Critical Essays Jurgis' Journey through Hell to Socialism


Toward the end of The Jungle, when Jurgis stumbles into the socialist meeting that later changes his life, many critics complain that his transformation is too swift, too sudden, too unbelievable. Yet, that evangelical, emotional, immediate conversion is exactly what Upton Sinclair intended. Jurgis is able to accept immediately what he hears and to convert fully to this new line of thinking because he has already followed a pattern of believing in things and having these things betray him. By the time Jurgis converts to socialism at the end of The Jungle, he has no other options. He has been longing for someone or something to provide him with answers to what is wrong with the world. He is unable to follow Marija's acceptance of the way of the world, but has nothing to counter her arguments until he finds the rhetoric of socialism. Although Jurgis does not pray, socialism is the answer to his prayers.

It is no coincidence that Sinclair mentions Dante in Chapter 9. In The Divine Comedy, Dante's masterpiece, readers join the poet's quest for salvation. Dante's Comedy, like The Jungle, begins in despair and ends in bliss, takes a realistic view of human nature, and is written in practical and not poetic language (Italian not Latin). The Comedy is a journey through the land of the dead, and similarly, Jurgis journeys through the hell of the industrialized urban jungle. Both The Comedy and The Jungle are meant to be read on both literal and allegorical levels, as poet and packer both search for salvation. At the end of their journeys, Dante and Jurgis find paradise, Dante's in heaven and Jurgis' in socialism.

In addition to Jurgis' life in America being a symbolic journey, the religious implications throughout The Jungle are apparent. Dante travels through hell in order to reach redemption. Throughout The Jungle, Jurgis is searching for something to believe in, to provide a purpose for his life. That is what religion provides people. In the beginning, Jurgis puts faith in himself and his own work ethic. From the days in the Lithuanian forest to his wedding night, Jurgis vows "to work harder." This belief in his ability to be solely successful and responsible carries him for quite a while. In addition to his belief in himself, Jurgis believes in the American dream. His faith in himself and his new country lasts only so long; eventually, reality catches up with him, and he realizes he cannot do everything himself.

At times, Jurgis puts his faith in his family, allowing his relationships to sustain him. When he is unable to work, the only solace he finds is with his wife and child, but Ona betrays him and their love (so he thinks) and soon after, their son dies. After losing the two most important people in his life, he decides again to rely only on himself. This time, though, his faith in himself is not as a worker but as an abuser of the system that has, for so long, abused him. He turns to alcohol but finds no comfort. Then he turns to a life of crime. For a short time, Jurgis believes that cheating the system is the answer. This neither works nor leaves him fulfilled.

Throughout his journey through the jungle, the judicial system, the economic system, and his personal moral system all fail Jurgis. Ironically, no real mention of a religious strength exists. Early on, a priest vouches for the legal age of Stanislovas, but that is the extent of Jurgis' religious life. The primary reason for this exclusion is that American democratic socialism embraces the teachings of Jesus. In essence, Sinclair presents socialism as a new religion. Sinclair completes this extended metaphor by comparing Jurgis to the disciple Paul. Both men have a religious epiphany. Jurgis' sudden conversion and immediate espousal of socialism serves as his baptism, and like all new converts, he seeks to share his good news with others.

Throughout The Jungle, Jurgis searches for answers, for something that can provide guidance for his entire existence. Everything that he believed in earlier in his life fails him, so it is no wonder that when he experiences an alternative that dismisses everything he previously embraced, he is immediately attracted to it. Socialism is the answer to all the questions and problems Jurgis has, whether he knew it or not. This is made quite clear when it comes to the issue of alcohol. Capitalism leads men to drink; a drinking socialist causes his boss to fire him.

The final chapters of The Jungle serve as an intellectual inquiry into this newfound religion. When Jurgis is converted, Sinclair needs to provide the theology for both the new convert in the book (Jurgis) and the new converts who read the book (all readers). This is one of the reasons why the final three chapters of The Jungle have no real narrative and read more like a treatise.

Readers may notice that Sinclair sows the seeds of socialism throughout the text — through characters like Tamoszius and Grandmother Majauszkiene and events such as socialists running for office. However, until Jurgis is ready to embrace the message, (a sinner only needs to recognize his sin); merely hearing the message will do him no good. Everything else must prove to be fruitless before Jurgis is willing even to listen to something so contrary to his former way of thinking and his former life. Ironically, like all new religious converts, Jurgis is unable to convince everyone he has found the truth. His family members need their own epiphanies.

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