If I had known what this book was about I probably wouldn’t have put it on my list. However, I am happy I’ve read it, after all. At least the knowledge that I missed it while in college won’t weigh on my conscience any longer.
The positive things about The Jungle are, obviously, the writing style, which is great, and makes the experience of reading about extremely unpleasant material not only bearable, but actually enjoyable; the immense work that went into researching the subject, and of course, the reforms in the meat packing industry, which followed publication of this book. I read that the author actually worked undercover for a meatpacking company for seven weeks to get a better understanding of what was it actually like. I am sure he also read Das Kapital as well for the final chapters…
The book details the miserable life of the family of Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago in the early twentieth century. Whoever can work, is working in the meatpacking factory in different capacities. Whoever can’t, is biding their time until they grow up or get their health back and start working. And no matter what these people do, they can’t get above the poverty line. Everything is going bad for them. If they get but a moment of respite, you, the reader, can be sure it will turn into ashes in the next chapter. I can count less than five positive moments in the whole book. Now, I am not a person, who is only reading novels with a happy ending, or avoids negative subjects. I was a teacher of Russian Literature, for heaven’s sake, depression is my dear friend and comrade (a nod to Upton Sinclaire, as it might be), but even in Dostoyevsky’s novels the narrative doesn’t consist solely of tears, deaths and betrayals. I guess in 1905 negativity was called realism.
The main characters, Jurgis and Ona, are extremely likable, so reading about all the horrible things that befall them over the course of this exercise in misery and futility called life really pained me. From the moment they arrived to America everything is going wrong for them. You might ask why a bunch of village people, who lived on their farms in the woods of Lithuania all their lives and have no other skills except working the land and raising the cattle thought they can make it in the big city like Chicago without knowing the language and understanding the rules of the new country. It’s not like they were starving back home. Life wasn’t easy for them, of course, but they could at least put some thought into their future before immigrating. Believe me, I know all about immigration, having gone through similar trials and tribulations. As it was, they condemned themselves to the life of unskilled workforce, which is not pretty in any time period. For me, the premise was a little shaky. The love story between Jurgis and Ona is very touching, but it adds very little humanity to the book. It’s first and foremost a socialist pamphlet, and I’ve read enough of those in the University back in Ukraine.
I felt that I couldn’t relate to most of the characters, mainly because the reader doesn’t get to see the inner workings of their minds. Events take precedence over the inner world in The Jungle. The only person, whose inner monologue we can kind of follow, is Jurgis, and even for him, it’s hit or miss. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that his mantra “I will work harder” was later repeated by Boxer in Animal Farm by George Orwell, with even more depressing results.
As a matter of fact, all the while I was reading The Jungle, I felt that Animal Farm was written partially in response to it. Socialist revolution, hailed in The Jungle as the ultimate salvation of the working people, which revitalized beaten down Jurgis to the point of becoming human again, makes the full circle in Animal Farm, which was written 40 years later and had the benefit of following actual history of building a socialist society in Russia, subsequent to revolution of 1917. I think a parallel study of these two books would be a great idea. Obviously meatpacking industry of the nineteen hundreds wasn’t an ideal place, and the reforms that were passed by Congress after the release of The Jungle are the proof of it, but I wonder whether it would occur to Upton Sinclair, that if he was living in the socialist society, his book would never even get published. The fact that the public and Congress have reacted to this novel could never have happened in the Soviet Union or in its satellite countries of Eastern Europe. Graft, attributed by Sinclaire to capitalist way of life was so endemic in the socialist society, it would put Scully to shame. Such is the irony of the world.
I think I don’t want to talk or think about this book anymore. The best I can say about it is that it was very influential in its time and it hasn’t aged well.
On to My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, an old friend, which I can’t wait to read again!