For days I thought my pick was going to be The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien. In that most tragic of epic tragedies, the noble and incredibly tough hero Túrin Turambar fights relentlessly and vainly against a most terrible curse laid upon him by the devil Morgoth. Many evils befall him, and almost all he perseveres through and conquers, but in the end all he loves and all that was ever good in his life is taken away. Briefly he finds peace in the love of a woman who remembers none of her own past nor any of his. In the end, he dies by his own hand after her suicide, because they both had just discovered they were brother and sister. Depressing stuff.
But then I saw this book on my shelf and realized, simply, that there were just a few reasons why it makes me sadder than Tolkien’s brutal tragedy.
This book is The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair.
I actually like and admire it, to some degree, although no one (least of all I) would have guessed so before I read it. Published in 1906, it tells of the struggles and tragedies of a Lithuanian immigrant, a young man named Jurgis, as he tries to start a family and make a living in the slums of Chicago. He fails, through little fault of his own, in the most painful ways possible. It hurts because he is such a likable, naturally honest man – you want him to be happy and good, and feel that he deserves it. Though he is an immigrant with poor English, Sinclair makes him a full, relatable character whose motivations you can always understand. He also wants very strongly to be a good person, but events seem to conspire to pull him into bitterness and anger. He resists as well as he may, but not always successfully.
The most famous aspect of the book is the horrible scenes dealing with the Chicago meatpacking industry, in which Jurgis works for a time. In 1906 there were no regulations on the food industry, and the working conditions were unbelievably horrific; workers were frequently mutilated, and sometimes died, and little was done to clean up after them, keep the food clean, or improve safety. The scariest thing is that after the book came out, a federal investigation verified Sinclair’s research – it was all true! That any human beings would have allowed this state of affairs is shameful, disgusting, and very sad. Fortunately, the book led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
The meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast. (132)
Sadder still are the personal travails of Jurgis and his family. The woes pile up: economic, financial, health-related, the horrors and dangers of the workplace; he could maybe have bore them as long as his family stayed strong, but insults and humiliations begin coming their way, and then he makes the mistake of assaulting his wife’s boss for molesting her, and all falls apart. When his wife, and then young son, die unneeded from sickness and accident, Jurgis breaks, and my heart broke with him. He runs away, fleeing filthy, murderous Chicago, his mind a wreck boiling over with the conflicting emotions of his heart. He begins to harden himself, trying to employ social Darwinism to become a survivor, and…
So he went on, tearing up all the flowers from the garden of his soul, and setting his heel upon them. (203)
That quote gets me every time. It shows not only the extent of Jurgis’ anguish, but also how the human soul simply does not have the strength to make itself happy and good against all the forces of a fallen world. Nursing anger turns it into bitterness, and bitterness destroys its bearer. As he roams Midwestern America looking for transient work, he descends into vice and immorality, all the while “writhing and suffocating in the mire of his own vileness” (211). He knows he is degenerating morally, and he hates the fact, but he has no savior. He turns to crime for awhile, making some successful and powerful criminal friends who get him money and a job as a thug, and he tries to convince himself that now he is happier, because he is not as vulnerable as when he had a family to love. But even that falls apart, for crime is not as glamorous as it first seemed.
But saddest of all is the happy ending.
Sinclair, justly horrified at the conditions of the working class and immigrants, felt that the only solution was socialism, and he makes the Socialist Party the savior of Jurgis. Our poor Lithuanian man, whom we readers have come to love and hurt for, is comforted and led astray by socialist rhetoric, and the book ends with him, happy, strong, and inspired, as he listens to a long and provocative speech by one of the socialists that is nothing but pure propaganda. It is probably the only moment in the book that doesn’t ring true. Everything else in The Jungle is written with a documentarian’s eye for realism and nuance, and most of it works, but here Sinclair gives into his political passions and leaves the complexities of his story and characters behind. We’ve seen Jurgis cheated by political groups with fine rhetoric before, so why should he trust the socialists? Sinclair gives no reason but political sophistry.
To make it worse, the socialist speaker uses the name of Jesus as a source of inspiration, calling my Lord the original socialist revolutionary. So Jurgis, who so clearly and desperately needs the saving grace of Christ, now thinks that he is following Him by following socialism. Sinclair wants us to think that Jurgis is now safe, but he isn’t, and that makes me sad.