Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Jungle

Wow. I just finished Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and what a read that was. My global history teacher in tenth grade told us about the book when we were learning about the Industrial Revolution, and the title stuck with me ever since. He told us that The Jungle painted such an atrocious picture of the meat-packing industry, overworking, and child labor that many laws were passed because of its public exposure (The Meat Inspection Act, The Clean Food and Drug Act, and it established the FDA, Food and Drug Administration).

This novel, based on many true facts, caused quite a stir when it was released in 1906. Foreign sales of meat fell by one half once it was published. His popularity soared, and even the president, Teddy Roosevelt, was handed a copy of his book which led him to create the FDA and the aforementioned acts. Sinclair was even stated saying that he came to packingtown in Chicago and said, "Hello! I'm Upton Sinclair, and I'm here to write the Uncle Tom's Cabin or the labor movement!" He sure did.

Sinclair fully immersed himself in the life of workers in packingtown. He moved to a house on a street where workers lived and talked with them in the streets about their experiences. Many of them were immigrants who could find no better work. It's almost investigatory journalism but then tweaked to make up a fictional novel. I'm sure the stories come from stories he's heard and other details are from what he's seen and heard. I don't doubt that the small details of the book are compiled from the many people he came in contact with at the time.

The Jungle WAS pretty depressing, but I found it utterly fascinating to see how the meat industry used to work. People would fall into the vats, and their meat, bones, and flesh would get tossed in with the cows. Rats defecated and roosted on meat waiting to be processed. Sometimes the rats even went into the meat itself. Meat was rarely inspected, as the government inspectors would rather chat or hang out than actually inspect the meat. Bad meat was turned into other kinds of meat--pickled, sausaged, etc. Workers were worked to the bone for little money. If they could pay someone cheaper, they would fire someone on the spot, especially if a child could take over the job for much smaller pay. People jumped around from job to job just to keep alive. It was disgusting to read about.

The imagery Sinclair uses have stuck with me. In the beginning, he provides a deep and clear picture of the filth of packingtown, where these workers are forced to live. The stench and the smells that rise from this place is atrocious. People got sick for so many reasons and had no money to pay to cure these curable diseases. So many people died from their poor living and working conditions because they had no means to pay for it. The squalor they were living in... Poor sewage, broken bones and limbs from the job, some worked in pools of water and their toes slowly rotted off, the smells were damaging, some worked in fertilizer and smelled of it forever... The list goes on and on.

But the thing is, no one could complain about any of these problems. No one would listen to them because they had no money and no power. If they complained about their job, they lost it, and then they couldn't eat or pay rent. They could even become blacklisted. When they got in trouble (like Jorgis did), the courts will not listen to them. They are immediately jailed and fined, even if they did not do much wrong.

The Jungle follows Jorgis and his family, immigrants from Lithuania, who come here with nothing but expect to be "free" because America is the home of the free and the brave. They immediately are thrown into the meat industry to work odd jobs, some jobs that end up killing most of their family. They decide to buy a house but are swindled by lawyers and real estate agents. They are not told about interest, and their prices skyrocket, making the children go to work just to cover the costs. They slowly slip into debt as some members of the house die and cannot, thus, contribute money to rent. They stop eating. Diseases increase. Underneath their house lies a pool of fecal matter that had been sitting there for decades. It's just utterly depressing.

Jorgis's 18-year-old wife Ona gives birth to a son Antanas who is Jorgis's pride and joy. Ona eventually has another child who dies in childbirth, taking Ona with him. Jorgis's son eventually dies as he is drowned in the street from the built-up filth. Ona is a sad character as she is played by her boss, Connor. Connor tells Ona that he will fire and blacklist everyone is Jorgis's family unless he can continuously sleep with her. Ona keeps this shame to herself, giving in from time to time, so that her family can stay alive. When Jorgis finds out, he beats Connor to a pulp which sends him in jail for months. Unable to stay financially alive with Jorgis gone, the family loses the house. Once Jorgis returns, the family is in shambles. Ona dies shortly afterward from complications--disease, starvation, childbirth. Jorgis goes into a panic and flees.

Jorgis becomes a tramp, hopping train to train and taking odd jobs across the countryside. He sees a much simpler life out here, but he cannot stay there for winter because he will have no work. I wanted him to stay here because then he could have a happier, simpler life where he was not conned by businessmen. However, Jorgis returns and gets back on his sad working track where he is basically homeless and begging for money.

Homeless life. Jorgis describes being homeless since no one will take him for work in packingtown. He hasn't showered for years. People look at him so strange. He ends up being swindled by a bartender--Jorgis is given $100 by a drunk man, and when he tries to cash it at a bar, the bartender takes it and pretends he wasn't given it, starting a fight which lands Jorgis in jail. Once in jail, Jorgis meets a friend who gets him into the pick-pocketing business. Jorgis starts building up some wealth from swindling others. He eventually gets into politics but is soon abandoned by the politicians he's helping.

The politicians take Jorgis off the blacklist so he can go back to working at the meat industry so he can sway the workers to vote for him. Once the campaign is over, Jorgis looks to switch jobs, but the politicians wash their hands of him. They promote him to manager and leave it at that. Strikes start, and eventually Jorgis loses everything once again, becoming homeless. He eventually reunites with his family, discovering that his relative, Marija, sold herself into prostitution, working at a brothel. The owners hook their girls on dope to keep them there. Marija says she can do nothing else now but her job and dope to keep sending money home to the family. She never escapes this fate by the end of the book.

The only hope we do get at the end of the book is when Jorgis stumbles upon a socialist speaker. He immediately converts and praises the socialist message as much as he can. He gets a job for an active socialist member, and the rest of the book basically discusses the positives of socialism and how it would trump the evils of capitalism.

The Jungle , the title, is actually symbolic for capitalism, and it would make sense with the bitter portrayal of capitalism in this novel. Capitalism is supposed to work for all, but in this society, the rich get richer from the poor getting poorer. There are two clear classes and there is no way for social mobility. The rich are filthy rich at the expense of the poor, and the poor barely get by and have no voice or power. It is animalistic, like a jungle, where everyone fends for themselves almost like survival of the fittest. It is competitive and no one lacks compassion or morality for others. It is disgusting, and Sinclair paints it well.

I just wonder why socialism was the answer for Jorgis and Sinclair. Maybe that was the feeling at the time. Hm.

I was just blown away by human nature and how evil some people can be in order to make a profit, or even to survive in this case. It seemed like nothing could get better for Jorgis, everyone was out to get him. Even those who were nice to him were only being nice for a time being, in order to swindle him or get something out of him. It's depressing, but I guess one might be if they were in situations like this.

I am glad to think that we have come a little ways since this time period. At least our food and beverages are not tainted in such ways as they were back then. At least child labor has diminished in our country. At least we have semi-reasonable minimum wages, unions, and laws to back up those who may be economically disadvantaged. If there was not that protection, as we have now, I might feel just as hopeless and depressed as they did. At least we've made improvements.

How terrible it must have been for these immigrants. I can't even imagine. Especially when they had trouble communicating and could hardly earn enough money. They were just bodies, not recognized as people. I couldn't imagine the winters they had to go through. Sinclair mentions in the book how people would freeze to death, or limbs would get frostbitten and would have to be amputated (one boy's ears cracked off when walking to his work). It's just disgusting and terrifying.

However, the book is a good read. It has valuable information and teaches a good deal about the Industrial Revolution. Especially for those interested in history, this book is for you. It is depressing for most of it, but it is rich with information.

So, what do you think of The Jungle?

1 comment:

Julie said...

I am only about a third of the way through, and it is depressing me to no end. Everything is just so futile. It seemed nothing could be done. Upton Sinclair is truly a hero. Now I wonder about his life after this book came out. How did the meatpacking industry respond?

Regarding the writing, I read a few reviews that say Mr. Sinclair isn't a write. I beg to disagree most heartily! I was pulled in from the beginning, and my heart aches for these people. I find myself thinking about them often.

This book should be read by everyone. It brings history alive instead of dull, dusty, and boring. Absolutely fascinating (and depressing).