Jurgis and Title Symbolism in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle
Upton Sinclair’s tragic hero raises his fists to brag: “Do you want me to believe [that] with these arms people will ever let me starve?” (27). Unfortunately for his main character, the “jungle” he encounters in America and in Packingtown is not one he can journey through with only the strength of his arms. The title of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is both symbolic and representative of life in Packingtown through the author’s emphasis on the concept of Darwinism as well as Jurgis’ dehumanization throughout the story.
Before their journey to Packingtown, Jurgis and Ona are naïve and somewhat easy going. Jurgis, before delving into a world of drunkenness, poverty and injury, is described as romantic whose “heart leap[s] as he realize[s] that now [marriage to Ona is] within his reach” (Sinclair 29). Once Sinclair’s characters arrive in the “jungle” of Packingtown, however, mere survival becomes a challenge.
After Jurgis’ accident, Sinclair plunges his characters into a rapidly declining quality of life in the name of social Darwinism. Symbolic of a literal jungle, Sinclair writes that “here in [Packingtown,] human creatures might be hunted down and destroyed by the wild-beast powers of nature, just as truly as ever they were in the days of the cavemen!” (140). Here, Sinclair makes an obvious connection between the social Darwinism that explains Jurgis’ loss of affluence in the unskilled labor world due to his injured ankle, and the “survival of the fittest” type of environment commonplace amongst animals in a jungle ecosystem. Just as weaker animals become prey in a jungle full of predators, Jurgis’ injury has caused him to lose his job to a stronger workforce. With his injury, Jurgis becomes “second-hand, a damaged article, so to speak, and [employers do] not want him” (149).
In seeing the family as a coherent and interdependent unit, the loss of Jurgis as a wage earner significantly weakens the family as a whole. Through this weakening the entire family begins to suffer, thus becoming prey; they now exist on the other side of the “survival of the fittest” concept. Jonas disappears, Jurgis remains injured, Ona is raped and as the family continues to weaken, their suffering and loss only increases, as would any weakening group in a literal jungle.
The dehumanization of Jurgis throughout the novel contributes even further to the symbolic and representative nature of Sinclair’s title. Though Jurgis begins the novel as a hard worker aiming to support his wife and eventual family, as his environment becomes more of a symbolic “jungle,” he is dehumanized subsequently and gradually to become equally as wild and animalistic.
Sinclair writes Jurgis’ first turn to absolute dehumanization after the tragic hero is ripped apart by jealousy and anger due to Connor’s raping of Ona. Jurgis abandons all sense of compassion and love for his wife when he “[seizes] her by the arm and half [flings] her from the room, slamming the door and barring it with a table” (178). This dehumanization continues to the point where Sinclair openly compares the infuriated Jurgis to a “wounded bull” on page 182, a “tiger” on page 183 and a “wild beast” on page 185.
As Jurgis and his family weaken through the course of the novel to their final points of despair, their struggle with social Darwinism and survival become a clear connection between prey in a “jungle” and life in Packingtown. Through his emphasis on the “survival of the fittest” theory in early 20th century America and his dehumanization of Jurgis, Sinclair’s novel fosters just as much, if not more, suffering and realism as a literal jungle.