The Jungle: Essay Q&A
1. Discuss Jurgis’s reluctance to commit fully to the ideas of socialism in the early chapters of the novel.
The early chapters focus on the naivety and ignorance of the individual who believes that the new world, as represented by the United States, will be paradise on earth. Jurgis is drawn sympathetically, but is undoubtedly depicted as naïve for his belief that if one works hard one will be treated fairly.
When he finds it impossible to find employment after injuring his ankle, the narrative pointedly demonstrates that as with this everyman, the unemployed are not lazy or irresponsible. They are willing to work, but they are regarded as surplus to requirements. At this point, however, Jurgis has not made the full connection between his treatment, the plight of others and the extent of the power of the Beef Trust.
Because he is described initially as averse to socialism, and in favor of individual hard work, he represents many who have believed that capitalism will benefit the working classes. His entrapment in a cycle of poverty, despite his willingness to work, stands as a lesson to those who consider individualistic thinking to be superior to the co-operative tenets of socialism. His early involvement with the union is short-lived and it is suggested, rather than made explicit, that this is because the effects of poverty have outweighed the desire for political change. Through the characterization of Jurgis and his changing views of the worlds, he is used to explain, in a fictional format, how only socialism and a united workforce can benefit the workingman and woman. When he finally decides to try to understand socialism, the narrative is able to offer closure as he discovers a form of liberation.
2. Consider how this novel engages with the oppression of women.
Although The Jungle is predominantly concerned with the life of the oppressed working male (as represented by Jurgis), Sinclair also considers the life of the exploited proletariat woman. Ona’s death after giving birth and Marija’s later employment as a prostitute are the main examples of the effects of capitalism on female bondage. By positioning Marija as a prostitute in the last chapters, and we are told she is unable to give up this work, Sinclair is able to emphasize how a sympathetic, ordinary woman may be limited in her choices to earn a living. By doing this, the novel refuses to condemn her morality and instead invites the reader to consider prostitution as another by-product of capitalism.
These differentiated female roles are only partially realized as Jurgis is always the central character in this work, but this is balanced somewhat in the final chapter when he attends a small meeting. Here, a debate ensues about the way marriage is, for women, another form of prostitution and the drudgery of housework is criticized. This is a relatively brief exposé of the extended marginalization of proletariat women, but is effective in remembering the suffering of women such Ona and Marija who are destroyed by capitalism and patriarchy.
3. Examine the descriptions of the working conditions in Packingtown and analyze the impact these had on the readership.
When The Jungle was finally published as a novel, it quickly became a national and international bestseller. Its descriptions of life in the Chicago stockyards in the early twentieth century led many to write to the President (Theodore Roosevelt) to demand changes. At one stage, he was receiving over a 100 letters a day on the subject.
The descriptions of the unsanitary conditions and lax meat inspections are thought to have directly influenced the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act (1906). It is ironic that this work, which was intended to be a damning indictment of the treatment of workers, brought about change in the production of food rather than that of working conditions. This irony may be seen to exemplify the main thrust of the novel, which argues that in the United States the working-classes are overlooked and ignored by those in power.
4. Discuss the portrayal of Jurgis as a criminal and offer an interpretation of why he is depicted in this way.
Corruption is rife in this world and Jurgis discovers that life as a thief enables him to survive and even enjoy life, which was never possible when he slaved for the packers. Compared to his previous manual labors, the life of crime is seen to pay more lucratively than honest, exhausting work.
When one considers the change in Jurgis from loyal worker to criminal, the narrative is clearly forcing the readers to consider how it is the effects of capitalism and poverty that have made crime so attractive. In Lithuanian and on his arrival in the United States, he is described as only wanting to earn a living for his family and to own his home. The repeated blows that he and his family receive whilst trying to survive in impossible circumstances allow the readers to understand why he eventually finds crime attractive.
In addition, the definition of criminal is also challenged as it is continuously reiterated that those in power, such as Scully, are far more devious, corrupt and wealthy than a petty criminal could ever aspire to be. Indeed, we are told that it is those that appoint the judges, police the streets and own the factories that are the most proficient thieves.
5. Consider the ending of the novel, in particular its adherence to socialist thinking.
This novel was written to expose the terrible working conditions of Chicago’s stockyards. The brutality of this life is explained as being an implicit element of the workings of capitalism. The final chapters, where Jurgis is converted to socialist thinking, offer another way to live and work. Sinclair gives an alternative to wage slavery as he allows his socialist inspired characters, such as Ostrinski, to have a voice to undermine the notion that Jurgis’s life in Packingtown was not fate, but was conceived to produce the maximum profit with no regard for animal or human life.
Jurgis’s conversion to socialism gives this work closure and the possibility of a happy ending. It is not so utopian as to have Marija renounce prostitution and morphine, but it is evidently hoping to offer alternatives to the misery caused by capitalist driven ideologies. The final chapter considers the potential of co-operatives and argues against the drudgery of housework for proletariat women. In short, the ending of The Jungle appears to have inspirational aims as it refuses to allow the hero Jurgis to be beaten down further. Socialism saves him from his past, in terms of his guilty conscience, and his future.