Monday, November 9, 2009

Culture and Labor in the Jungle

I think the consensus in our class as we read The Jungle was that the book could stand to spend a little more time developing its characters, a little less time preaching and a little more time showing. Given that, one thing that surprised me about the book was how Sinclair chose to open the novel with the story of Jurgis and Ona's wedding. Before launching into the blood and the guts, the dehumanizing assembly lines, the impossible to avoid swindling, Sinclair pauses and gives us a rare glimpse into the newly arrived workers' culture.

The climax of this chapter comes when the wedding ritual, the veselija, fails to pay for itself the way that it traditionally did in Lithuania. This custom relieved the bride and groom or their families from being solely burdened by the cost of the ceremony. It enabled their generosity, in including anyone who shows up food and drink. This aspect of the ritual is obviously affected by moving it from a small village in Lithuania to a crowded slum in Chicago. People pour into the feast to enjoy, but when the acziavimus begins, the family realizes how great a problem they have. According to Sinclair, in this ritual, the guests dance and dance without stopping for hours, while each man takes a turn dancing with the bride. As the song goes on, the family of the bride passes around a hat to which everyone contributes their gift to the bride and groom. (This reminded me in many ways of the dollar dance tradition that continues in many cultures). The collection in the hat is meant to pay for the party and also provide a gift for the bride and groom's new life. This ritual is described as an unspoken contract-- in which everyone has their share, commensurate with what they can afford to give. However, we find out that something was different in America, "Since they had come to the new country, all this was changing; it seemed as if there must be some subtle poison in the air that one breathed here- it was affecting all the young men at once. They would come in crowds and fill themselves with a fine dinner, and then sneak off" (Sinclair 21). Jurgis and Ona will be left with the bill for their own wedding. Even the great wedding ritual can not be relied on in this cruel new country.

I found this part of the story striking particularly in comparison to what comes after it. Most of their subsequent problems are caused by the horrific working conditions and the willingness of all of the systems-- law etc.-- to take advantage of these peoples' powerless conditions. But for a moment this passage considers how the culture of this new country-- in this instance, a very cruel culture indeed-- smashes against the expectations of the old country. And for me, although "the poison" that SInclair refers to may be caused to some extent by the hardening and dehumanizing conditions in the stockyards, I wonder if this is all. In typically dramatic Sinclairian form, he sums it up this way, "Bit by bit these poor people have given up everything else, but to this they cling with all athe power of their souls-- they cannot give up the veselija!" (Sinclair 18). He, however, fails to consider how hard the betrayal of their own fellow workers, their fellow Lituanians must have been. In some ways, this cultural change is more cruel than the real estate agent or the factory foremen. Obviously this is a classic story of immigrant generational differences-- but the way in which it comes up against the issues surrounding labor conditions and capitalism make it more complex. What is the younger generation foresaking? And why are they doing it?

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