American history, its bloody uprisings and chaos submerged in a period of less than three hundred years, is mandatory for every American student despite various academic levels. However, certain events and their consequences have been conveniently left out of American history books, for the sake of evading questions surrounding horrible truths in the past. Therefore, in order to extract some truth from the corrupted records and documents ancestors have left descendants, one must look also to fiction in literature to seek out real history, not some easily corroborated version. Some novels, e.g.George Orwell’s Animal Farm or John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, are political as well as historical works that have the unerring tone of factual evidence when the information they place in their narratives is realistic enough to shock a reader into visualizing how the very despicable foundations of their country and society are built on human exploitation. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle belongs to this group of eye-opening dramas, purposely reeking of all the violence, corruption, oppression, and unpunished crime released in the United States since its beginning but especially during the very early twentieth century.
It was at this time that proletarians were already a multitude in terms of a work force, since immigrants from Europe and elsewhere in the world were pouring into the United States. Lured by false propaganda promising untold riches and countless work opportunities, all hopeful refugees thought “America” was a utopia. Instead, reality slapped them repeatedly in the face to the point of death. Driven from injustice and oppression in their own countries, the refugees were only led into another web spun from deception, lies, and the bitter life that awaited them. They were neither allowed to barely survive nor to gain anything from honest labor and escape from unbearable poverty. The times of master and slave had returned.
As if stating the disgusting horrors inside Chicago’s meat factories was not bad enough, Sinclair decided to create a fictional family based on the proletariat prototype of those times and use them as an example of how the American system affected them. It is impossible to summarize all aspects the author uncovers in his novel, since Jurgis Rudkus and his family experience everything that can be encountered first-hand, starting with their new home and ending in untimely death and despair. How can anyone describe the meat factories as completely as Sinclair did? The accidents that led to human flesh being eaten by rats or mixed into cans and sold as corned “beef” or lard; the terrible unsanitary stages the knives, rooms, killing machines, and the workers themselves were in; the overlooking of diseased meat by bribed government inspectors and the exposure of all meat to rats; the distribution of contaminated meat to the public; the long work hours and little pay for unhealthy work done by women, young children, and men covered in blood, sweat, and filth with no relief from outside temperatures during any time of the year—this is only one small part of the wide scope of The Jungle, which exposes many environments’ true natures.
As Jurgis is working in the “killing beds,” he sees the cheating, the avarice, and the use of lower connections all his life. His fragile wife Ona and her cousin are forced to work, as are her much younger siblings, and ultimately her cousin becomes a prostitute to prevent Jurgis and his relatives from losing their jobs or starving. Usury, deception, and destitution follow Jurgis and his family no matter what happens since they arrive in Chicago, starting with the purchase of a “new” house. That horrible decrepit house, re-painted again and again for newcomers to be deceived into signing a fraudulent contract that slyly commits the new “owners” to renting the house. With so many monthly payments, taxes, and other costs, the former owners can evict the residents eventually while keeping all profit. The state and federal governments are also criticized for “neutrality,” illegal purchase of votes for elections, bribery of numerous officials including “law enforcement” agencies, willful corrosion of the judicial system into a warped market where criminals can simply buy their freedom, and the real motives behind capitalism and democracy.
In the end, The Jungle points to profit. It was for profit that Ona’s boss raped and blackmailed her into submission, profit when the judge imprisoned Jurgis instead of the rapist, profit when Jurgis’ son died due to the city’s negligence, profit when thousands and thousands of people’s lives were used and then trampled on and destroyed without any scruples or compassion or humane consideration. The collaboration of the courthouses, brothels, police stations, prisons, and factories all appear so clearly in the spotlight of The Jungle next to the contrast of poverty and destitution versus exorbitant wealth, homelessness and squalor versus the most luxurious homes. All wealth described has originated from one source—the life-blood of unofficial slaves chained by a nation’s cruelty and selfishness. Even milk, bread, and regular food were artificial, created from chemicals to amass more money. Adults and even young children were imprisoned body and soul by the necessity of submitting to reality, by their own helplessness in the face of starvation, their lack of trustworthy friends, their isolation, and their fears.
However, aside from the provocative scenes exposed in The Jungle, the author strangely chose to promote socialism at the very end of the novel. The transition between the tragedies in Jurgis’ family and socialism as a solution to every problem is so abrupt and erratic that the latter really has no relevance to the overall content of the novel. Instead of admitting that there can be no idealistic solution to corrupted governments and corrupted people, Sinclair recommended yet another system of government that also proved in time to be heavily flawed. What can a modern reader take from The Jungle? The most frightening realization when reading this massive explosion of facts is that the situation in the United States nowadays is shockingly familiar to the world of The Jungle, especially the behavior of “local law enforcement agencies,” the extent of corruption, and the bureaucratic government’s extended debts.
The power of The Jungle can crumble any foolish optimism about America into dust; it can make everyone re-assess the environment that surrounds them. Despite who may have truly written it, The Jungle is a captivating historical novel that grasps politics and history and never lets go of either. It is a written form of the naked truth about the United States that every American citizen and potential American citizen must read.
Part 1: A necessary read for anyone still optimistic about the United States; Part 2: A necessary read for anyone still optimistic about the United States; Part 3: A necessary read for anyone still optimistic about the United States; Part 4: A necessary read for anyone still optimistic about the United States, Examiner.com