Friday, August 6, 2010

By accident I hit them in the stomach.

Current book: The Jungle
Pages read: 294 - 346 (end)

Wow, total failure to update yesterday. I meant to have an apologetic post about not having time, and I forgot even to do that. Well, you ought to be used to it by now. (Um...I mean...I was keeping you on your toes?)

Anyway. Jurgis gets rescued off the street by Marija (well, basically - it's complicated, but you don't need the detail), an old family friend, who, as it turns out, is working as a prostitute. She manages to support a family that way, though, so at this point, who is Jurgis to judge? (She's also addicted to morphine, which many of the whorehouses feed to their employees to keep them docile and trapped. Lovely.) Marija makes sure Jurgis gets fed and tells him to go back to the in-laws and they'll be happy to see him, but he's so ashamed that he won't, and instead wanders around until he ends up in a political meeting. He intends to go only for the warmth and shelter, but actually listens to the speaker, instead. The speaker, it turns out, is a socialist. Jurgis is transformed by his words and the concept of socialism (and boy, do we get to hear the whole concept explained in the pages and pages of the speech that are included). He's a complete convert, and carries the message home to his family and friends. He lucks into a job as a hotel porter, working for another socialist, and spends the next months canvassing for the socialist party. The book ends by illustrating, through the election, the growing socialist trend in the United States, and promising that it will be a great, sweeping movement that will soon control the country.

Well, obviously, the book has been a buildup to the idea that socialism will correct America's ills, and, though Sinclair was overly optimistic about that, it's not entirely incorrect. There were certainly socialist tendencies to the measures passed in subsequent years concerning welfare and working conditions. Even the idea of the minimum wage was based on those ideas. However, it was hardly the huge and sweeping movement that Sinclair predicted.

The great irony of the book, of course, is the Sinclair included the information about the impurity and filth of the meat-packing industry as something of a sidenote. He must have meant for it to be a revelation to his readers, but it was clearly supposed to be secondary to the revelation of the insane and horrific working conditions of those men and women employed by the industry. The information about the food that they were eating, however, was what hit American readers the hardest. It wasn't long afterward that the government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, as well as meat inspection legislation. Sinclair was aware of the fact that he missed his real goal, and was pretty bitter about it.

Do I think it's one of the greatest 100 novels of all time? Not really. The writing is clumsy and verges on hysterical, the plot is simply a device for communicating a political message, and, in the end, its impact of disgust is what distinguishes it the most. It is not unlike Atlas Shrugged, even down to the fact that it ends with pages and pages of political treatise masquerading as an event in the story - except, of course, for the fact that they are espousing completely opposite beliefs. I'd like to put them next to each other on the shelf and see if the covers start to burn on contact.

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