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Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”: Failure as Propaganda

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    Upton Sinclair has famously remarked, “All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda. ” These words are especially befitting for Sinclair’s most famous novel, The Jungle. Sinclair’s novel follows the devastating collapse of an immigrant Lithuanian family as a result of the ruthless practices of capitalism. Thus, The Jungle is a severe critique of capitalism, and it possesses the intention of persuading readers to adopt the views of the socialism.

    With this objective in mind, the book has been heavily classified as a piece of socialist propaganda by many critics. Sinclair’s goal to convert readers to socialism failed for the most part, however, but the novel did help pass landmark legislation dealing with food safety conditions. The Jungle as a piece of socialist propaganda ultimately fails as the result of various factors including Sinclair’s biased argument against capitalism, structure and focus of the plot, and the overall credibility of the story.

    The Jungle is clearly a piece of propaganda to convince readers to adopt the views of the Socialist party, and Sinclair wanted readers to recognize his argument by identifying the inhumane forces of capitalism in society. As a piece of propaganda, The Jungle employs the technique of “Pinpointing the Enemy”. This technique attempts to simplify a larger, more complex situation by representing both sides of the argument with a group of people, and it views the situation in terms of clear-cut right and wrong.

    The Jungle fits the description of this technique in the view that the Packingtown leaders represent the corrupt capitalists, and Jurgis and his family come to embody the argument for socialism. Sinclair’s novel is not overly complicated, and one can distinguish that he views capitalism as the major problem in society while crediting socialism as the best solution to the problem. In order to make an argument against the merciless forces of capitalism, the novel demonstrates how the family structure is broken down by the corrupt, capitalist-run Packingtown.

    Sinclair formulates a plot in which every disastrous event that occurs to the family is directly associated to some failure in the capitalist system. By correlating these events to show the injustices of capitalist practices, Sinclair blames the collapse of Jurgis’s family to these failures in the system of capitalism. Starting with the death of Old Dede Antanas as a result of the unsanitary working conditions, the family suffers a tragic demise as they fall prey to the brutal conditions of their surroundings.

    Apart from developing a plot structure to highlight the failures of the capitalist system, Sinclair also uses other techniques to expand on his argument against capitalism. One of these techniques is known as free and indirect discourse. As noted by Christopher Taylor in his article “Inescapably Propaganda”, “Sinclair uses free indirect discourse in two ways. In many instances, the narrator paraphrases information accredited to a character but does so while maintaining an ironic distance from the character’s ideas” (Taylor 173).

    In using this technique, the narrator speaks for Jurgis, declaring, “All that a mere man could do . . . was to take a thing like this [the slaughterhouse] as he found it, and do as he was told; to be given a place in it and share in its wonderful activities was a blessing to be grateful for” (Sinclair 40–41). Free and indirect discourse such as this gives the reader a much larger understanding about particular issues than if they were to be explained by the novel’s characters.

    Sinclair’s opinion is also utilized in other techniques that Taylor has observed, “[he] frequently employs the plot of apprenticeship, though his protagonists are educated not about their own characters but about the nature of global capitalism and the possibility of sweeping reform. This kind of plot, even without overt commentary, forecloses certain interpretations as it leads us inexorably towards the knowledge about capitalism that Sinclair wants us to have” (Taylor 170).

    As a result, Sinclair presents us with a narrow understanding of his own view on capitalism, and these techniques allow the narrator to “render expert opinion” (Taylor 171). In doing this, it is obvious that the argument becomes more biased towards the solution of socialism. Now that we have established the novel as a piece of propaganda and explored some of the techniques used in developing an argument against capitalism, one must analyze how these factors account for the overall effectiveness of the novel’s goals.

    In order to be persuasive as propaganda, there are certain criteria that must be met. By examining different aspects of these requirements, a person can analyze whether or not propaganda is effective. It is important to note that these necessities of persuasive propaganda are not set in stone, but they are what most people would call ‘common sense’. The Jungle is an example of propaganda that fails to achieve its goal, and various factors play into the failure of novel as socialist propaganda.

    As earlier presented, Sinclair’s use of free and indirect discourse along with his plot of apprenticeship allow him to present an argument against capitalism in his own terms. The techniques employed by Sinclair, however, give a very biased argument in which readers are not readily willing to accept. In recognizing the novel’s overall biases, readers can acknowledge Sinclair’s integrity to be jeopardized for the sake of strengthening his argument.

    At times, especially with the plot of apprenticeship, Sinclair’s explanations for Jurgis’s knowledge about socialism are forced and unclear which causes the reader to become skeptical about the facts and opinions of socialism. This is just one reason the novel’s argument for socialism is inhibited. Most people will agree that the power of the novel lies in the first 27 chapters, in which Sinclair outlines the destructive forces of capitalism on the Jurgis and his family.

    This part of the narrative exemplifies the oppressive nature of capitalism by using articulate detail surrounding Packingtown and its corruption. Sinclair’s eye for detail in the conditions surrounding Packingtown is so repulsive, however, that the focus of the reader is drawn to these descriptions and away from what he is trying to accomplish. Although people recognize Sinclair’s evaluation of the ruthless capitalism on family structure, they are taken aback by the grotesque description of the packing plant conditions that their attention strays away from the novel’s overall argument.

    Because of this lack of focus on the assessment of capitalism, the whole argument against capitalism is weakened, and this plays an important role in inhibiting the success of the propaganda for socialism. Other circumstances must be taken into account while analyzing the failure of The Jungle as socialist propaganda. In order for any piece of propaganda to be successful; both sides of the argument need to be believable. The Jungle arguably falters in this area while referring to the order of events that befall Jurgis and his family.

    In the course of a couple of years, Sinclair’s plot leads the reader to experience the death of Jurgis’s father, son, and wife along with Maria’s descent into morphine-addicted prostitution. The conditions of the real-life Packingtown undoubtedly lead to deaths and problems in families, but Sinclair’s plot seems to serve as a worst case scenario for the family. As a result of the manipulation that Sinclair uses in devising the story, the credibility of his argument against capitalism seems to diminish.

    It only makes sense that propaganda will fail to persuade people if the argument against the problem is seen as unbelievable. Another main component surrounding the failure of the novel as propaganda lies in the structure of the argument. The goal of the book was to influence people to adopt socialist ideas, but it is not until the last four chapters of the novel that socialism is even introduced. Before the point of Jurgis’s discovery of socialism, the story consists of Jurgis and his downfall due to the sadistic nature of capitalism.

    Functioning solely as an unambiguous argument for socialism, the last four chapters of the novel significantly break off from the narrative. This unevenness of the narrative also hampers Sinclair’s argument for socialism because the story becomes unfocused and abstract to the ideas previously identified in the novel. Apart from the unevenness of the story, Sinclair’s chapters about socialism fail to provide any individuals to identify with as opposed to the argument against capitalism which provide the reader actual experiences of the effects it has on Jurgis and his family.

    After examining multiple factors, we can account for the failure of The Jungle as propaganda due to these circumstances. Sinclair’s biased insight to capitalist forces and his manipulation of the plot undermine the realistic nature of the story, and the credibility of the argument against capitalism is weakened by these techniques. On the same note, the argument for socialism is repressed because it breaks away from the narrative and becomes vague that leaves the reader feeling confused and lost.

    But most importantly, it is interesting to observe that Sinclair’s gifted use of disgusting detail describing the meatpacking plants actually act against the goal of his novel. The book is still remembered over a hundred years later, not because of its achievements in winning socialist followers, but because of the results it produced on food safety laws. Sinclair has famously announced the limited effect of his book by stating, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach. “

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    Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”: Failure as Propaganda. (2017, Apr 02). Retrieved from

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