A Question Of The Validity Of The American Dream In The Jungle Novel
The book The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is a story about an immigrant Lithuanian family come to America to follow the American Dream. The center of the story revolves around Jurgis Rudkus, who came to America with inspiration and the idea that jobs were plentiful, freedom was free, and the whole world was his oyster. Recently married, Jurgis gets a job in Chicago, Illinois, the meat packing hub of the nation. Soon he begins to discover that his fantasies of living in America are far from coming true. He is continually put out of a job, scammed by Englishmen, taken advantage of, and treated like scum. He undergoes many hardships that multiple times leave him homeless, starving, penniless, and sometimes in jail. He occasionally forced to do things out of desperation that are completely against his values such as fighting, stealing, and allowing a family member to prostitute herself. Also, many times he finds himself in the face of death. Whether it’s the loss of his wife and children, or he himself is dealing with his own mortality, death plays a role as a constant fear and driving factor, yet also a sweet relief from the world of pain and suffering. Through his struggles we see what it was truly like for the average man living in America during this time and we get a glimpse at the everyday hardships they had to face.
The biggest theme examined is getting a true glimpse of America. Through Jurgis’ eyes we get to see the true immigrant experience and the fabrication of the American dream. In the very beginning, when told of all the greatness he could achieve in America, Jurgis is beyond excited to go. Even while watching the pigs be slaughtered and cut up (a metaphor for their own lives), every last inch of them being used up to serve capitalism, Jurgis doesn’t see the darkness soon to come. He trusted in the American dream, he didn’t see how it could be just a sham, and he had thought “that this whole huge establishment had taken him under its protection, and had become responsible for his welfare” . The
truth about it all was the complete opposite, however. The truth was that capitalism lived to serve those on top, those with the power. He and all the other immigrants and lowly wage-slaves would never get a chance to experience this so called protection, for the machine would just use all of his energy and life force, grinding as much use from him like its pigs. In the process of truly discovering what America was like he would constantly be told to work harder and faster, the women in his family would be sexually taken advantage of by those in power, and even while trying his hardest he’d always be subject to losing his job. Though we didn’t get much of a glimpse of Jurgis’ life before he came to America, it make the reader wonder whether or not he would’ve fared better in his own country. In his own country he was struggling, he had little money but worked hard. Though he wasn’t free, he never mentioned that he ever had to undergo starvation and homelessness living in his own country. What he’d been told about America seems to be a lie. This was the true America that he lived in, not the fairytale he had been told.
Another major theme is that of power and corruption, and how the author believes that socialism is the end to it. It appeared that those in power were only in power because they were corrupt, and those who actually worked hard, kept to themselves, and tried to be an honest man were always stuck at the very bottom. Upton Sinclair stated that this was because, even though the amount of wage-slaves far exceeded that of their superiors, the wage-slaves were not “class conscious”. He said that the proletariat, the lower class of slaves to the capitalist class, were “a thousand and one in numbers, but they were ignorant and helpless, they would remain at the mercy of their exploiters until they were organized” . This divide between the powerful and the powerless raises the question of how to overcome it? How does one feel at peace in a world with no upward mobility, where the powerful maintain complete control over your life and you have nowhere to go and nothing to do but stay a slave of the system? The entire system is flawed, he argues in the book. Those running the country, the politicians, the judges, the police, and the businessmen, they are all corrupt and trying to maintain their power by keeping those like Jurgis down. There is no way for anyone in poverty to obtain any sort of power that those above him have without becoming corrupt himself. For example, when Jurgis sells out his union during their strike in order to become a boss in the factory, or when he rigs elections for the high and mighty politicians. This common theme of power and corruption argues that all power leads to corruption absolutely, and Upton Sinclair believes that socialism is the only end to this sort of corruption.
On the other end of the spectrum from all the depression and depravity, there stands alone one thing to get them through all of it. This is the theme of family. Family plays a big role originally in Jurgis’ life. He comes to America with a huge group of family members, both extended and immediate, and refuses to separate from them during all of their hardships. For the most part they stay together, the support each other. While Marija is busy saving for her wedding, she’s more than willing to dip into those savings to support the family when they hit a rough patch. The women and children, despite protests from the men of the family, are also happy to work contribute. Through most of the novel, it is rare that any of them desert their family. Jurgis, however, does end up deserting the family. Originally, it was against his will when he is locked in prison for fighting Ona’s boss, but after the loss of his wife and his children, it becomes more permanent and deliberate. This furthers the argument that capitalism is evil. Capitalism is seen as a force that could break apart even the strongest of familial bonds and obligations. In the end, however, Jurgis is able to work up the nerve to go home and the family welcomes him back with open arms, despite him abandoning them in a time of need. And through socialism, the future of the family becomes bright in the end, with somewhat of a future ahead of them declaring “Chicago will be ours!” .
Upton Sinclair’s story forces us to question the validity of the American dream, whether or not it is worth all the blood, sweat, and tears to achieve it. He made us realize, through The Jungle, that even the hardest working men and even the most deserving of men don’t even attain it in their lifetime. His perspective of living during the Industrial Revolution teaches us the truth that we don’t always learn in our American history classes. While we are taught that it is a period of economic growth, abundant jobs, and American triumph, we rarely get to see those who had to be left behind and buried in order to make it happen. It shows the true spirit of the working man and can even be related to a lot of the struggles they come to face even today.
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