During the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, the major urban centers of America, like New York and Chicago, were heavily populated by a wide variety of different ethnicities. Life for the vast majority of immigrants in such urban centers was difficult, cruel and unfair. It is through Upton Sinclair??™s novel, ???The Jungle??™ that one is able to read a first-hand account of immigrant life in Chicago. ???The Jungle??™ illustrates a seldom seen image of turn of the century Chicago, by vividly detailing the massive corruption of capitalism and the unsanitary conditions forced upon the meatpacking industry. Throughout the novel, Sinclair touches upon the immigrant working class and certain aspects of immigrant culture. ???The Jungle??™ tells the story of Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus and his family as they travel to America and experience the life of the immigrant working class in early 20th century Chicago. Through Jurgis and his family, Sinclair shows the reader the trend of immigration during that time period in the United States, by detailing how the allure of the American Dream and its promises of success through hard work would lead an innumerable amount of immigrants to the shores of America only to be oppressed by the greedy nature of a capitalist society. Sinclair also shows the cultural divide between immigrants and American society through Jurgis and his family??™s struggle against the predatory nature of capitalism.
The beginning of ???The Jungle??™ is a great example of the loss of, or the changing of immigrant culture and traditions from one generation to the next. The novel opens up with the veselija, the traditional Lithuanian wedding feast, of Jurgis and his bride Ona. This opening scene details both the harshness of life for an immigrant as well as the native culture amongst the Lithuanian immigrants being shown with contempt by other immigrants. With the enormous price of the feast, as well as the certainty of many of the men having to report to work the next day, a good many of the characters, especially Ona, are troubled by the consequences of such a foreign tradition in America. ???Most fearful they are to contemplate, the expenses of this entertainment. They will certainly be over two hundred dollars, and may be three hundred; and three hundred is more than the year??™s income of many a person in this room.??? This quote signifies the cost of such a tradition from the old country, as well as the poverty suffered by many immigrants, that a simple wedding feast is such an expense even with payment from the guests.
The contempt by the young men in the wedding scene symbolizes the loss of native culture in America. With a good portion of the young men taking advantage of the feast and then simply escaping from the customary payment shows that, amongst the youth, old laws and traditions have changed. ???It seemed as if there must be some subtle poison in the air that one breathed here-it was affecting all the young men at once. They no longer cared about the laws of the veselija??¦??? The unscrupulous behaviour by these young men creates a greater burden upon the family and guests by forcing them to pay the saloon-keeper for the food and drink consumed. The wedding scene exemplifies an important aspect of immigrant behaviour, generational change. The generational change in traditions was common amongst immigrants, for example, Irish-Catholic immigrants, known for intense loyalty towards the Catholic Church experienced generational change in the form of decreased association with the Church. ???The number of Irish-Americans entering vocations as nuns, brothers, and priests has declined since Vatican II, contributing to a shortage of clergy??¦.The parish is still important in the life of Irish-Americans, but it is not the identifying feature of the urban it once was.??? While generational change in culture is prevalent amongst immigrants, in most cases it is not thorough in the fact that the original culture is erased.
With the saloon-keeper during the wedding feast, the reader is given more insight into the unfair way of life amongst immigrants. Sinclair explains how the family becomes cheated by the saloon-keeper; with the family being charged for more alcohol than what was actually consumed and charged high prices for low quality drinks. It is the family??™s inability to resist the saloon-keeper??™s prices that the reader is shown the reality of life as a new immigrant to America. The political connections possessed by such saloon-keepers would mean trouble for a poor immigrant and one is quick to realize the consequences of refusing a saloon-keeper.
During the wedding scene, the characters feared for their job security and for their welfare. Understandably, this was common behaviour amongst immigrants in America at the time. While the characters of the novel are disadvantaged in the fact they do not know English, and inevitably unable to acquire better professions, they still fear for their welfare. Amongst the Irish immigrants a fear or concern over welfare was also prevalent. ???Economically, welfare is still a major concern among Irish-Americans??¦.From their very beginnings, poverty, thrift, and saving for the future have been important.???
Through the backstory of Jurgis and his family, the reader is able to view the idea of America through the eyes of foreign immigrants. In Lithuania, Jurgis desires to make a bride out of Ona, yet does not believe that wealthy enough for her father to accept. When Ona??™s father passes away his family is left in debt, they lost their farm and had little in cash savings. It is at this point the family begins to speak of traveling to America, where they are told that wages are much higher. Ona??™s step-uncle Jonas, states that he knows of a man who made a fortune in America, inspiring the family to work to make the trip possible. This scene shows that the idea of the ???American Dream??™ amongst immigrant is a powerful allure. The prospect of a life of wealth and success in America, away from the poverty of rural Lithuania drives the family of twelve to make the hazardous journey to America. During their journey, and even upon their arrival, the family is subjected to scams and cons that result in the loss of a good portion of their savings. The loss of the family??™s money through the predatory nature of others was another risk associated with immigrating to America
The ideal of the American Dream was shared by many immigrant groups. The reasons for undertaking such a journey varied; but more often than not it was a result of poverty, religious persecution, political oppression and starvation. It was the idea of America being the land of opportunity and endless possibilities that resulted in such a large influx of immigration. Possibly the most well-known example of immigration to the United States was the large Irish influx following the Great Potato Famine 1845 to 1855. ???A massive failure of the potato crop due to a fungus??¦combined with British inaction and the colonial socioeconomic structure to produce more massive death.??? As the result of mass starvation a large number of Irish fled to America seeking opportunity and prosperity. The inherent risk for the Irish immigrants was the sheer number of them in very cramped vessels while crossing the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in many deaths. ???These ships were characterized by a death rate similar to that of the slave ships from Africa.???
Sinclair also discusses the issue of problem drinking among the immigrants. With the toil of hard work and horrid working conditions in the meatpacking yards, many a working man was enticed to relax in a saloon. Within a saloon a man would be able to warm himself and socialize, however, entry into a saloon frequently meant the purchase of drinks or removal from said saloon. Eventually the frequenting of a saloon left very little money for a working class immigrant to support his family. In the novel, Jurgis develops a drinking problem following his realization of the truth about the hollowness of the American Dream. It is with his drinking problem that the gap between him and Ona grows apart further. ???One day, however, he took the plunge, and drank up all he had in his pockets??¦.He was happier than he had been in a year; and yet, because he knew that the happiness would not last, he was a savage too.??? This example of alcohol abuse prevailed in many European immigrant groups at the time and was a cause for concern among many different groups including the Irish, the Slavic and the Polish.
Through his illustration of immigrant life within ???The Jungle??™, Upton Sinclair used the family of Jurgis as an allegory for typical immigrant life within early 1900??™s Chicago. The experiences of this Lithuanian family were experiences shared by many at the time and provide a vivid tale of the hardship and unwanted change among the early immigrants to America.