Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Jungle

Title: The Jungle
Author: Upton Sinclair
List: #45 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

I think The Jungle is one of those books that everyone who was educated in the United States either heard about or read in high school. I remember it being thoroughly discussed in my American History class as the start of “muckraking” journalism and as the book that led to reforms in the food industry. What I didn’t realize was that, instead of being a journalistic non-fiction account of the Chicago Stockyards, the book is a work of fiction that describes the struggles of a family of Lithuanian immigrants.

The novel starts out on a high happy note describing the whirlwind of commotion that is the wedding of the main character, Jurgis, to his wife, Ona. However, even in that scene of happy tumult, there are signs of stress as Ona worries about the expense of the wedding feast, and the other female family members worry about the guests who came and ate but did not contribute any money to the new couple during the money dance.

After this scene, the author jumps back in time to describe how Jurgis and Ona, with Jurgis’s father and nine of Ona’s family members immigrated to America with hearts full of hope and minds dreaming of comfort and riches. Unfortunately, they soon find that all is not rosy in America because high wages are joined with high prices, and they fall prey to the wiles of con men. Their lack of English and overall illiteracy, as well as a series of bad decisions, contributes to a growing debt that they cannot possibly pay off.

Added to these troubles is their naivety when it comes to the world of the Chicago Stockyards. For example, Jurgis is strong and gets a job almost immediately, and he thinks that this strength will continue and allow him to keep his position. However, he has not reckoned with the practice of “speeding up,” whereby the owners and supervisors insert new, fresh workers into the line to speed up the whole process until everyone works faster and faster and faster. As can be imagined, this practice leads to less careful work, which leads to accidents. Even Jurgis is not infallible and ends up twisting an ankle, which does not heal properly, and which causes him to miss several months of work. And, of course, after that he is much weakened and cannot get his old job back. Not to mention that without his wages, the family sinks even further into debt.

Because they are spread in various jobs throughout the stockyards, Jurgis and his family also learn the other secrets of meatpacking, like the practice of using rotten meat in sausage and canning, distracting inspectors so tubercular beef and pork can be used, using the waste on the floor in meat products, and a variety of other disgusting and unhealthy practices. Everything is geared towards making the most profit for the owners. And if someone in any position of power can get a little extra money, for example when he has an opening and the opportunity to hire someone, he takes it.

And so the family suffers along, and even sending the children to sell newspapers and Jurgis’s sick and elderly father to work does not help their situation. It also doesn’t help that no one gets sufficient nutrition because everything they buy, including milk, get doctored so that the products do not have close to the nutritional content that they should have. And because of all these odds stacked against them, family members start to die of causes that, if there was adequate nutrition or money to pay for doctors, would have been preventable.

The novel is a stunning exposé of conditions in the Chicago Stockyards and the food industry in general. It also reveals the plight of new immigrants to America in the early 20th century and the difficulties they faced in escaping the wiles of con men and companies designed to take advantage of naïve and illiterate immigrants. And as you can probably gather from this description, the wedding scene in the first chapter was the only high note of the novel and everything was gloom and doom from that point forward… until the end, when Jurgis finally discovers a reason to hope. But despite the somber theme, the novel is definitely a must read, if only to understand why we have and need government regulation of the things we depend upon to nourish ourselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment