Friday, May 28, 2010

Thoughts on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

I spent this spring reading a few American novels and would like to share some of my thoughts on them with you.  The Jungle might be a classic by now, but literary critics have had their issues with it. While reading various views on Upton Sinclair’s novel I came across the idea that the author “hijacked” his own story and even “upstaged his own characters." This option for an essay topic would explore this idea. Part of the reason for this reaction to the novel is that the characters, with the exception of Jurgis, are not fully developed and sort of peter out by the middle of the novel. The fact that the novel originally appears in serial form might be one explanation. Sinclair perhaps didn’t really know in which direction his novel was going or have the details worked out; instead, he was submitting the next segment of the story, piece by piece. Sinclair also imposes himself onto the novel, especially in the ending chapters. His role as advocate, as an activist (for Socialism), undermines his storytelling, and only his great writing ability and attention to details keep the narrative rolling along. The last chapter, it seems to me, best illustrates the author displacing the main character. The long discussion about the merits of Socialism seems rather gratuitous, and certainly utopian, while Jurgis sits in the corner mute. He’s merely an observer in a discussion that the tendentious author, Sinclair, inserted into the story to make his (Sinclair’s) case.

One way of reading The Jungle is to see it as the moral journey of one man, Jurgis Rudkus, who must overcome one tragedy and injustice after another. As I read the novel, I couldn’t help but think of two other books I’ve read: The Book of Job in the Old Testament and Voltaire’s novel called Candide. (Oddly enough, there’s a brief reference to Job and Voltaire in The Jungle!) How does Jurgis handle the onslaught of adversity? What is evil in this novel and how does it affect the lives of people? How does Jurgis overcome the death of loved ones, the awful working conditions, the crooked dealings of others, and the corrupt mixture of politics and big business? I think Sinclair’s depiction of Jurgis is realistic in the sense that the protagonist has and doesn’t come out in flying colors—at least not until he sees the light of Socialist at the end. He becomes worldly wise, takes up a life of crime and becomes a cog in corrupt politics. But, as mentioned, Jurgis will find redemption in the bold promises of Socialism.