I rather defy anyone to open a tin of Spam or a canned ham and not recall the rather graphic depictions of how the contents of said “meat” is contrived from a variety of left overs rotting in the basement alone with a host of chemicals meant to cover up in color and taste of the true horror that is found therein.
The story is simple. A family of immigrants arrives from Lithuania. They are poor but determined to make their way in this new land, confident that with hard work and will they would attain, this thing called an American Dream.
What we see is the systematic destruction of each and every member over time. Each is by some means beaten down and leveled by the very system they have been told is free and honest. They are duped and taken advantage of by everyone, even other immigrants at times. They learn that life is meaningless and ugly.
There is never an employer who is fair and sympathetic. Never one who offers help in time of need. Every employer is out to gain as much as possible with the least expenditure. There is no one with any sense of morality, right and wrong, or even human compassion. One must accept everything done to them or risk losing the precious job that barely feeds one enough to live.
All the support systems are just as voracious in their greed to take as much as possible and give only an illusion of return. Houses are sold to the unwary with so many unknown “strings” that it is impossible to keep up on the payments. The same house is sold again and again to the unwitting immigrant. Babies fail to thrive on “milk” that is adulterated. There are no Christmas glad tidings, no helpful church. It is all dogged misery.
It becomes clear at some early point that Sinclair is not so much telling a story as making a political statement about the evil of capitalism. He can find nary any good thing to say about it.
And frankly this is where the book fails as literature in my opinion.
Sinclair has an ax to grind and grind it he does. No system, as Plato made clear, is perfect. Either perfectly good or perfectly bad. They are all both, and ultimately we do well to choose the least evil. All political and economic systems are contrived to gather people together in some cooperative effort, and it must be that some gain more than others. Thus we are bound to deal in trade-offs of one nature or another.
Sinclair fails miserably to accept this and deal honestly with it.
What troubled me greatly was Jurgis’s returning to Chicago after a rather successful tramp around the country on the rails. He worked when he needed to, enjoyed plenty of decent folks along the way, and by all standards, was living much better than he ever had in the stockyards of Chicago. Yet he inexplicably returns and soon enough has hit rock bottom all over again.
It was a complete puzzlement to me, and one Sinclair failed to explain at all.
Until of course we get to Jurgis’s transformation in a socialist. Jurgis’s return was necessary to move the story to its real point–Sinclair’s love affair with socialism. Here, just the opposite is seen. While capitalism is pure evil, socialism is its very opposite, it is pure goodness. Sinclair of course glosses over the imperfections that exist within it in his quest to convince the reader that they too should become socialists and overthrow the current system.
There is plenty of symbolism, and no doubt plenty of truth in the depiction of the meat-packing trade of the early 1900’s.
But for me, Sinclair sacrificed literary integrity to make a political statement, and that made it less than a good read.
- A Return to “The Jungle” (citizenvox.org)