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In this essay I will be exploring ideas surrounding an “underworld” in The Jungle. The Jungle was written in 1906 by the American novelist, Upton Sinclair, in order to show the world the evils of the American capitalist system. Sinclair documents the journey of an immigrant Lithuanian family’s move to America, and later their realisation that they were hugely disillusioned by dreams of a financially stable life in a better country. From the outset of the novel, the notion of being dragged from happiness and hope down into an underworld of despair created by capitalism is present. The opening scene is that of a typical Lithuanian wedding, one of the few if not the only moments of pure happiness in the entire novel; Jurgis then leaves the inner city and journeys out to the country where he experiences strong nostalgia to his past life in his home country. This creates a significant juxtaposition between the lives of the characters in their current and dehumanising lives, and the escape back to a happier past. It is the well-established system of capitalism in the United States that form the “underworld” in the novel, in that it undermines the less wealthy members of the population by handing affluence to those who are already rich, leading to immense suffering and exploitation in a world of appalling conditions such as an excess of alcoholism and prostitution, child labour, crime and socio-political corruption. This “underworld” is kept concealed under the fast lifestyle of twentieth century America and the glamour of the American Dream, forcing those caught in the capitalist trap to be dishonest to survive, a vice that extends from the poorest people cheating others in competing for menial jobs all the way to salesmen lying about their wares and politicians buying the support, or votes, of their public. Throughout the novel this idea of transformation into a lesser being is portrayed, a type of dehumanisation where, in the “underworld”, men are transformed into machines to aid capitalism and create a larger profit. An example of this is Jurgis, whose initial stance for his work at the meatpacking factory is that of an honest, hard-working man, but he eventually resorts to drinking, crime and abandoning his family after being emotionally tortured; the moment of his dehumanisation is when he returns to the factory to knowingly work for corrupt men.
Throughout the novel, food is used to symbolise the evil side of the nature of capitalism, and is the lynchpin allowing the “underworld” to continue thriving. Fundamentally, food is something that nurtures the body and mind, and plays a significant role in family life such as the wedding scene at the opening of the book. The food in Packingtown is dangerous and toxic, and the cans of rotten meat neatly symbolise the corrupted American Dream; they have a shiny, silver exterior but contain a product not fit for consumption by humans. It is also important to note here that the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 was motioned almost entirely due to the public reaction to the portrayal of meat processing in The Jungle. Citizens suddenly became aware that they were part of the “underworld” they may not have even known to exist, and pushed to reform those in power who have such obvious disregard for the fact that, because of their own greed and industrialism, their workforce was being forced to forage for food in unsanitary conditions.
From the point of view of an immigrant worker, in this case Jurgis, the meat packers appeared to be akin to fate, a capital engineered to destroy all opposition and, in turn, the everyday lives of citizens. An example of this is when Jurgis first entertains notions of socialism by stating that all those who are capitalists are “equivalent to fate”. Whilst Jurgis naturally believes these people to be the hand of fate that has ultimate control over his life, he later realises that as the capitalists are immoral in their dealings with other people, there is no difference between their dishonesty and the dishonesty of the workforce. It is important to note here that there was a significant amount more people in the workforce than those in capitalist power, enabling the disregarding of the hegemony that had established itself in the place of the American Dream. The quotation that capitalists are “equivalent to fate” also shows Jurgis’ political diversity; he is as receptive to the onset of socialism as he initially was to the capitalism he was greeted with upon his arrival in America. In addition, when Jurgis truly embraces socialism, it is introduced to the reader as a more desirable alternative to capitalism; socialism is portrayed as the antidote to repair the corruption in the “underworld” caused by capitalism.
Another significant point of interest is Sinclair’s choice of title for his novel; “The Jungle” suggests something more competitive than one may immediately expect, similar to the nature of America’s capitalist underworld itself. The powerful live off the impoverished, creating a harsh environment void of any moral grounding, akin to that of a “jungle” in the Darwinian sense. This notion extends into Social Darwinism, a school of thought that became popular in the mid-nineteenth century to justify a social system where capitalists abuse their control over those beneath them. As a concept in its own right, Social Darwinism rewarded those in power whilst oppressing those who were already caught in the trap of the capitalist “underworld”, never allowing them to escape and regain a good standing in society. Sinclair opposes this notion by portraying its devastating effects through a life story of honest people, whose family lives are destroyed by influences beyond their control; he delivers a strong underlying message that a capitalist society is the most corrupt that exists.
In conclusion, the “underworld” in The Jungle is the beneath layer of the corrupt American Dream, created by capitalism. The novel is designed to portray, relentlessly, that capitalism is solely to blame for the plight of the immigrant workers who are trapped in an underworld with an unrealistic faith of the glittering American Dream. America is very much portrayed as having two distinct societal layers, those who hold financial and political power, and then the “underworld” hidden beneath the deceptive exterior of twentieth century America, where capitalism’s effects reign over the lives of everyone. This underworld is shown to the general public for the first time in this book as they would have been, for the most part, unaware of the existence of the less pleasant side of their society. A young Lithuanian family is very gradually destroyed, and left at the mercy of a social system that delivers its prejudices by banishing the working class out of sight, into an underworld that exemplifies the cruel effects of capitalism on humans.
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