Friday, September 3, 2010

On "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair ***

My original post became corrupted, and unfortunately I've only been able to salvage the last half of it.

This book surprised me in part because it was much more a critique of capitalism than an expose on the meat industry. To be sure, the latter forges a good chunk of the novel, but it's not the novel's core. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, given Sinclair's own political leanings.

The story is one of an immigrant named Jurgis. It starts with familiar social realism and with troubles caused by society. But halfway through, another surprising thing is that it becomes a kind of adventure story. Jurgis becomes a crook. He becomes a politician. He becomes rich. He becomes poor again. This is supposed to be a critique of the system, but mostly he seems able to do these things because he gives up caring about anyone other than himself. I suppose that that is Sinclair's point--that capitalism is a system that rewards the selfish and that does so haphazardly or sort of haphazardly in a survival of the fittest sort of way. Only by banding together can common men survive.

Sounds great. But the elements of my doubt creeps in in those moments when Jurgis seems to be doing so materially well. If he reaps so many rewards by being selfish, why--except he fall--should he bother to help other men? What's more, many of the troubles in the book comes from Jurgis's own shortcomings. Had Sinclair stuck to Packingtown's abuse and Jurgis been less active in bringing his downfall had Jurgis remained wholly a victim all the time there might be more case of the Socialist cause. It would also be a less interesting novel.

I'm made to wonder why men so given to exploiting each other, so given to using others to gain power and prestige, would suddenly become wholesome individuals in the face of socialism. And this, going back to my twenties, was the problem I had with my coworker's abiding faith in the Revolution. No fan of capitalism myself, socialism, because of our own human nature, doesn't seem a viable alternative. What's needed is a turn in the human heart--one like what the socialists hope for. You can read this novel online here at Project Gutenberg.

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