Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is the tale of a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, and his family. Jurgis and his family move to the United States in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, only to find themselves ill-equipped for the transition in the workplace and in society in general. Jurgis faces countless social injustices, and through a series of such interactions, the theme of the book is revealed: the support of socialism over capitalism as an economic and social structure.
Jurgis learns soon after transplanting his family that he alone cannot earn enough to support his entire family, in spite of the intensity of his valiant efforts to work harder. Soon his wife and the rest of his family are working as well, all attempting to chip in to cover family expenses. However, such exposure proves itself to be too dangerous and detrimental to the Rudkuses. Jurgis becomes hardened by his negative experiences as he realizes that, in a capitalist society like the one he was living in, there is no justice. Hard work is not justly rewarded, and often times corruption is rewarded in its place. Through and through, he sees that capitalist life is not fair. Soon he is injured on the job and is forced to stay home and out of work while his mangled foot heals.
Jurgis is sidelined from work for two months, and upon his return he finds himself replaced by another worker. Desperate for a job, he takes a dreaded position at the glue factory. Hi wife is pregnant, his family is working themselves to the breaking point, and the bills are getting the best of them. Jurgis turns to drinking. Things get worse. He learns that his wife has been forced to have sex with her boss. Jurgis, in a rage, attacks the man at the Packing house and is arrested for battery.He spends a month in jail, at which time he meets Jack Duane, a character who introduces him to the “easy” life: a life of crime. Within a month of the time Jurgis gets out of jail, everyone has lost their jobs and the house they struggled so hard to keep is lost.
Soon Ona is having a child, and because of the lack of funds to pay for proper care for her, both she and the child die in labor. His son drowns, many family members have died and the remainder are scattered with no semblance of the family they once were. Jurgis takes to the country to become a tramp, but as winter approaches he knows he must return to the city – to “the jungle” – once again.
Jurgis becomes a beggar and a vagrant. After receiving $100 dollars from Freddie Jones, the son of rich Old Man Jones, he goes into a bar to get change and gets into another altercation, this time with the bartender, and is again arrested. Soon he turns to Jack Duane to enter the life of crime he had foreshadowed. Isolated from any remainders of his family, he begins to live the easy life of shortcuts and crooked paths. However, another chance encounter with Connor, his wife’s boss and seducer, brings out his true self again, the man who stands up for his moral convictions, even when it harms him to do so. After beating the man again, he is arrested and jumps bail. By pure luck he wanders into a socialist meeting while looking for food and/or a place to sleep. There his life begins a change in earnest.
He learns at that meeting what the working class can do to make a difference. Soon after he reunites with his daughter, Marjia, a drug-addicted prostitue struggling to support the family’s remains. The story closes with a happy socialist ending: Jurgis gets a job at a hotel run by socialists and seals his fate. He goes on to become an avid socialist and he, the fighter, and Marjia, the victim, pick up the pieces of their lives to make everything better.
I feel that this book is a ridiculously oversimplified look at socialism and a very sinister look at capitalism. While I applaud Sinclair’s efforts to illustrate the injustices of capitalism, socialism does not hold the simple solution to everything like it seemingly did for Jurgis in The Jungle. In truth, corruption can be found in any and every type of economic and social-political structure in existence ever throughout history and in the future. A solution to this problem? I can’t answer that one, but I know this much: socialism is not the easy answer he makes it out to be.