Sinclair's The Jungle from a Contemporary Critical Perspective
The traditional, scholarly approach toward literary analysis focuses solely on the structure of a literary work in order to determine both its worth and its meaning. This school of literary analysis is known as New Criticism. New Critics focus on the written work isolated from everything else because, they believe that, by closely examining the way the author uses language, one is eventually able to establish the true meaning of the work. A series of close readings focusing on the author's ability to use words is the means of appreciating and valuing works; therefore, New Critics focus on the aesthetics of literature when making an evaluation.
The aesthetics of a novel include the way an author uses elements of style, such as imagery, irony, and paradox, to enhance characters, plot, and theme. From this perspective, The Jungle is not considered quality literature. New Critics argue that Sinclair uses the form of the novel to promote his political agenda at the expense of his art. Lack of character development, inconsistency in tone and voice, and the loss of narrative at the end are just a few of the criticisms raised against The Jungle.
This lack of aesthetics mixed with an unpopular message resulted in a lack of respect for The Jungle in literary circles. Throughout most of the twentieth century, most critics considered Sinclair's book as either propaganda or muckraking — no more and no less. Most critics considered the majority of Sinclair's works of fiction in this manner; therefore, his reputation as a serious novelist was not high. However, as literary theory and critics advanced and changed, so too did the perception of The Jungle.
One of the primary critiques of New Criticism is that this literary theory isolates a work from the world in which it was created. Although focusing on the structure of a work is an important aspect of literary analysis in an educational system, this technique is inherently problematic because this isolation prevents critics from understanding the work in relation to the society that created it. More recent trends in literary theory argue that New Criticism should be the starting point rather than the end of literary analysis. Many contemporary critics attempt to re-establish literature's place in the world by focusing on the relationship between works and the culture in which they are created.
These "cultural critics" prefer to use the term texts instead of works and view their criticism as "a practice rather than a doctrine." The value of literature, for cultural critics, exceeds the actual words on the page. New Critics tend to focus on and value only poetical language whereas cultural critics focus on and value both poetical and literal language. For cultural critics, what is traditionally referred to as literature is neither superior nor inferior to the non-literary works of a particular period. Instead of literature consisting of a body of works, it consists of a set of texts that act as models for that particular culture. Texts are created within a culture and therefore must be examined within the context of that culture.
Culture is the complex means by which a society produces and simultaneously reproduces itself; texts are the means of reproduction. Therefore, texts are not only an expression of a view of a culture: They also help create that culture's view. This endless chain of events is easily illustrated by examining the historical impact of The Jungle.
When Upton Sinclair visited the stockyards in Chicago, that industrial culture provided the raw materials for his text for The Jungle (an example of culture creating text). However, when The Jungle was printed, its content so affected the reading population that an immediate outcry against the meatpackers ensued (text creating culture). Before the publication of The Jungle, the majority of the meat eating, reading public had no idea of the atrocities within the industry. Also, generations reading The Jungle 100 years after its initial publication have no idea of the horrors that existed, and for the most part, only have Sinclair's text to illustrate these horrors. The text continues to influence culture, regardless of its accuracy or immediacy.
In addition to illustrating the dynamic relationship between culture and text, The Jungle also shows the relative unimportance of authorial intention when it comes to literary analysis. Sinclair's primary focus of socialism did not take hold with readers of his own era, nor did it provide any lasting impression on future generations; yet the continued claim to fame for The Jungle is its exposure of abuse in the meatpacking industry. Instead of having just one integral meaning, texts can have multiple meanings.
Cultural critics see The Jungle as a text that is both representative of time and place as well as simultaneously having an effect on future cultures. They recognize that Sinclair's form did not adhere to traditional genres, so he effectively created his own medium. His text created a kind of power over the industry and was a means of change. Contemporary critics view literature as more than just an autonomous piece of writing isolated from the rest of the world. This does not mean that contemporary critics routinely dismiss literary style and the use of irony, paradox, and metaphor. Rather, they examine how particular texts use (or do not use) particular devices and determine how this affects the reception of a text. Some texts have universal appeal; others are limited to a particular sub-culture within a culture. But all are important. Unlike New Criticism, which tends to be an academic affair, cutting a work off from society, cultural criticism attempts to save and value literature by acknowledging its significance.