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“The lash which drives [the modern slave—the slave of the factory, the sweat shop] cannot be either seen or heard… This slave is never hunted by bloodhounds, he is not beaten to pieces by picturesque villains, nor does he die in ecstasies of religious faith. His religion is but another snare of his oppressors, and the bitterest of his misfortunes; the hounds that hunt him are diseased and accidental, and the villain who murders him is merely the prevailing wages. ”
In his evocative exposé detailing the evils of the Chicago meatpacking industry, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair launches a searing indictment of wage slavery. According to Sinclair, the Beef Trust ruthlessly exploited workers, subjecting them to a grueling fate worse than that experienced by chattel slaves. Compelled by sheer survival with no hope of earning a profit, Industrial Age workers had no choice but to stand in line for months praying to be selected for work in one of the filthy, overcrowded factories that filled the Chicago stockyard district. Upon being chosen as one of the “lucky few” to secure a job, workers toiled under the most base labor conditions for wages that could barely support a single person, much less an entire family. Despite being stripped of any human rights and driven like slaves, workers could never rest assured that their job position or less-than-minimal wages were protected. Sinclair asserts that American capitalist industrialization promotes a legal form of slavery in which the working class is forced into intolerably inhumane labor conditions in order to merely subsist. He constructs his indictment of wage labor through his protagonist’s rude awakening of the cruel system, his frequent analogy of workers to animals and the packing district to a grand machine, as well as by providing a litany of the unfair labor practices that kept the trusts in business.
The novel chronicles the story of a Lithuanian immigrant laborer called Jurgis, who has recently moved to the Chicago stockyards with high hopes for prosperity in the land of opportunity. Jurgis’ perspective on the relative prosperity quickly changes when guests at his wedding defy customary donation to the groom and bride because they cannot part with their hard-earned wages on which they depend for survival. He says,
“There are able-bodied men who work from early morning until late at night, in ice-cold cellars with a quarter of an inch of water on the floor . . . who cannot earn three hundred dollars in a year? There are little children here. . . who can hardly see the top of workbenches. . .who do not make half of the three hundred dollars a year, and perhaps not even a third of it. . . Bit by bit these poor people have given up everything else, but to this [sum] they cling with all the power of their souls.”
Jurgis’ once optimistic outlook on life in America quickly changes to despair as he begins to understand the desperate condition of labor. He notes early on never to be a minute late to work as he will be “docked half a day’s pay,” and never to be more than a minute late or he will be “apt to find his brass check turned to the wall, which will send him out to join the hungry mob that waits every morning at the gates. . .” Sinclair makes it abundantly clear that workers have no rights or stable wages because employment opportunity is so limited, thus giving the tyrannical bosses free rein to mistreat and abuse their slave-like workers. The working class had to accept this fate in order to survive. Sinclair notes,
“Such were the cruel terms upon which their life was possible—that they might never have nor expect a single instant’s respite from worry, a single instant in which they were not haunted by the thoughts of money… This in truth was not living; it was scarcely even existing… They were willing to work all the time, and they could not do anymore. When people did their best, they ought to be able to keep alive.”
Ultimately, after being driven like slaves and treated like animals, workers lose their capacity to live and become automatons focused on simply surviving.
In order to illustrate the miserable condition of labor in the stockyards, Sinclair often constructs parallels equating workers with animals. He addresses those who challenged the plight of workers and the cause of the unions claiming workers were trying to “restrict the productive capacity of the factories.” Sinclair responds in saying that no one really understood the message of the unions; the “editors of newspapers, and statesmen, and presidents of employers’ associations and universities” didn’t understand that “what the unions were trying to do was to put a stop to murder.” He goes on to explain,
“They were slaughtering men up there just as they were slaughtering cattle; they were grinding the bodies and souls of them, and turning them into dollars and cents.”
Sinclair saw the Packing district as a machine with the workers as expendable, changeable parts. He describes Jurgis watching the men work on the killing floor, “marveling at their speed and power as if they had been wonderful machines;” Sinclair then notes, “it somehow never occurred to one to think of the flesh and blood side of it there,” the workers weren’t regarded as human. Perhaps this was the reason for the bosses’ unconscionable exploitation of them. The men were not rewarded for continued service to the industry no more than for diligent, hard work. Sinclair says, “the man who minded his own business and did his work—why they would ‘speed him up’ till they had worn him out, then they would simply throw him in the gutter.” Sinclair reiterates this point when he claims that winter served as a mechanism to filter out the weak; he says, “All the year round they had been serving as cogs in the great packing machine, and now was the time for the renovating of the machine.” This suggests Sinclair’s perspective that the capitalist industrial society that revolved around these large corporation trusts was predominately concerned with productivity and minorly if at all, concerned with the plight of the workers whom they saw as dispensable parts of the production line.
Sinclair’s most recognizable and shocking condemnation of wage slavery came in the form of a detailed catalog of depraved labor practices interwoven throughout the narrative. He attacks child-labor when he claims “three-quarters of children under fifteen years of age are now engaged in earning their livings in this glorious land of freedom.” Next Sinclair vividly describes the plight of the elderly through a brutally descriptive narrative of an old man whose feet were nearly burned to the bone by residual acid on the floor of his workplace. Sinclair also spends a great deal of his novel describing the horrific working conditions of every factory including the unheated killing floors. He says, “On the killing-floor you might easily freeze . . . You were apt to be covered with blood, and it would freeze solid.” His graphic descriptions serve as the most powerful and convincing persuasive tool for prompting reformative action. Sinclair even recognized the articulacy of his detail when he said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach.” Because the labor system was so internally flawed that it functioned very much like slavery, working conditions were not monitored to ensure safety or protection of workers. Under the system of wage slavery, production superseded workers’ wellbeing.
Upton Sinclair’s indictment of wage slavery was enormously effective as can be gauged by the federal reform legislation it provoked. Following its publication in 1986, President Theodore Roosevelt initiated the Pure Food and Drug Act to rectify the ills depicted in The Jungle. Upton Sinclair’s success can be attributed to his brilliant combination of political discourse with the perceptive narrative. Rather than plainly listing his grievances, Sinclair interjected them sporadically throughout a well-crafted, interesting and intriguing story that enhanced the public’s capacity for empathy because they were able to identify with the plight of the protagonist. In a powerful summation of immigrant workers’ tragic tale, Sinclair writes:
“They were beaten; they had lost the game; they were swept aside. It was not less tragic because it was so sordid, because that it had to do with wages, and grocery bills, and rents. They had dreamed of freedom… and now it was all gone—it would never be.”
Additionally, he complements his political harangue with an artistic element of cunningly crafted literary parallels that elicit sensory reaction on top of intellectual reaction. Finally, the most notable achievement of Sinclair’s brilliant novel was his extensively explicit descriptions of the horrifying working conditions facilitated by the wage slavery system. Sinclair’s novel is a permanent account of an era of indignity in American history when greed overpowered goodwill and violated the central tenets on which the country was founded.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle: The Uncensored Original Edition. Tucson: See Sharp P, 2003
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