity. This is Sinclair's best and most realistic attempt at embracing the problems of immigration, capitalism and justice. His elder woman continually demonstrated her commitment to her own self-interpretation of the world. Forgiving and judgment at the same time, she provided a grounded and balanced character the others would seem to revolve around. Through this equilibrium she demonstrated her treatment to all for family members and towards others. This characterization supported Sinclair's call for socialism, which is not used in this capacity to its fullest. The central story focusing around Jurgis therefore lessens the impact that Elizabieta holds in supporting the authors political and social views.
Marija, Ona's cousin, represents another worthwhile character to explore the contrasting theses of this essay. Her character portrays a similar fate as Ona and Jurgis marked by continual dehumanizing behaviors coupled with extraordinarily bad fortune and incredible circumstance. Her idealistic dreams of finding a man to tour the country with, is destroyed piece by piece as we witness the deconstruction of a strong woman into a subordinate and obedient beast relegated to prostituting her body at the end of the story.
At her best she "felt, so to speak that she had her hand on the throttle, and the neighborhood was vocal with her rejoicings " (p 101). Sinclair slowly builds this woman up as her fortunes seem to rise with her spirit, but predictably she is ultimately disappointed and led into a dark and dismal existence. After losing her job after her factory shuts down, her anger slowly turns to despair as she slides into a life of illegal prostitution and continual dehumanization. Sinclair, in my opinion, uses this technique to show and brag of the strength of capitalism and how it can defeat even the strongest of characters. This woman was noted as being a strong and defiant woman and was initially rewarded for this behavior, only when Sinclair needs to add emotional respondents to the story he inserts her…