Impressions of the Jungle From a Social Justice Perspective
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
This paper was prepared for Social Welfare Institutions and Program, SWK, 639, Section 81, taught by Professor Yvonne Johnson
The novel, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair depicts the lives of poor immigrants in the United States during the early 1900’s. Sinclair is extremely effective in this novel at identifying and expressing the perils and social concerns of immigrants during this era. The turmoil that immigrants faced was contingent on societal values during the era. There was a Social Darwinist sentiment of “survival of the fittest” and the poor members of society were almost disregarded and not treated as human beings. Sinclair gives a descriptive account as to the moral dilemmas that the stockyard industry enforced on the immigrants, who were forced to assimilate into a capitalist society. In the event that the social service programs, institutions, laws that are available today were present in the early 1900’s, immigrants would not have suffered the degree of destitution and helplessness as depicted in the Jungle. The main character in The Jungle, Jurgis, was a Lithuanian immigrant that believed in the American Dream and earnestly believed he could accomplish great financial success if he worked hard enough. (Sinclair, 1906) Jurgris and his father (Antanas Rudkus aka Dede Antanas) migrated to America with his paramour, Ona (who later became his wife) and her family members Jonas (Ona’s brother), Marija (Ona’s cousin), Elzbieta (Ona’s step-mother) and Elzbieta’s and her six children from eldest to youngest; Stanislovas, Kotrina Nikolas, Vilma, Jokubas, Kristoforas. Upon arrival to America Jurgis, Ona and their family settled in Packingtown, Chicago which was the base of numerous meat packing plants. Initially Jurgis, Jonas, Marija worked in order to pay for boarding, food, clothing etc. Eventually it was a necessity that all of the members of the household contributed wages including the elder children (although they were only in early adolescence) in order to survive. They all became integral parts of the stockyard machine and vehemently worked long arduous hours and were paid small wages. (Sinclair, 1906) Soon it became evident that they were nothing less than paid slaves and incapable of moving up in society. According to Phyllis J. Day (2008), “This created a new ideology about the poor: Low wages would make them work longer and harder, and low wages would also keep them from buying foreign products, thus keeping money within the nation and aiding the favorable balance of trade”. (Day, 2008, p.105) Jurgis and his family could not get out of the rut, naively they purchased a home although they did not have the means to cover the mortgage, insurance, water bill, furniture bill or purchase coal for heat. Their home was poorly structured, lacked insulation and proper plumbing. Due to their will to keep their property they became slaves to their jobs without any motivation for upward mobility or pay increase. They were obligated to work every day regardless of climate, health or accidents in fear of losing their space in the stockyards. (Sinclair, 1906) As per Upton Sinclair (1906) they were “wage-slaves”. Like many other immigrants of early 20th century, Jurgis and his family had no sustainability. And although they had survival instincts they lacked survival tools. The lack of support by the government was reflective of the “laissez faire” ideology, the government’s “non- interference in business affairs.” (Day, 2008, p.116). In actuality the government upheld “successful businesses with protection for such rapacious business practices as underselling, monopolization and worker exploitation.” (Day, 2008, p.116). As per Maslow’s Theory, basic needs must be met in...