Book Review – The Jungle

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

I first read this in early high school.  It was on a list of the 100 books that every high school student should read.  I don’t know that any of my friends used that list, but it was my summer activity list.  We didn’t have much money, but my mom would take us down to the library faithfully every few weeks, and I’d stock up on books from that list.  I’m not sure that many of them made sense to me at the time.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that books like The Jungle make sense to young minds in one way, and to older minds in another way.  Living life shifts and modifies your interpretive faculties.

This is a monumentally depressing book.  There’s really no other way to describe it.  Sinclair was a dedicated socialist, a fact that is made abundantly clear in the last 20-30 pages of the book, which are a not-so-thinly-veiled apologetic for socialism.  Just in case you missed his rather graphic depiction of capitalism at its worst in the first 350+ pages.

You follow the life of Jurgis, a Lithuanian immigrant who comes with his soon-to-be-bride and some relatives.  What follows is not pretty, to put it mildly.  Nobody escapes unscathed.  Nobody escapes, period.  They are ground to pieces relentlessly like the cattle and hogs they help to butcher and process.  Along the way you see graphically how capitalism can exploit and destroy the weak.  It is a critique that cannot be denied, though we are tempted to say that such instances are now more the exception than the rule, thanks to government regulation and oversight.  Yet these things exist to a limited extent even in the book, but they are just as flawed and corrupt as the system they are intended to govern.

This book is a graphic reminder that behind the glitz of advertising, there are few romantic idealizations of the workplace.  People can be and are exploited.  Abuse happens – not just sexism or racism but a more primitive, blind level of abuse that cares little who or what is abused so long as ends are reached.  I pray such instances are exceptions.

You can’t read this book without beginning to look at your food differently, particularly processed foods and meats.  As though our culture isn’t obsessed in many ways with this already, this book will push you further down that path.  It’s not just a nutritional issue, it may be a hygienic one.

Sinclair has an axe to grind (against capitalism) and therefore everything in the book serves that end.  Characters and relationships exist solely so that he can manipulate them towards his end of denouncing capitalism and promoting socialism.  Quite literally, nothing good happens in this book until the last few pages.  Moments of good and hope exist solely to be dashed to pieces.  The only hint of peace is in the last few pages when Jurgis discovers socialism.

Unfortunately, Sinclair’s faith in socialism as the savior of the working man has rarely been demonstrated as such in history.  Abuse happens in any system, political or economic.  Our sinful human nature is such that there will always be exploitation, so that tragically (if not surprisingly) Christ’s words that there will always be poor people in need of our help (John 12:8) are true 2000 years later.  I tend to think that capitalism offers greater opportunity for self-advancement than socialism.  I distrust concentrated power, particularly when that power declares itself to be the measure and definition of the public good.  I can’t deny the evils possible in capitalism, but unlike Sinclair, I see that such evils are inevitable in any system.  Anywhere you have people, inevitably you will have oppression of one form or another.  Either that or the community will be destroyed from without.

It’s not an easy book to read, from a literary standpoint as well as ideologically.  But it’s a good book to read, still.  Perhaps more so today than when I read it, when government is increasingly insisting on wearing the mantle of public protector.  Sinclair would have seen this as a good thing.  I wonder if he would feel the same way if he saw how it was actually playing out.

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