Capitalism Versus The American Dream English Literature Essay

“Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow”(Isaiah 1:17). From the sacred pages of the Holy Bible to the blood-stained genocide of more than six million Jews during the holocaust, oppression serves as the catalyst for sweeping social changes. Similar to the “case of the widow”, the plights which plagued turn of the century immigrants sparked a movement that ultimately led to the creation of Upton Sinclair’s prominent social critique, “The Jungle”. In “The Jungle”, Jurgis and his family portray the life of a struggling Lithuanian immigrant family who fight hard to survive in a world run by their capitalist overlords. Upton Sinclair successfully uses pathos to elicit the emotions that arose from the working man’s struggle in addition with scenes that depict the plights of the immigrant to beguile the American Dream and expose capitalism for the evil that it was.

The American Dream can best be described as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” To many, the American Dream stands as a gleaming example of liberty and prosperity. Scores of turn of the century immigrants, like Jurgis’s family, came to find false hope in the promises of the American dream. The sense of optimism felt by Jurgis before coming to American swiftly changed into a struggle to survive once he faced the harsh realities of the Chicago Meatpacking District. Parini captures this concept best when he writes, “The opening chapter- the marriage of Jurgis and Ona- represents the lest moment of hope and joy in the novel” (Parini 282). In Chapter Two of “The Jungle”, Sinclair dwells into the history of Jurgis’s family before they make the passage to America. Ridden with debt due to the death of Ona’s father, they immigrate to America in order make a better life for themselves.

The gospel of wealth that the American Dream promised had reached a far off land like Lithuania. Expanding on the theme of the American Dream, Sinclair illustrates the motives which cause men to immigrate to America:

“where, they said, a man might earn three rubles a day, and Jurgis figured what three rubles a day would mean, with prices as they were where he lived, and decided forthwith that he would go to America and marry, and be a rich man in the bargain. In that country, rich or poor, a man was free, it was said, he did not have to go into the army, he did not have to pay out his money to rascally officials- he might do as he pleased, and count himself as good as any other man. So America was a place of which lovers and young people dreamed., equality, and most importantly- prosperity”(Sinclair 25).

His family’s hopes for a better tomorrow rise as he recounts a tale of a man who made his fortune in America. Motivated by the untold wealth that America promised, Jurgis worked diligently to pay for a passage, so that he “could count his troubles at an end.”(Sinclair 25). Thus, the working man’s aspirations for a better future evoke a feeling of optimism and hope in the reader.

The American dream served to lure countless misguided immigrants into the cycle of capitalism. Where it serves as a motivator for the entire population, the American Dream has not changed since the days of the early twentieth century. White picket fences, primly trimmed lawns, two kids, and a nice SUV parked in the driveway; are examples of things that cause many to strive for a higher economic and social position. Jurgis, like many other Americans constantly aspired to be higher on the social and economic ladder.. The Jungle is dedicated:

“to the ‘Workingmen of America’. Into it had gone “Sinclair’s heartstick of discovery of the flith, disease, degradation, and helplessness of the packing worker’s lives the fire of the novel came from Sinclair’s whole passionate, rebellious past, from the insight into the pattern of capitalist oppression shown him by Socialist theory, and from immediate extension into the characters’ lives of his own and his wife’s struggle against hunger, illness, and fear”(Rideout 173).

In reality, the life of an American worker was a tough life. Oppressed by the capitalist pigs, Jurgis transforms himself from an optimist to a socialist. Everything after Onas and Jurgis’ wedding becomes increasingly worst. Jurgis’s battle with Capitalism marks the pages of the Jungle, voiding it of the optimism life in America promised at first.

Capitalism, in its simplest terms can be defined as: people who want to excel will excel, those who do not wish to would not succeed. A noble concept in theory, it is not so in practicality. According to Woodress, “Sinclair was writing a kind of work that might be called the reportorial novel or the novel of social protest”(Woodress 165). Sinclair’s ultimate motive for writing his riveting novel, “The Jungle”, came about from his disgust with capitalism. He wished to expose its evils; ultimately the idea that the masses are forced to work for the benefits of a privileged few.

A prime of example of the “evils of capitalism” can be seen when Jurgis is sent to a jail because he attacks his wife’s rapist, Phil Connor. The jail is described as a vile, foul place. Jurgis says that the prison is a place in which:

“there where to bunks, one above the other, each with a straw mattress and a pair of gray blankets-the latter stiff as boards with filth, and alive with fleas, bedbugs, and lice. When Jurgis lifted up the mattress he discovered beneath it a layer of scurrying roaches, almost as badly frightened as himself…They put him in a place where the snow could not beat in, where the cold could not eat through his bones; they brought him food and drink-why, in the name of heaven, if they must punish him, did they not put his family in jail and leave him outside-why could they find no better way to punish him than to leave three weak women and six helpless children to starve and freeze? That was their law, that was their justice”(Sinclair 188-192).

Even though the conditions of the jail were terrible, Jurgis was still given the things necessary for survival; food and shelter. Outside of the prison, his family who works hard to put bread on the table is forced to deal with the less than ideal conditions of Packingtown. Thus, the irony lies in the fact that a criminal is protected by the law, yet a virtuous hard-working family is left to struggle. His family finds themselves in a worst predicament once the corrupt capitalist, Phil Conner, fires Ona. Along with Ona’s loss, Teta and Marija also lose their jobs. The family is unable to support itself, therefore it struggles to survive. The once optimistic Lithuanian family becomes pawns in the relentless cycle of Capitalism. Their contributions are seen as futile; their life’s are seen as worthless.

Jurgis’s once optimist family have become yet another victim to the vicious cycle of capitalism. At the book’s climax, he is thrown into a savage prison, and from that point on his family’s economic status only becomes worst. His family failed to achieve the status quo; “the American Dream”. In reality, it is apparent that capitalists used the American dream during the turn of the century to take advantage of the abundant immigrant work force. Through the use of pathos, to help the reader identify with the immigrant as well as repetition of the evils of capitalism, Sinclair proves that social reform was a necessity. Sinclair’s message is as clear as glass; that “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”- the basis of the American dream, did nothing for the cries of the underpaid and overworked proletarian class.