The American Dream is a belief that in America, through the freedom that the country provides, a person can achieve prosperity through hard work, dedication, and good morals. It was, and still is, a widely held belief of immigrants looking to move to America in search of liberty, and the opportunity to achieve financial and social prosperity. However, in Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, Jurgis Rudkus and his family find discrimination, poor working conditions, and exploitation runs rampant in Packingtown. Jurgis finds that the only way to succeed is to be morally corrupt, resort to a life of crime, or graft. The experiences of the Rudkus family mirrored those of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century. Immigrants headed for the cities to look for jobs, where they could find only the jobs that were least desired, and lowest paid. They also found that Americans and earlier immigrants did not want them there and exploited them for their own gain. The novel’s title, The Jungle, exemplifies the experience of the life of an immigrant in America. The employers, and wealthy pray on the new immigrants, like the Rudkus family, by exploiting and tricking them.
In the first few chapters, the Rudkus’ family belief in the American dream remains steadfast as exemplified by Jurgis’ disdain of his coworkers complains about their job. “It seemed strange, … they hated their work. They gated the bosses and they hated the owners; they hated the whole place… But Jurgis had no sympathy with such ideas as this – he could do the work himself.” Many immigrants fled their homeland during this time because of famine, for religious freedom, or poverty like the Rudkus family. Immigrants came with the promise of a job with higher wages, and a better living standard than what they had in their homeland. America was thought as the “promise land” where most, or all, their troubles will go away as long as they worked hard and held good morals, and values, the “American values.”
Sinclair uses the Rudkus family as an example of the life of an average immigrant who traveled to America in the search of the American dream. However, from Sinclair tells the American public that this is a lie. Immigrants are greeted with poor conditions, exploitation, discrimination, and wages that were not enough to live off. Jurgis finds throughout his journey that immigrants are forced to work in factories and workshops that offer only unsafe conditions, that valued efficiency and profit over individual workers. Many immigrants did back-breaking work with little pay. Immigrants could not afford to miss a day or demand better wages because the demand for labor was high in the overcrowded cities. If one missed a day of work or demanded higher wages, there was always someone willing to do the work. As another wave of immigrants came, employers would lower wages knowing that the new immigrants would be willing to do the same amount of work for lower wages in order to get a job. This would force workers to either take a pay cut or lose their job. It would also force the immigrants to work to the point of exhaustion. Their bodies would deteriorate, and when they could not do the work anymore employers would simply get rid of the old and worn out immigrants and hire fresh bodies. Worker’s Unions would usually be inefficient because if they organized a strike there would be other people seeking work. This exploitation kept immigrants form improving their living conditions as they were unable to demand better wages. As Jurgis learns throughout his journey the only way to earn a good living was to be dishonest and morally corrupted, and not with hard work. To earn a good living Jurgis learned that if he continued working while a union strike he could negotiate for higher wages. Jurgis was even able to get a promotion, not by working hard, but because he decided to work while others were on strike.
Like in Jurgis’ case, some immigrants resorted to crime and swindling, betraying the morals set by the American dream. Organized crime could be found in immigrant communities in early 20th century Chicago, like the Mafia. Jurgis because familiar with this side of America after he joined a man he met in jail in committing burglaries and muggings. An example would be the Mafia who would commit various major crimes during prohibition. Crime rates in immigrant communities would be high as well as the murder rate. Americans would look at this and stereotype all immigrants as gangsters and criminals. Other immigrants would also look down upon the poor as they thought they were responsible for the negative stereotype. Some immigrants who had been in the country for a while would take advantage of those who didn’t know English and were new to America. These immigrants, who were unfamiliar with American customs. An example of this would be the man who sold the house to the Rudkus family without explaining to them that they had to pay interest on their debt, or that they would own it only when they were done paying off the house. Scams like this or vote-buying were a better way to earn a living. All of these practices were immoral and not part of the American dream.
The Jungle, as the title represents, portrays early 20th century Chicago as a place where the week are weeded out and die while the wealthy pray on the unsuspecting and naïve immigrants. The Rudkus were susceptible to scams like Antanas surrendering one third of his pay or Jurgis the immigrants who kept falling for the house scam. Sinclair explains that the only way to succeed in America was to lie and be morally corrupt. If an immigrant was not willing to be selfish and take advantage of other people, then he would be stuck in poverty.
The pursuit of the American Dream brought people from all over the globe, like the Rudkus family, to the United states a new prosperous life. What they found was discrimination, poor working conditions, and poverty. Those who couldn’t find work resorted crime, swindling, or other immoral work, the alternative was a life in extreme poverty. This was a Darwinian society of survival of the fittest, where if one did not compromise their morals and put himself over everyone else they would not achieve financial prosperity.