The Jungle

Posted by Happy Landings - November 7, 2010

“But there was no place could go in Packingtown, if she was particular about things of this sort; there was no place in it where a prostitute could not get along better than a decent girl. Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old time slave-drivers; under such circumstances immorality was exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it was under the system of chattel slavery. Things that were quite unspeakable went on there in the packing-houses all the time, and were taken for granted by everybody; only they did not show, as in the old slavery times, because there was no difference in color between master and slave.” (104)

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a horrific depiction of the costs of capitalism. The Rudkus and their crew come to America– as many immigrants do– with big dreams . Being(mostly) able-bodied and young, they have the sense, in the opening chapters, that any injustices they face- the swindling in New York, for example- will pay off. Each character’s idealism is cruelly taken away from them. Ona Ludkis’s fall from grace seems the most dramatic. From the opening chapter, her youth is constantly emphasized: “Ona’s cheeks are scarlet, and she looks as if she would have to get up and run away” (11). She is not weak in spirit but she is fragile in her youth and uncomfortable in her skin. When she is first introduced, her primary concern is the comfort of her wedding guests. Her husband, Jurgis’s, introduction to horrific industry in the meat plant filled with almost human sounds of slaughter, while unpleasant and foreboding, still appears like a situation that could be overcome. As a worker for Miss Henderson, Ona is not indiscriminately or equally mistreated along with fellow workers. Her innocence is palpable. Among prostitutes and under the thumb of a madam, Ona is looked at scornfully. This is the ugly side of industry wherein Ona becomes a sort of scapegoat. These women and Miss Henderson are unable to see themselves as victims of an unfair system because, perhaps, to see others having less is enough to sustain one’s pride and to not have to admit to abuse and exploitation. In this passage, the appearance of economic freedom and social and economic mobility in America which attracted the Jurgis’s in the beginning, is exposed as just that: appearance and artifice, a lure. Their innocence and hope were preyed upon. Women like Ona are turned into commodities and she is targeted in a way that renders her most vulnerable, she is targeted for her morality.

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