Preying on the Immigrant Experience: Sinclair’s The Jungle
During the industrial revolution in America, many immigrant families migrated from countries in Europe and Asia in hope of finding a better life in the land of the free. However, when they arrived by the boatload, they were met with poor working conditions and wages that were nearly impossible to live off of. The immigrants suddenly found themselves working, slaving away with little or no choice on when they would be forced to work because they needed the money so desperately to feed their starving families. This sad state of affairs is reflected by the main characters in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. Jurgis and his family found themselves entrapped in the corruption of American society, unwilling to believe that America was anything but the land they had given up their old lives for.
Society taking advantage of the naive immigrants began very shortly once Jurgis’s family began the migration to America. Money was a very important factor in the immigration of many foreign families, for without it they would have an almost impossible time settling into their new home. However, various con artists wait patiently to prey on the innocent immigrants as they make their landing in America. “There was an agent who helped them, but he got them into a trap with some officials, and cost them a good deal of their precious money” (Sinclair 24). Most immigrants knew nothing about the country, so “it was easy for a man in a blue uniform to lead them away, and to take them to a hotel and keep them there, and make them pay enormous charges to get away” (24). The confused Lithuanians knew no better than to follow when they were told to, thus allowing predators to take advantage of the foreigners for their own personal gain, disregarding the strong social values the families share. The law called for essential information to be displayed in America, but nowhere does it say that it should be in Lithuanian or any other language. This allows for the corrupt American society to exploit the ignorance of the immigrants.
Many of the families who immigrated to America in the early 1900’s were uncultured to American society and because of this, they were easily tricked. When Jurgis and his family look for a house to buy in America, they are easily swindled by smooth-talking realtors. The family notices an ad in the paper for what seems to be the perfect house they need for just what they could afford. At just twelve dollars a month and three hundred down, the family pounces on an opportunity to call Packingtown their home. The ad “even quoted ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ and made bold to translate it into Polish” (47). This parallels with Jurgis’s observation in the beginning of the book, where no one bothered to translate the rate card outside the hotels into any other language. The real estate companies took the time to translate the home add into Polish in order to catch the eye of and take advantage of the naive immigrants. Realtors claimed that the house was brand new, although it had been simply repainted after the previous tenants had failed to pay their monthly fees. Blind to this fact, the presumably happy family moves into anew house, unknowing of what surprises were to come. After visiting a Lithuanian neighbor, they learn that the builders “used the very flimsiest and the cheapest material, they build the houses a dozen at a time, and they cared about nothing at all except the outside shine” (69). The realtors and house builders took advantage of the naivety of the immigrants to sell houses with the “idea that the people who bought them would not be able to pay for them” (69). Once the tenants failed to make a payment on the house, they would lose the house and all they had paid on it. This encounter with the fellow Lithuanian neighbor foreshadows the family’s inevitable fate. When Jurgis demands to know the hidden expenses on the house, he learns that they must pay between sixty and seventy additional dollars a year for insurance, water and taxes.
Families who immigrated to America during the period of industrial revolution were often taken advantage of in the workplace. Immigrants in the town of Packingtown, Chicago were exploited and dehumanized while working in the infamous packing plants. The desperate need for a job in Packingtown caused lines of hundreds of starved men to accumulate outside the doors of the plants. The owners of the packing plants knew how high demand a job was for immigrant families, so they treated their workers like they were less than human. The men were forced to work “with furious intensity, literally upon the run–at a pace with which there is nothing compared except a football game” (41). The extreme debt that the immigrants were forced into by the predators of Packingtown made it impossible for them to slow down while working, in fear that they might lose their job. The fear of losing their job was the driving factor for the immigrants to keep working at the packing plant. A loss of a job would mean that they would become a burden to the family, something no man at the time could bear the thought of. If the production line began to slow, then the plant would bring in workers who earned large wages and worked incredibly fast. Strategic positioning of these workers allowed for the speed of production to increase, although most workers were so exhausted that they were working as robots. The packing plants took advantage of the immigrants the hired, and treated them as though they were replaceable cogs in the great Packingtown machine.
In The Jungle, Jurgis and the other immigrants living in Packingtown were constantly taken advantage of by past immigrants who were higher up in society. Whether it was on the trip to America, during their first house purchase or in the workplace, the immigrants had to be on the constant lookout for scoundrels looking to swindle the families of their precious money. Immigrants were pushed to the breaking point, and finally had to decide whether to stick to their good morals and continue to be pushed around by the bullies within their ociety, or to lose sight of their identities and become one with the corruption of America.
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