The Jungle was relentless. There is no redemption, no hope, no joy in the story that is not immediately destroyed. It is exhausting to read and it feels incomplete. Even the most desperately poor find time and energy for laughter. While Sinclair worked for a time in the stockyards to research the industry, it seems he skipped the part where he lives among the working poor to understand their lives. At times the Jungle reads like an outsider’s view of what it is like to be poor: nothing but horror. It is a one-sided portrait.
I thought one of the best social observations in the book was the depiction of the wedding. There is a timeless lesson there about the confusion that immigration brings and the failure of translating traditions. Marija was intent on giving Jurgis and Ona a proper wedding. A wedding is a symbol of ethnicity, religion and class – all the important social signifiers that announce and assure us of who we are and where we belong in the world. Literature and history is full of characters and people who are left unmarried because their families cannot afford a proper wedding. It was deemed better to be an old maid than to marry in a manner unfit to your class or culture. So Marija wanted to make sure that Ona was not dishonored (by the old country’s standards) with an improper wedding. But the traditional wedding the family was expecting, where the family fronts the costs and the community pitches in at the end, had been lost in translation and the community of new Americans did not meet the old world expectations. The family was financially ruined by the event. I was trying to come up with a modern day equivalent that has faired better and I think of the very successful translation of the Quincenieras party to American culture. I wonder what other traditions have been lost by modern migration.
Whatever financial security was not destroyed by the wedding was ruined in the family’s buying of the house. That story line affected me greatly because it is such a familiar story these days with the collapse of the housing market. I could feel myself tensing up as I read. The predatory lenders, inscrutable financial documents, uninformed buyers and lousy construction are familiar refrains. While the lawyers and bankers can assure the buyer that everything is standard and legal, the buyer still has no idea what lies in store for them. It is only in hindsight that they recognize they never stood a chance.