The Jungle: Upton Sinclair

This is one of those books that has been on my reading list for about forever. In a way, it is the intersection of two of my pet interests—vegetarianism and labour—and thus, worthy of reading. And yet? I never get around to reading it? Something else always pushes its way to the top of the reading list, and Sinclair and his early twentieth century classic slip down to the bottom.

But! T. gifted me with the recent-ish Penguin re-release with the terrifying cover for my birthday last year, putting me in a do-or-die sort of position. (Unread gift books tend to weigh on me more heavily than unread books I buy myself.) So when I was packing for Japan (where I am now, but I’ll be back in Canada before you know it) and I was looking through my pile of unread books for the lone English book I was permitting myself, The Jungle seemed like the perfect choice. 

And it was, in an unexpected, slightly ironic, slightly sad kind of way. As you may or may not know, The Jungle is a very pro-socialist work, depicting as it does the very sad and very hard life of a Lithuanian immigrant to Chicago who ends up working in the meat packing district. The unregulated meat packing district. Which seems terrifying and disgusting and horrifying and so many other feelings that I actually don’t have words for. But there were times when I was reading that I felt nauseous, so be warned.

In case you’re wondering, the vegetarian rumours about this book are mostly untrue. Reading it will probably turn you off meat, just in the descriptions of the slaughterhouses, but that is not the author’s intent. I’m pretty sure Sinclair had never even heard of vegetarianism. His focus was clearly the terrible working conditions of the people in the meat-packing district.

So he creates this fellow, Jurgen, who works hard and feels like he alone will be able to win in the capitalist lottery, and raise his family to be healthy and happy. But of course, that is not the way it turns out. You knew that already, right? The family’s situation just goes from bad to worse, and as a reader, you would have a very hard time believing it, if the exact same thing were not happening now. No, for reals. So little has changed. In a hundred years. In fact, the nightmare of the Chicago meat packing district of the early twentieth century has spread, if that’s even possible. (If you’re looking for proof, you can check out the recent Quantas union-busting debacle. Employers squooshing workers for a hundred years!)

Yes, we no longer allow children to work. In North America, at least. But last week, I saw one of those delightful Japanese programs that blurs the line between advertisement and program, a kind of advertorial that never declares itself to be such a thing, which was extolling the delights and virtues of a catalogue order company, and investigating just how they got things to be so damned cheap.

I’m sure you can guess the answer to that question.

Yes, Chinese factories. How did you know?? This TV program thoughtfully led its viewers through the various processes in the factory, showing off the many amazingly cheap products sold in the catalogue, and introducing the many Chinese workers doing their best for Japan. And the program tried so hard to portray them as seriously thrilled to be sewing the ends of socks together for the great nation of the rising sun. Only, no? They were not thrilled at all? They were stuck with shitty factory jobs, doing the same repetitive task from sunrise to sunset, with little pay and probably no benefits.

And I found myself wondering exactly what had changed since Sinclair wrote his socialist manifesto/novel. Needless to say, it was more than slightly depressing to realise that the answer was: not much. Not globally at least, and maybe not even in America.

Despite his raving socialism, Sinclair managed to write a very compelling novel. Maybe it is because I am already on board with the socialist cause, but I found the story engrossing. Jurgis and his poor wife Ona are just so sympathetic. And Sinclair is wise to direct his focus to the trials of a specific family rather than solely on the socialist message he was trying to communicate. It is precisely because the family he follows is so sympathetic that the reader ends up more receptive to Sinclair’s political message.

He tells their story well. Not to mention that he has an economical way of using words that evokes a startlingly real image, like “She was a Dutch woman, enormously fat—when she walked she rolled like a small boat on the ocean, and the dishes in the cupboard jostled each other.” Suddenly, I am right there with this enormously fat woman. That boat on the ocean thing is too perfect. The book is filled with such perfect descriptions, too many for me to quote here (without causing annoyance and boredom).

But as I read, I worried about the ending. I worried how Sinclair could end this focusing on socialism while making it human. And this is where the book does fall short. Jurgis ends up at a socialist meeting where some very important socialists are talking (trust me, I’m not ruining anything for you here). And talking and talking and talking. Whatever relate-ability and humanity the rest of the novel might have, the ending reads like a socialist sermon. A long, boring socialist sermon. This is the part where Sinclair realizes he might not have won you over yet and so attempts a last-ditch effort to turn his reader into a socialist. All it did for me was make me skim until the end. I do not enjoy being lectured.

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