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The Art of Representing the Other

January 12, 2009


Merits and Faults in The Jungle
Twentieth century writer, Upton Sinclair, uses the novel format to convey his
opinions of the interplay between capitalism and the worker. America in the 20th century was
a changing ground. Immigrants were arriving in thousands to work in American businesses.
Sinclair wrote The Jungle with the intent to prove to the American workingman that
Socialism was the solution to the evils of capitalism. Though its meticulous descriptions of
the meatpacking industry caused many to see the work as a journalistic expos, the work is
nevertheless to be assessed as a novel. Sinclairs success as a writer is debatable. Although
Sinclair is particularly successful when using setting as a microcosm the vices of capitalism,
his aesthetic literary limitations are evident by the inefficient results due to his narrative
perspective, tendency to speak through his characters, racist depiction of African Americans,
and his abrupt, complete focus to Socialism at the end of the novel.
Sinclair uses his initial description of Packingtown to foreshadow the eventual fate of
the family and expose the readers to the evils of capitalism. Sinclair describes the landscape
as, It was a study in the colors now, this smoke; in the sunset light it was black and brown
and gray and purple. All the sordid suggestions of the place were gone-in the twilight it was a
vision of powerit seemed a dream of wonder, with its tale of human energy, of things done,
of employment for thousands upon thousands of men, of opportunity and freedom, of life and
live and joy (31). Sinclairs use of imagery makes this scene come to life. The sunlight
distortion of the color of smoke represents the deception monopolists use to attract

newcomers. His use of dream of wonder is foreshadowing the destiny of immigrants. They
come from their countries, healthy, optimistic, and ready to work as hard as they can. They
have the will and strength to achieve, but fall prey to all the hidden tricks in the capitalist-run
city. Hundreds of animals pass through Packingtown every day. The process is so well
established that these animals are readily processed and promptly replaced by more. These
animals are taken here and have no idea what is going to happen to them. Similarly,
immigrants come to Packingtown with little knowledge of the trickery and toil that awaits
them. Sinclair describes the butchering process as, It was all highly specialized labor, each
man having his task to do; generally this would consists of only two or three specific cuts,
and he would consist of only two or three specific cuts. the floor was half an inch deep
with blood, in spite of the best efforts of men who kept shoveling it though holes; it must
have made the floor slippery, but no one could have guessed that by watching the men at
work(40). Sinclair describes the method used by the company to process animals prove how
capitalists are also destroying their employees. The mechanization of labor is a process that
dehumanizes every man. By giving a specific task to each man, the company is able to easily
replace every position since little skill is needed to carry out each task. A worker is simply
one piece of a greater entity. The fact the floor is covered with blood represents the toil that
workers like Jurgis, endure. Both processes, the butchering of animals as well as the physical
and emotional degradation of men, dont have an obvious cause. However, both are caused
by the greed of capitalists. Sinclairs use of setting to convince the reader of the evils of
capitalism is effective because his detailed, vivid depictions are memorable and credible.
Sinclair uses concrete examples to explain to the reader abstract concepts such as greed and
dehumanization.

Sinclairs prompt and vague narratives give little insight to the reader of the novels
development. For example, the arrival of a season like winter in Packingtown brings about
unemployment and furthers the familys afflictions. Sinclair describes this period as, There
were weeks at a time when Jurgis went home after such day as this with not more than two
hours of workThere were many days when the total was less than half hourThe general
average was six hours a dayThe men were at the mercy of the cattle (86). Sinclairs use
of numbers and direct, simple sentences creates a monotonous tone and offers little to his
intent of expressing suffering. The author fails to effectively convey the woes of the family
since he is not offering the reader any dialogue to show how the characters themselves are
coping with the situation. Summary perspective not only distracts and removes the readers
from the story but also makes it hard for the reader to follow with the elements of fiction
such as rising action and climax, since there are so many events being summarized. The futile
use of narrative perspective is more evident when juxtaposing it to a scene where Sinclair
uses dramatization and other elements of fiction to develop his characters as well as create a
climax in the plot. One example is the scene where Jurgis confronts Ona and makes her
confess her whereabouts. This particular scene demonstrates the success of character insight
and detailed, illustrative description. Sinclair writes, Then he clenched he clenched his
hands and took a step toward her. Why do you lie to me?I saw you get off the car. Where
were you? It is as if he had struck a knife into her. She seemed to go all to pieces. For a half
second she stood, reeling and swaying, staring at him with horror in her eyes; then with a cry
of anguish she tottered forward, stretching out her arms to himFurious gusts of emotion
would come sweeping over her, shaking her as the tempest shakes the trees upon the hills
(144). Sinclairs use of similes, personification, and careful descriptions of Onas and Jergiss

physical gestures creates a plausible, melodramatic scene in the readers mind. The reader
can also sympathize with Jurgis and Ona since their rage and anxiety have reasonable
grounds. The reader learns new aspects of Jurgis. Although he is a hardworking, loving, and
honest, a lie can turn him into an insensitive, rash, and violent man. The scene also shows
Ona as a fragile, apprehensive, and emotionally unstable, rather than as a simple, working
wife. Sinclair has an array of opportunities to dramatize as well as vividly depict his
characters throughout the novel. However, he makes little use of scenes where individuals
reveal themselves by their gestures or dialogue with other characters. Perhaps this stylistic
methods greatest fault is that it doesnt allow the author to develop the characters.
Sinclair uses the characters in the novel as a medium to convey his political agenda,
rather than for a literary purpose. Sinclair makes no effort to create round, believable
characters that develop as the novel progresses. Rather he creates overly simplistic
characters, which puts him at ease when claiming Socialism is the only resolution. Sinclairs
prime vehicle is Jurgis. Walter Rideout suggests, Jurgis is admittedly a composite figure
who was given the share of some twenty or thirty packing workers with whom Sinclair had
talked, and the authors psychology of character is indeed a simple one (491). Sinclair
creates an overly attractive Jurgis. Jurgis is young, physically strong, hardworking,
optimistic, and devoted to helping his family succeed in their new country. It is has hard for a
reader to believe that all that disgrace can fall upon a man who does everything that is in his
power to better himself and his family. No matter how hard Jurgis works, terrible events fall
upon him and his family. He becomes a tramp, a criminal, a strikebreaker, and a bum. At the
end of the Socialist speech, Jurgis is said not to be quite the same man. Rather than having
Jurgis explain why this is the way he feels, Sinclair simply attributes his characters emotions

rather than letting the characters show their feels in forms of dialogue. Jurgis doesnt filter
events and information through his own subjectivity. He is simply Sinclairs instrument.
Sinclairs description of African Americans shows his flaws in representing collective
action. Sinclair describes these workers as, The ancestors of these black people had been
savages in Africa; and since then they had been chattel slavesthe men were for the most
part ignorant country negroes, the nameless diseases of vice were soon rife (260). Vice is
very prevalent in the stockyards well before the arrival of the black workers. There exists
rape, election fraud, child labor, prostitution, and all sorts of vices. Sinclair describes the
negative qualities of the black workers with such contempt, which makes his racism clear.
Jurgis as well as most newcomers from Europe are also ignorant and come from the
countryside. Rather than focusing on their ignorance, Sinclair focuses on their hard working
nature by meticulously and vividly describing how this newly arrived white immigrants work
in the stockyards. Sinclair continues, And then at night, when this throng poured out into the
streets to play fighting, gambling, drinking and carousing, cursing and screaming, laughing
and singing, playing banjoes and dancing! (260) Sinclair associates these black workers
with vice, immorality, and criminality. Sinclair doesnt assign names or individual
personalities to these workers, which causes the reader to see these black people as a
collective entity. He associates these negative characteristics to African Americans in general.
The early American labor movement preached a sort of white socialism. These black
workers come from similar backgrounds as to those from the Eastern Europeans. However,
Sinclair dramatizes them plight of the European immigrants and underestimates the woes of
the black worker. At the end of the chapter, Sinclair describes violence against a black worker
by simply stating that a scab that wondered into Packingtown fared badly. This concise

description of the black workers fate is a far cry from the gruesome description given when
Jurgis and the other white immigrants are injured at work. Sinclair makes no effort to see
these strikebreakers as human beings in their own right. Sinclair wants the reader to
sympathize not with all the workingmen of America but the white workingman. This is
ironic, since Socialism preaches equality in the working class.
Not only doesnt Sinclair fail to cogently integrate Socialism into the story, he also
fails to convince the reader of Socialism as an alternative to capitalism. After hearing the
Socialist speech, Sinclair describes Jurgis as, He had never been so stirred in his life- it was
a miracle that had been wrought in him. He could not think at all he was stunned(293).
By Sinclairs words, it is evident that he meant this scene to be a turning point in the story
since Jurgis has now found hope in Socialism. However, Sinclair doesnt prepare the reader
for this change in the story. The fact that Sinclair switches from writing a novel with Jurgis as
the protagonist to writing completely about Socialist propaganda is illogical. Sinclair also
fails to convince the readers of the future of Socialism. As in capitalist, there exists
superiority in the Socialist party. Though the Socialists refer to the workers as comrade, a
sense of exclusiveness is evident when analyzing the Socialist speech. A Socialist speaker
speaks to the masses and declares, For I speak with the voice of the voiceless and have no
comforter! Workingmen, workingmen-comrades! Open your eyes and look out about you!
You have lived so long in the toil and heat that your senses are dulled, your souls are
numbered(291). The speaker is quick to make a distinction between him and the workers.
In these Socialist speeches, the speaker first starts by asserting that the workingman has been
oppressed, thus degrading him. Sinclair meant for Jurgis to find happiness or at least an
escape of his horrible life when joining the Socialist party. Even though Jurgis does join the

party and he is treated like a man and not an animal, Jurgis is simply a follower. When Jurgis
first hears about the union he disapproves of it because he thinks that everyman should work
hard. When he does join the union, he is not a very active member. He is most effective when
he is handling bribes and involved in illegal business. Even in the closing chapters when
Jurgis is fully convinced of Socialism, he completely active. The dialogue between
Schliemann and Lucas does nothing to further the plot and does not include Jurgis at all.
Sinclair puts his words into the mouth of Lucas and Schlirmann and thats the sole purpose.
Though Sinclair does an excellent job portraying the ills of capitalism, his
shortcomings in writing The Jungle are evident. Sinclairs sole purpose was to create apiece
that would convince the working class that a new economic system was necessary. His
political agenda undermined his literary agenda.

Works Cited
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Norton and Company, 2003.