The Jungle: Theme Analysis
Capitalism and the American Dream are constantly under fire in this novel as Sinclair refuses to submit to the dominant ideology of private enterprise and, what he terms, wage slavery. He prefers to interrogate the implications of capitalism, where the workers are used to attain the maximum amount of profit. The workers in Packingtown are regarded as nothing more than machinery and when they are used up they are discarded.
The employers maintain their power by dividing and ruling the employees and this is most evident in the de-skilling of the workforce and in the ploys taken to break the strikes. When Jurgis first begins his job in the stockyards, he is uncritical about capitalism and believes that it is possible for the individual to be treated fairly. This is contrary to the philosophy behind the union movement and socialism, which regards the comradeship of the workforce as the only means to challenge the strength of capitalism. Profit is the main if not the only concern in such a system and The Jungle argues that the individual worker is, therefore, of no intrinsic value. Jurgis’s conversion to socialism leads him to understand the importance of unity and collectivity.
The levels of class difference in a capitalist society are depicted when Jurgis encounters Freddie (son of the wealthy packer, Jones). His home is palatial and is comparable to city hall. Freddie is so wealthy (and drunk) that he does not notice or care that he has given Jurgis a hundred-dollar bill to pay the cab fare. Through the references to Freddie, the disparity between the rich and poor is driven home completely.
Corruption is depicted as rife in the Chicago stockyards and in the higher levels of justice and politics. It is referred to as ‘graft’ and is a constant feature of Jurgis’s life, both as an honest worker and a criminal. Sinclair is quick to point out that when Jurgis is sent to prison the greater and wealthier criminals are the ones who have decided his fate. The police, judges and local politicians are all described as amoral and unjust. Without such corruption, and the grinding effects of poverty, it is possible to see that Jurgis and his family would have been healthier and treated with more equality. Capitalism and corruption are themes which are seen to be co-dependent upon each other.
Mike Scully is the foremost representative of how corruption has its tentacles in all elements of life, including the drowning of little Antanas in the unpaved street near his home. His willingness to buy and sell votes, along with his Republican counterparts, demonstrates how corruption has reached to the central core of the American Dream. When votes are bought and sold, the society is no longer the democracy it claims to be. It is merely ruled by the highest bidder.
By focussing mainly on one family, Sinclair is able to give a detailed view of the effects of poverty on adults and children. The narrative is often relentless in relating how these people, who are mired in poverty, are struggling on a day to day level. From the lack of suitable clothing to the adulteration of food, the residents of Packingtown are described as being mercilessly steamrollered by the Beef Trust and, by association, the machinery of capitalism.
The experiences of Jurgis and his family in Packingtown are used as fictional representations of the devastating effects of capitalism on the least fortunate members of society. Socialism underpins the narrative as the solution to the grinding poverty that they and other ‘members’ of the proletariat have to endure. Socialism and the power of workers standing together against the employers is the proffered solution, but Sinclair initially avoids using this theme too simplistically. Jurgis’s early belief in the power of the individual rather than the union (in the early chapters) is used as a demonstration of the naïve faith that the employers will treat him fairly.
The theme of socialism is particularly expanded upon in the last chapters (from Chapter 28 to 31) as the means to escape wage slavery. This adherence to socialism is unequivocal and is largely unquestioned, so it is possible to argue that this is primarily a socialist text. This is not a criticism as Sinclair may be seen to offer some balance to the many novels which never engage with left-wing political thought. There is also a level of debate in the final chapter between socialists that demonstrates how socialism is not a monolithic ideology. Finally, though, Jurgis’s conversion to this political perspective offers the novel its own brand of a happy ending: Jurgis is now considered free as he understands that the tenets of socialism and co-operation are the necessary vehicles for liberation.
The employers maintain their power by dividing and ruling the employees and this is most evident in the de-skilling of the workforce and in the ploys taken to break the strikes. When Jurgis first begins his job in the stockyards, he is uncritical about capitalism and believes that it is possible for the individual to be treated fairly. This is contrary to the philosophy behind the union movement and socialism, which regards the comradeship of the workforce as the only means to challenge the strength of capitalism. Profit is