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The Jungle | Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle | Themes


When Jurgis and his family move to America, they believe that with hard work and determination, they will all succeed. Yet, capitalism, immorality, and the brutal working conditions, where the weak are injured or fired, prove to be strong foes as the family struggles to realize its hopes for the future.

The Evils of Capitalism

Sinclair's primary purpose in writing The Jungle was to condemn the evils of capitalism by using the struggles of Jurgis and his family to promote socialism and to give the situation of unregulated industry a human context. Although it has been argued that Sinclair's characters exist only to serve this political message, the pain that Jurgis and his family endure is given life through their daily struggles to survive. In this political novel, each scene is carefully constructed to highlight the gradual destruction of Jurgis's dream, family, health, and future through the evil machine of capitalism. Jurgis arrives in America, the land of capitalist enterprise, naïvely believing that with hard work, he can create a better future for himself. He gives everything to this dream, working long hours in terrible conditions for low pay, yet no matter how hard he works, he simply cannot get ahead. He is exploited and taken advantage of by the mortgage company that sells him a used house while obscuring payment terms; bosses who overwork, underpay, and then abandon him; commercial businesses that take his money and fail to deliver the goods they promise; and members of his community who greedily take what they can without paying him back. Jurgis's American experience leaves him a broken man, both physically and emotionally. Every harm that befalls him throughout the novel is a direct result of money-hungry capitalists chasing wealth at all costs. At the end of the novel, Sinclair offers Jurgis (and his readers) the solution: socialism.

Social Darwinism and the Futility of Trying

The theory of social Darwinism, as promoted by Herbert Spencer, suggests that in society, only the fittest survive. The same can be said of the residents of Packingtown. The exploited workers are inundated with a steady barrage of misfortunes. All workers struggle to make money, to find a place to sleep, and to feed their families. If a worker is injured, he is simply out of work. Without work, he is without medical care or food, and before long, his home. Thousands of once strong working men have been forced onto the streets to beg for survival. Injury, illness, starvation, and even the cold kill hundreds of residents each year, and there is no pause to remember them. The capitalist machine (and the workers desperately clinging onto it for survival) marches steadily on. Only those strong enough to survive the harsh winters, brutal working conditions, and cutthroat competition will succeed. According to the theory of social Darwinism, the strong who survive better their species, as only the best, strongest genes are passed on to the next generation. In Packingtown, however, the strongest are wealthy, and they survive because capitalism serves to benefit only them, crushing everyone else, regardless of their abilities or hopes.

The American Dream

At first, it seems as if the family will achieve the American Dream: the fitter men quickly find work, they buy a house, and they enroll their children in school. Jurgis, especially, earns such a good wage that he believes he can single-handedly change his family's fate. The dream crumbles, however, when a series of accidents and misfortunes whittles away at the family's savings. Slowly, painfully, the family loses everything they have worked for: the women must work in the plants; the children must drop out of school; they lose their home; some of the children die. Corruption compounds the family's misfortune. When Ona's boss forces her into prostitution, Jurgis seeks revenge and ends up in jail, leaving the family without its main breadwinner. When Jurgis abandons the family following the death of his son, he discovers the full extent of corruption in Packingtown and throughout the city—and survives by participating in it. The injuries sustained from long work hours rob healthy men of their strength and eventually their ability to work at all. The novel argues that under capitalism, only the wealthy or corrupt survive, while the poor workers are relegated to their fate as wage slaves. The dream that brought them to America turns out to be a lie. Sinclair highlights the devastation of the American Dream at the hands of Capitalism.

Immorality and Family Values

Capitalism is an evil machine in The Jungle because the pursuit of wealth makes people immoral. Capitalism encourages people to satisfy their own greed before they consider the well-being of others. Capitalistic immorality is the driving force behind the exploitation of workers in Packingtown. People lie, cheat, thieve, and "graft" to make a quick buck. This immorality is pervasive, found in the factories, police force, jails, and courtrooms; in Packingtown, immorality is a way of life. The meatpacking factory is not only immoral with their employees, they are also immoral with their consumers, selling adulterated, poisoned, or spoiled meat. When he first arrives in America, Jurgis attempts to maintain his old world family values. He is hardworking, honest, and self-sacrificing. When he realizes these characteristics will get him nowhere, and that the only way to succeed is to abandon these morals, Jurgis sinks into immorality with the rest of his community. He becomes a career criminal, stealing, mugging, and lying. His exploits as a criminal earn him more money than he ever could have dreamed of, which he now spends on selfish pleasures like alcohol and prostitutes—but while he is financially successful, he is not happy. He has lost his family, his home, and his identity. Socialism offers him the opportunity to reclaim some of his happiness (and morality).

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