Sinclair's The Jungle is one of the most important examples of early twentieth century muckraker journalism. Taking their name from a term first used by President Theodore Roosevelt, muckrakers sought to expose the corruption within business and government. They did so by publishing articles and books describing, often in horrifying detail, the conditions of corruption and the ways in which it affected the lives of those both directly and indirectly involved.
The Jungle exemplifies this muckraker style in its often gory depictions of life in a meat packing factory. Sinclair writes of how the meat packing industry exploits its workers, many of whom are uneducated and poor. He also gives examples of the unsanitary conditions in which much of America's food was made. Muckraking journalism inspired public outrage and catalyzed a number of reform movements in the early twentieth century.
Sinclair was exposed to Socialist politics as a young writer and quickly became convinced by the movement's premise. Socialism is an economic theory that promotes worker ownership of the resources of production. Sinclair came to see capitalism as a vicious system of economics that exploits the masses in order to make the elite few rich. Capitalists hoarded resources and wealth for themselves, while millions of workers and laborers suffered in poverty and dangerous working conditions.
Sinclair conceived The Jungle as a Socialist novel. The plights of the novel's protagonists demonstrate the evils and corruption of unrestrained capitalist economies. Jurgis and Ona Rudkus, as well as their immigrant friends and family, live in dire poverty. Their lives are at risk when they go to work, if they are able to find work. These conditions are the result of a company that seeks to maximize the speed and efficiency of labor with no regard to how such methods of production affect the lives of workers. The novel is a sustained argument that workers must gather collectively in order to assure rights and dignity for all individuals.
Social Darwinism is a theory from the social sciences that argues that one can understand society in evolutionary terms. Just as Charles Darwin proposed that, in nature, the strongest members of a species survive and then carry those survival traits to new generations, Social Darwinism argues that the strongest and most fit members of society survive while the weaker members naturally die from a lack of resources. Social Darwinism has been a controversial proposal because it ignores traits of human benevolence.
Sinclair proposes that the reader see Packingtown in terms of Social Darwinism. The title of the book, The Jungle, alludes to the idea that in an environment such as Packingtown, certain members of society will survive while other weaker members will not. Sinclair also uses metaphors of nature, such as how winter's cold kills those trees which cannot find light, to describe the process through which economic and societal forces push the weaker members of Packingtown into sickness and death. Throughout the novel, Sinclair describes this process pejoratively.
Sinclair describes the plight of the immigrant working class in Packingtown as that of wage slavery. Sinclair writes that the immigrant population was "dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers." Immigrants had no real ability to break out of the economic cycles that kept them figuratively chained to their jobs.
This cycle of poverty and slavery was perpetrated by the capitalist owners of the packing plants and the corrupt politicians of local government. These capitalists would purposefully keep wages low and keep the people in poverty. Those without jobs would then be desperate for any work, and because the immigrant populations kept growing, the demand for work kept wages even lower. On the other side, politicians and local businessmen conspired to take the wages away from these immigrants through scams and poor quality products. An immigrant was thus a slave to the economic conditions that he could not control.
American Naturalist Writing
The Naturalist school of writing was an important literary movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Literary Naturalism portrayed the effects of environment upon a character. While most literature works to develop a kind of personal history, or interior psychology that helps to drive narrative, Naturalism is concerned only with the natural world and its effects upon narrative and characters. A few of the most famous Naturalists were Emile Zola, George Gissing, Theodore Dreiser, and Stephen Crane.
Sinclair's novel is a prime example of the American school of Naturalist writing. Jurgis Rudkus has very little interior life in the novel because Sinclair wants the reader to observe in detail the ways that Jurgis's environment affects him as a man and as a character. Jurgis has little interior motivation, and what motivation does exist (i.e. feeding his family) is not comprehensively explained. Instead, Jurgis's plight is a function of the industrial machine and the natural break down of the body caused by such natural and social systems. Jurgis's character cannot be separated from the capitalist environment that creates him.
Abuses of the Food Industry
Although it was not Sinclair's chief purpose to expose the abuses of the food industry when writing The Jungle, the outcry over the production and selling of the meat became the novel's defining legacy. In the novel, Sinclair blames the mechanisms of capitalism on the tricks that the meatpackers use to sell spoiled and contaminated meat. In an effort to squeeze every dime that they can out of the meat packing process, the packers encourage short cuts and unsanitary conditions in order to avoid wasting money.
While the workers perpetrate this contamination of the food supply, Sinclair does not blame them for their actions. The workers are so abused themselves by the system that they do not have the power to change the conditions of the factories. The public became so upset over the abuses of the industry that the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by Congress and was soon signed into law by President Teddy Roosevelt.
Art and Propaganda
In an essay from 1925, Sinclair writes, "All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda." Sinclair is honest and upfront that his writings have a specific purpose: to influence people to act in a particular moral way. Sinclair believed this ideal of writing was exemplified by Tolstoy, who is briefly mentioned in one of the novel's closing chapters.
The Jungle is the best American representation of this belief in the role of art as propaganda. Sinclair believed that art is not created simply for the sake of creating something beautiful in the tradition of previous ages. A novel should make specific moral claims of how people should behave. In the case of The Jungle, Sinclair uses vivid scenes of violence and despair to illicit specific emotional responses from his audience. In this way, his novel becomes a method of propaganda. Sinclair believed that all art works in this way, even if the artist does not intentionally mean for it to be used as such.
The Jungle Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Jungle is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.