Book #8 of the 2015 Reading Challenge – The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

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Read a book by an author you’ve never read before. Read a book you own but have never read.

This is by far one of the most heartbreaking novels I’ve ever read!

I had it on my bookshelf for years without ever getting around to reading it. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of old books as they tend to put me to sleep with long narratives and lack of dialogue. So far the old novels I’ve read have all been slow to progress and if the characters have strange and hard to pronounce (and hard to remember) names, then forget it. I’m not in the mood.

I thought The Jungle would be that kind of novel when I started reading it and struggled to keep track of the Lithuanian names, but I kept reading and I’m glad I did. This story follows a Lithuanian family that migrates from their homeland to America – the land of freedom and where dreams come true.

This is such a common theme – has been for such a long time and still is. At least I can relate as I think of the stories my mother used to tell me of how she grew up in her native Philippines while dreaming of one day getting out of there to have a better life. And I can relate as I think about my own childhood, growing up in a small town with the “American Dream” tucked safely inside my very own heart. I never realized mine, though.

For the family in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the American Dream soon turns into a nightmare.

It was sickening, like a nightmare, in which suddenly something gives way beneath you, and you feel yourself sinking, sinking, down into bottomless abysses. As if in a flash of lightning they saw themselves – victims of a relentless fate, cornered, trapped , in the grip of destruction (page 69).

They meet no shortage of obstacles as they try to settle down in “Packingtown” – Chicago’s meatpacking industry, where Jurgis (the main character), Ona (his wife) and Marija (Ona’s cousin) get various jobs in the meat industry that is so cold, cruel and gruesome. Upton’s detailed description of the horrible slaughterhouse where Jurgis works is so rich that you can almost feel the heat emanating from the floor and the stench of blood tearing at your nostrils.

All day long the rivers of hot blood poured forth, until, with the sun beating down, and the air motionless, the stench was enough to knock a man over; all the old smells of a generation would be drawn out by this heat – for there was never any washing of the walls and rafters and pillars, and they were caked with the filth of a lifetime (page 101).

Packingtown is a place that’s rotten to the core and it seems that everyone who comes there, sooner or later end up rotting themselves. The wages are low, jobs are scarce, competition is tough and there’s no lack of swindlers and people quick to take advantage of the weaker souls. It’s a world where the rich and powerful have everything while the workers constantly lives on the edge as they desperate try to balance between life and death. The Lithuanian family is exposed to every possible kind of element that may make them or break them. The summers are hot and merciless, the winters are cold and devastating and in between they are constantly fighting for money and food in this horrid jungle.

It might be true, then, after all, what other had told him about life, that the best powers of a man might not be equal to it! It might be true that, strive as he would, toil as he would, he might fail, and go down and be destroyed! The thought of this was like an icy hand at his heart; the thought that here, in this ghastly home of all horror, he and all those who were dear to him might lie and perish of starvation and cold, and there would be no ear to hear their cry, no hand to help them! It was true, it was true, -that here in this huge city, with its stores of heaped-up wealth, human creatures might be hunted down and destroyed by the wild-beast powers of nature, just as truly as ever they were in the days of the cave men! (page 116)

The story of the Lithuanian family is so tragic that it’s almost unbearable to read. Just when you think that they’ve finally managed to catch a break and that a bit of luck has finally come their way, the tides turn and they are ripped right back to the bottom of it all. In the end Jurgis looses everything before he finds his salvation in the ideology of Socialism. We never really know, however, what becomes of him as Sinclair seems to spin off in another direction and uses the last 3 chapters to focus more on Jurgis’ new found socialist world that he forgets (?) to end the tale of Jurgis properly (?). So, it’s an open ending. One that could very well go either way – as has been Jurgis’ fate throughout the entire novel.

The gates of memory would roll open – old joys would stretch out their arms to them, old hopes and dreams would call to them, and they would stir beneath the burden that lay upon them, and feel its forever immeasurable weight. They could not even cry out beneath it; but anguish would seize them, more dredful than the agony of death. It was a thing scarcely to be spoken – a thing never spoken by all the world, that will not know its own defeat.

They were beaten; they had lost the game, they were swept aside. (…) They had dreamed of freedom; of a chance to look about them and learn something; to be decent and clean, to see their child grow up to be strong. And now it was all gone – it would never be (page 136).

Sinclair is a marvelous writer and there are so many passages that will leave you feeling like you’ve been punched in the stomach – so many that you stop to re-read a second time.

There are too many to mention here. My suggestion is to READ this book and, luckily, you can easily find it online (e.g. at Project Guthenberg’s website www.gutenberg.org if you don’t already have it or choose to buy it.

 

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