Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle complements the history of the U.S since 1877 by further accentuating the impact of the industrial revolution that commenced in mid nineteenth century. This was a period of intense development which saw the U.
S ascend to greater echelons of capitalism. The industrial revolution facilitated America with massive provisions like mass production of goods through manufacture, rapid growth of cities, and a greater demand for human resource. The nineteenth century was a period of brilliant technological inventions and practical science that provided a foundation for the expansion of industry. Inventions such as the steam engine, the telegram, photography, the telephone and the Trans Atlantic cable, the airplane, electricity, gas lighting and the electric bulb provided industries with a basis as to how to model their operations. The iron and steel refinery mill established by Andrew Carnegie was largely responsible for the rapid expansion of the railroad and the emergence of multiple storied buildings. The vast railway network expanded the market for manufactured goods and the emerging buildings led to the growth and expansion of cities (Sinclair 1936, 21).
The utilization of refined oil rather than steam to run engines created an extensive market for the oil products. Subsequent industrial machinery was designed to run on oil since its combustion provided more power increasing the output of the industries. Late nineteenth century engulfed a period of extreme unrest from workers who held strikes occasionally to protest or demand better wages, treatment or working conditions. Accidents in the work place occurred frequently and some were fatal. Workers were of the view that their efforts were not respected considering the poor pay they received (Sinclair 1936, 52).
Hence, by going on strike there was a greater chance for their grievances to be addressed bearing in mind that no body including the Socialist Labor Party advocated for most of the workers since unions were of limited membership(Sinclair 1936, 38). Most of the strikes ended up in riots which bore casualties, for example the Haymarket Massacre where a confrontation between the workers and police left 7 fatalities and more than 60 casualties. Of similar detrimental consequences were the 1892 Pennsylvania Homestead Strike and the 1894 Pullman Strike in Chicago. The successive governments of late nineteenth century an early twentieth century were marred with controversy and massive corruption (Sinclair 1936, 64).
Several paradigms support this fact for instance the 1884 controversial election rivalry between Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine.
The novel begins on a high note with the presentation of a Lithuanian wedding party celebrating the union of the main character Jurgis Rudkus and Ona who is the bride. The mood is toned with joy and excitement as the newly weds’ family invites passers by to join them in the festivities and even provide food, drink and entertainment (Sinclair 1936, 81). The hosts are however apprehensive on whether the guests will be courteous enough to give a donation which is customary in Lithuanian tradition.
Rudkus together with his family travel to America at the end of the 19th century hoping that Rudkus will soon acquire a job and support the family. When they arrive at their abode in Chicago, Illinois, the reality finally dawns on them that they will have to struggle and work hard in order to make ends meet (Sinclair 1936, 127). The fact that they will have to work hard just to get minimum wage instills within them a sense of desperation and urgency to acquire their own house in order to save on rent. The search for an ideal house that is within their budget leads them to a vicious lending scheme that takes away their savings under the pretence that the money is a down payment for a house in the slums. Consequently, Rudkus together with his family lose their new home as well as their money (Sinclair 1936, 144). All family members including the children are compelled to seek employment in order to sustain themselves. Working conditions in the Chicago Stockyards are harsh and the workers are required to submit to their employers regardless of the underpaid wages.
“They will certainly be over two hundred dollars and maybe three hundred; and three hundred dollars is more than the year’s income of many a person in this room.” (Sinclair 1936, 6). Everyone they encounter in the chain of command is corrupt and the exposure to corruption gradually corrupts members of the family as well. Rudkus’s predicament is further compounded by the death of his wife during labor as well as the death of his son who mysteriously drowns in a mud puddle. Other family members also succumb to death due to malnutrition and treatable diseases associated with poverty.
The prevailing circumstances become too overwhelming for Rudkus and he decides to leave the city (Sinclair 1936, 200). After all, he perceives that he can never accomplish his goals in such a capitalistic setting where people are hostile, deceptive and selfish. Rudkus decides to go to the countryside but soon runs out of work and returns to Chicago. He takes on odd jobs like digging tunnels and also becomes a con man. One evening, he involuntarily ventures into a lecture presided over by an eloquent socialist supporter and he immediately decides where he belongs (Sinclair 1936, 158). A fellow socialism supporter offers him a job as the socialist party goes on to gain immense popularity.
Sinclair has a number of issues he tries to reveal through his novel The Jungle. The first and most dominant message in the novel is the demerits associated with capitalism.
Sinclair uses the suffering of Rudkus as well as his family as a mirror image of the poor living in a capitalistic society. The novel portrays the American society as ruthless and discriminative to the poor. Furthermore, the industrial revolution is viewed as counterproductive due to the fact that the introduction of machinery was largely responsible for the exploitation of workers both in the working environment and in remuneration. Most jobs did not require intensive training and therefore these posts were always on demand. With industry owners aware of that, they took advantage and underpaid the laborers who would be threatened with dismissal or blacklisting if they complained. Sinclair also reveals the intricate corrupt practices that are adopted and widely accepted by the rich and political classes (Sinclair 1936, 112).
Such practices could also be used as veto points to deny the poor access to a good job, medical services or council. The exploitation of women and children to work in the industries was unethical because children were being exposed to the same harsh industry conditions similar to the adults yet the children were paid less (Sinclair 1936, 245). Women and children were also more likely to experience an accident in the industries especially if it was their job. The novel also shows the outcome of a lax or corrupt system of government to society. A government that encourages unethical practices is solely liable for the detriment of the society it governs. By only taking care of the rich the government does not fulfill its pledge to serve all its citizens and this can breed animosity between the rich and the poor.
The Jungle was set in the early 20th century specifically to examine the struggle that the working class and laborers went through. From a historical perspective, the novel provides candid and insightful information regarding the social structure of America during the late nineteenth century. The novel differs from other historic material in that it analyses the life of a few individual relative to the prevalent circumstances allowing for more detailed results rather than a generalized perspective. This allows a reader to better understand how people thought and acted through the study of dialogue. The depiction of the types of architectural structures, houses and fashion provides additional information to historians regarding the American culture during the stipulated period.
The novel is of similar importance to the literary field since it bears language that might have evolved with time. The examination of past English narratives from different timeframes provides literary scholars with a sequential pattern that may help them discern the exact period when the language progressed. This is important when categorizing the different classes of English to specific eras. Further, the reference to Jungle is indeed an allegory which refers to the state of America during the late nineteenth century. This is because people were self centered, dishonest and greedy thus those in power took advantage of the weak and poor to accomplish their own selfish interests allowing for their comparison with animals in the jungle.
Sinclair, Upton. 1936. The Jungle. New York: Babylon Dreams.