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The Depiction and Function of Ethnicity in Upton Sinclair’s "The Jungle"

Hausarbeit 2009 18 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur



1. Introduction

2. Approach to Ethnicity

3. Ethnicity and Ethnic Bonds in The Jungle
3.1 Values and Customs of the Lithuanians
3.1.1 Old Habits
3.1.2 New Modes of Behaviour
3.2 Morality and Role Expectation

4. Relationship between Socialism and the Multi-Ethnic Society

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“They had dreamed of freedom; of a chance to look about them and learn something; to be decent and clean, to see their child to grow up and be strong” (TJ: 168).[1] However, the Lithuanian protagonists of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle do not have a chance to fulfil their dreams. They fail, suppressed by the capitalist elite and the daily distress of surviving in the economic jungle of Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century.

With his description of the industrial conditions in the meat-packing industry Sinclair gained recognition throughout the US. But, “as a work of modern fiction measured against the aesthetic achievements of a Henry James or a William Faulkner or a James Joyce, The Jungle hardly merits any discussion at all.”[2] The value of The Jungle as a literary product cannot be traced back to certain stylistic devices, psychological density or any other criteria of so-called “high literature.” Nevertheless, it is one of the most important novels of its time and, due to its political impact, even one of the most politically influential books in the first decades of the last century. The author became a “muckraker,” stirring up nation-wide attention due to the detailed description of the hygienic conditions in the meat-processing industry, basing this description on mere facts he gathered from his own observations[3] which leads to the characterisation as “documentary novel.”[4]

“Those who consider Sinclair insignificant base their rejection upon aesthetic criteria, whereas Sinclair was concerned with the effect of his writings upon his audience – a very different matter.”[5] Directly aiming at the hardships of the Lithuanian and other Eastern European immigrants in Chicago, he intended “to make literature functional”[6], i.e. to use it as a device of directing more attention to the economic suppression in “Packingtown,” the area around the stockyards.

But neither aesthetic aspects nor political implications are the aim of this paper. Instead, the depiction of ethnic Lithuanians, especially the Rudkus family and their leader Jurgis, will be discussed. The questions arising here concern issues such as the function of ethnic bonds and the meaning of family in the new environment and whether old values are still compatible with the new society. Especially the relationship of these values respectively the wider ramifications between the immigrants’ situation in Northern America and socialism have to be considered. This leads to the thesis that ethnic bonds and familial cohesion are not strong enough to cope with the requirements of the new country and old values need to be replaced by a new sense of community which is – for Sinclair - socialism.

To support this thesis, this paper will firstly explain its understanding of ethnicity and the depiction of ethnic bonds in The Jungle. Furthermore, old values and new ways of living are contrasted, especially the meaning of the family and its final break-up will be considered. Lastly, the role of socialism in this process will be analysed since it is the final step in the inner development of Jurgis, giving him a new meaning of live.

2. Approach to Ethnicity

Cultural studies offer a wide range of literature on ethnicity and its various definitions. “However, in the modern era, ethnicity has come to be generally used as a term for collective cultural identity (while race categorises ‘them’ from outside, ethnicity is used for shared values and beliefs, the self definition of a group, ‘us’).”[7] It can be considered to be an intrinsic valuation of the self, often identifying the self with others who share a common cultural or linguistic background. This identification can be aware to the members of particular groups or rather an unconscious process in a more or less homogenous group.

“The crossing of ethnic borders and encounters with those of different ethnic background is one of the most significant experiences in the formation of our identities”[8] and can have a vast impact on our understanding of ourselves. The consequences can be an enhanced consciousness and emphasis of the own identity or, in contrast, the fusion of the two cultural backgrounds respectively the application of the new culture defined by the “host” ethnicity regarding immigrants. Jenkins notes that “ethnicity is centrally a matter of shared meanings – what we conventionally call ‘culture’ – but is also produced and reproduced during interaction.”[9] That means that it is not a monolithic bloc of elements that can be discerned in a certain culture but rather a complex of ideas and reflections that are changing when they are penetrated by internal or external factors. Especially this aspect will be important when the Lithuanian peasants arrive in America and experience this tremendously different new culture and society even though they live among their fellow countrymen in the stockyards.

Concrete aspects of such a self-definition are a “common ancestry, historical memories, elements of common culture, link with homeland, not necessarily its physical occupation by the ethnie, only its symbolic attachment to the ancestral land, as with diaspora peoples, [and a] sense of solidarity.”[10] Even though the situation of the immigrants in The Jungle is strongly influenced by their economic and social situation and therefore the term “class” appears to be appropriate to analyse their social standing, it should not be confused that the situation of the Lithuanians is regarded in this respect. “Class” rather is a passive attribution and usually does not imply the self-commitment to a specific class, whereas the ethnicity often necessarily requires a self-evaluation of belonging to a certain cultural group.[11]

Often, the bonds between members of an ethnic group are stronger than between members of different groups. This can be traced back to the increased cohesion between members of a group with a shared cultural background; especially language is a driving force of communal feeling in an alien environment. But this sense of community is not eternal, as the following chapters will show.

3. Ethnicity and Ethnic Bonds in The Jungle

Chicago in The Jungle epitomises a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, immigrants and natives, skin colours and languages. Yet, Sinclair’s “portrayal of Lithuanian peasants who come to America vividly suggests that our melting pot is less appetizing than the terms offered on our Statue of Liberty.”[12] The immigrants are disillusioned after their arrival, realising that their hopes of a prosperous future cannot be fulfilled as their envisioned it.[13] But they have hope and make plans, buy their own house, an “opportunity they would not have had in feudal Europe”[14] and are relatively optimistic when Jurgis, Jonas and Marija get their first jobs: “Better luck than all this could hardly have been hoped for; there was only one of them left to seek a place” (TJ: 55).

Most important for them is familial cohesion, with one helping the other. Jurgis assumes the role as head of the family, for it would “be a strange thing if a man like him could not support the family, with the help of the board of Jonas and Marija” (TJ: 55). Even though they receive the help of Jonas’ friend Svedvilas (cf. TJ: 33) and are friendly welcomed by Aniele in her boarding house (cf. TJ: 34) they do not get much help from other Lithuanians or American natives. Important about the Lithuanian society is that they “feel closely related to their neighbours because of the same origin, blood, social strata, etc. A society based on private interests, which dominates all modern Western societies, has not yet replaced the old one” in their native homeland.[15] Whether this property in Lithuanian culture is a blind spot for Sinclair or whether he omits it on purpose remains unclear. However,

it is rather the Gemeinschaft principle that forces the Lithuanian people to toil a long time in order to be socially fit on any special occasion. It is obviously a social heritage from ancient times when people lived in small groups (like an extended family) with common rather than private property, with social rather than individual security, desires, and works...[16]

Due to this, the impact of American values upon the Baltic immigrants who arrived before Jurgis and his fellows must have been very strong. Cohesion between members of the same ethnic group in Chicago is hardly recognisable except for a few acquaintainces the family has who offer support.

Striking about the depiction of Lithuanians in The Jungle is that

although Sinclair reveals that Jurgis comes to America with no understanding of the prevailing language, he never has him speak in dialect. Nor does he emphasize his Catholic faith. From the beginning of the novel Jurgis seems almost indigenously American, a stereotype of the American dreamer in search of success in the form of enough wealth to get married, live without great insecurity, and take care of his relatives.[17]

That is to say that Sinclair does not construct the Lithuanian identity via their language. Certainly, he often integrates Lithuanians terms, expressions and phrases in the novel, but these do not contribute to the characterisation of the persons but rather attempt to construct authenticity. However, this construction is flawed by attitudes and new patterns of behaviour that become increasingly Americanised. He also ignores important aspects such as religion which “had been most important as a refuge to the Lithuanian peasantry who had lived in bondage for many centuries. As a representative of common Lithuanians, Jurgis could not do away with religion so quickly as the author indicates.”[18] Ethnicity is reduced to a biographical background and origin, but the actual way of living has already changed for the Lithuanians.


[1] Sinclair 2004. The abbreviation “TJ” will be used to refer to this edition in the text.

[2] Bloodworth 1977: 60.

[3] Cf. Bloodworth 1977: 44-47; Rideout 1956: 31; Brasch 1990. Yoder figuratively writes: “For most of us, Sinclair has been reduced to the muckraker who described how capitalist meatpackers turned Lithuanians into lard.” Yoder 1975: 2.

[4] Taverbier-Courbin 1995: 252.

[5] Yoder 1975: 7.

[6] Bloodworth 1977: 158.

[7] Spencer 2006: 45; cf. Jenkins: “Ethnicity, as an identification, is collective and individual, externalized in social interaction and the categorization of others, and internalized in personal self-identification.” Jenkins 2008: 14.

[8] Spencer 2006: 45.

[9] Jenkins 2008: 14.

[10] Berger/Lorenz 2008: 35.

[11] Cf. Spencer 2006: 47.

[12] Yoder 1975: 31. “The title of the book itself represented a feat of imaginative compression, for the world in which the Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis and his family find themselves is an Africa of unintelligibility, of suffering and terror, where the strong beasts devour the weak, who are dignified, if at all, only by their agony.” Rideout 1956: 34.

[13] For general hopes and expectations of immigrants to the United States cf. Mahler 1995: 83-86.

[14] Yoder 1975: 34.

[15] Musteikis 1971: 32.

[16] Musteikis 1971: 33.

[17] Bloodworth 1977: 50.

[18] Musteikis 1971: 32.


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depiction function ethnicity upton sinclair’s jungle



Titel: The Depiction and Function of  Ethnicity in Upton Sinclair’s "The Jungle"