Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Jungle

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Sinclair fashioned his story around the experiences of Jurgis Eudkus, a fictional Lithuanian immigrant who arrives in Chicago with his family “expecting to achieve the American dream,” Bloodworth writes. “Instead,” the critic continues, , “their life becomes a nightmare of toil, poverty, and death…. [Rudkus] not only sees his father, wife, and son die, but he is also brutalized by working conditions in the Chicago packing houses and exploited by corrupt politics.” To dramatize his story of pain and oppression, Sinclair included some unpleasant passages on the meat-packing process itself, focusing on the diseased and chemically-tainted condition of the products manufacturers were offering to the American public.

While few reviewers dispute the remarkable emotional impact of The Jungle, many believe its “letter of fire” do not constitute great literature. Bookman’s Edward Clark Marsh, for instance, finds it “impossible to withhold admiration of Mr. Sinclair’s enthusiasm” as he describes the “intolerable” conditions in Packingtown. But “when Sinclair betakes himself to other scenes, and attempts to let his characters breathe the air of a more familiar life,” continues the critic, “it is impossible not to recognize his ignorance.” Furthermore, declares March, “we do not need to be told that thievery, and prostitution, and political jobbery, and economic slavery exist in Chicago. So long as these truths are before us only as abstractions they are meaningless.” Another “meaningless abstraction,” Marsh goes on to note, is Sinclair’s main character, Jurgis Rudkus, whom the reviewer calls “a mere puppet.” Explains Marsh “He is too obviously manipulated, his experiences are too palpably made to order, to signify anything one way or the other. Jurgis Eudkus is neither individual or type. He is a mere jumble of impossible qualities labeled a man, and put through certain jerky motions at the hands of an author with a theory to prove.”

Walter Rideout, commenting in The Radical Novel in the United States, takes issue with Marsh’s opinion on characterization in The Jungle. Remarks the critic “Jurgis is admittedly a composite figure who was given a heaping share of the troubles of same twenty or thirty packing workers with whom Sinclair had talked and the author’s psychology of character is indeed a simple one… [It is also true that during the course of the book Jurgis and the other characters] gradually lose their individuality, becoming instead any group of immigrants… Yet paradoxically, the force and passion of the book are such that this group of lay figures with Jurgis at their head, these mere capacities for infinite suffering, finally do come to stand for the masses themselves.

Several reviewers are disappointed with the book’s ending especially the abrupt switch from fiction to political rhetoric that occurs when Jurgis is “converted” to socialism. Writing in The Strenuous Age in American Literature, Grant C. Knight observes that the final section “is uplifting but it also artificial, and arbitrary re-channeling of the narrative flow, a piece of rhetoric instead of a logical continuation of story.” Rideout accepts the notion of a religious-like conversion of socialism as being “probable enough,” but declares that from that point onward The Jungle becomes “intellectualized” as political philosophy supplants Jurgis as the novel’s focus. In short, notes Bloodworth, Sinclair failed to “carry out his intentions of a heart-breaking story with imminent Socialism. Instead, he settled for an uneven story dealing mainly with proletarian experience until the last four chapters, which switch disturbingly to the Socialist movement, its leaders, and its ideas.”

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