Rating: 9.5/10

This work is amazing in several aspects.  First, Sinclair really makes the reader identify with the plight of the protagonist Jurgis.  It can quite literally depress one’s spirit reading about his trials and tribulations, but then again, that’s probably the point.  You get so used to the monetary struggles of trying to earn a nickel or even a dollar, that living on such meager means becomes your world as well as Jurgis’.  You’re then thrown into a brilliant juxtaposition of an owner’s opulent home where useless objects cost tens of thousands of dollars; not only is this disparity thrown into stark relief, but you feel sick with it.

Further, Sinclair’s “jungle” theme permeates the story through and through. From the urban jungle where people are forced into a survival-of-the-fittest lifestyle, to the country “hobo-living” Jurgis adopts, it appears nowhere is exempt from the rules of the jungle.  (Nor is this rule incidental to America-you quickly find out that the same sort of predators existed in his home country of Lithuania, he was simply not as ignorant there nor filled with the rosy-eyed hope of America’s opportunities).  Not only is man-eat-man behavior displayed “at large” within the society, but also in microcosms in the packyards, the streets, and saloons.  Even internally, Jurgis struggles with his base, animalistic urges as he tries to superimpose a veneer of higher morality over it.  But when push comes to shove, one must eat and that will always take precedence (as will the means to ensure you do so).  Sinclair makes a somewhat clumsy attempt at the very end of the book to show that a noble cause can elevate a man’s “soul” (intentions, thoughts, actions) above our basic needs.  But of course, by working within the confines of his new found party, he has his basic needs taken care of and thus has the luxury to contemplate on higher ideals (a la Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and, to a lesser degree, Aristotelian Ethics).

This book is incredibly relevant today, if only the semantics have changed.  Wealth disparity is still an overwhelming problem (90% of the US population holds a mere 15% of the wealth but some 75% of the debt).  Substitute “financial trust” for “meat trust” and the story remains largely the same.  Less may be literally scraping by (though some are), but the majority of us toil away while remaining in debt.  We have some creature comforts that mask our oppression, but little else.  Those with money remain in political, and thus ultimate, power.

Some favorite quotes:

“consider the activities of the stock-manipulator, the paralyzing of whole industries, the over-stimulation of others, for speculative purposes; the assignments and bank failures, the crises and panics”

“…in a society dominated by… commercial competition, money is necessarily the test of prowess, and wastefulness the sole criterion of power.”

“When one comes to the ultra-modern profession of advertising…the science of persuading people to buy what they do not want”

“Beneath the hundred thousand women of the elite are a million middle-class women, miserable because they are not of the elite, and trying to appear of it in public; and beneath them, in turn, are five million farmers’ wives reading ‘fashion papers’…”
Considering the moral aspects of the thing: “The low knavery and the ferocious cruelty incidental to them, the plotting and the lying and the bribing, the blustering and bragging, the screaming egotism, the hurrying and worrying.”

“They [those in financial power] would tell you that governments could not manage things as economically as private individuals”

“One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical, without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and to hear the hog-squeal of the universe.”

“…and he learned that America differed from Russia in that its government existed under the form of a democracy.  The officials who ruled it, and got all the graft, had to be elected first; and so there were two rival sets of grafters, known as political parties, and the one got the office which bought the most votes.”

“They were swindlers and thieves of pennies and dimes, and they had been trapped and put out of the way by the swindlers and thieves of millions of dollars.”

“…for how many millions of such poor deluded wretches there were, whose lives had been so stunted by Capitalism that they no longer knew what freedom was!”

“This Jesus of Nazareth!…This agitator, law-breaker, fire-brand, anarchist!”