The Jungle

There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside.

The Jungle is one of those intimidating books that I felt I had to read — I was curious about the cultural implications, the hallowed ranking it has among other literary works, and the supposedly shocking subject matter. The copy sat in my bookshelf for years before I finally worked up the nerve to break up the fiction/comedy jag I’d been on and get fucking real with it.

This book is fucking real, but not exactly in the way I’d imagined. Yes, the descriptions of the meat plants in Chicago are brutal and nauseating, but those passages didn’t affect me nearly as much as those that detail the lives of the immigrant workers themselves. This line, specifically, is what pained me the most: “A man might work full fifty minutes, but if there was no work to fill out the hour, there was no pay for him” (p. 91). It encompasses everything you need to know about the futile existence of the working class at that time. Jurgis Rudkus, our battered protagonist, isn’t even really a guy to root for. Over the course of the book, he makes so many horrible, hot-headed decisions that lead him down incredibly obvious, destructive paths. And yet his tale is so deeply intriguing, so enlightening, and so curiously written that he’s impossible not to follow down those paths.

Upton Sinclair’s writing style is very dense, written from this very specific, omnipresent, lightly coddling point of view. He somehow captures the naivete of the Rudkus family without ever making them seem stupid, yet he doesn’t excuse any of their actions, either. Here’s an example, in which the wonder of the newspaper strikes the family for the first time: “There was battle and murder and sudden death — it was marvelous how they ever heard about so many entertaining and thrilling happenings; the stories must all be true, for surely no man could have made such things up, and besides, there were pictures of them all, as real as life” (p. 207). And here’s one of how advertising affected them: “In innumerable ways such as this, the traveler found that somebody had been busied to make smooth his paths through the world, and to let him know what had been done for him” (p. 58). It’s sad, really, that the printed word was taken so literally by all of these people, that they bought so easily into the housing scams, the useless products, the sensationalist headlines, but why shouldn’t they have? Coming from Eastern Europe, they viewed America as the territorial embodiment of a saviour, and they trusted it wholly.

I actually expected myself to be bored with the tone of the book, but it only got more exciting as I kept reading. Though Sinclair’s style was mostly comprised of that straightforward, couple-extra-words-there style, he’d occasionally unleash a beautiful flourish. Here’s a favorite passage, highlighting the Rudkus family’s instinct for survival and complete, utter tolerance for suffering: “Perhaps he ought to have meditated upon the hunger of the children, and upon his own baseness; but he thought only of Ona, he gave himself up again to the luxury of grief” (p. 191). The guilt Jurgis felt for mourning his own wife — the “luxury of grief” — is something that doesn’t really exist in the U.S. We wallow in grief here, even now. Probably more now than ever. We let it consume us. We have a grieving process. Jurgis felt he was practically debasing himself, thinking about his late wife.

As I mentioned before, Jurgis is kind of an idiot, bumbling around in a world of staggering dumb luck, but he changes his mind so often and heeds so many different opinions that you kind of have to respect the guy for being open (despite his generally conservative demeanor). At one point in the book, after his wife dies, he ditches the rest of the incredibly hard-working, crafty family to become a wanderer and survive at a new pace. As he acclimated to the lifestyle, he noticed that his health and moods would come in waves, and he struggled to redefine his comfort level. “This happened to him very time, for Jurgis was still a creature of impulse, and his pleasures had not yet become business” (p. 218). I love the way that’s phrased; I think it’s difficult for most people to realize that their instincts for fun or pleasure might actually be beneficial.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that the book concludes with a proud, demonstrative shilling for Socialism. You can see it coming from miles (pages?) away. Aside from recounting lolling, drawn-out speeches by various leaders, Sinclair does a convincing job of showing how well the movement met the needs of an admittedly gullible person like Jurgis. Early on in his discovery of Socialism, Jurgis notes the fervor of its followers: “There was a look of excitement upon her face, of tense effort, as of one struggling mightily, or witnessing a struggle” (p. 296). He was pulled in by this zealous, unabashed display, by the seeming kindness of the group, by the common goal of freedom they all seemed to share. “That was the nearest approach to independence a man could make ‘under capitalism,’ he explained; he would never marry, for no sane man would allow himself to fall in love until after the revolution” (p. 327).

Socialism made him realize that he’d been doing it — life — wrong this whole time, but that he had to do it wrong in order to know how to do it right. The struggle was an important part of the movement, but Socialism removed the burden of the struggle from the individual and placed it on the whole — the ultimate comfort, the ultimate saviour. “They were trying to save their souls–and who but a fool could fail to see that all that was the matter with their souls was that they had not been able to get a decent existence for their bodies?” (p. 226). Given the circumstances, it works out pretty well.

Read it. Thank your lucky stars that you know where your meat comes from, that there’s universal healthcare, and that Chicago’s pretty wonderful now.