Analysis: Upton Sinclair - The Jungle: Socialist Idealism and Emotive Power

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle has diverse commentary on subjects ranging from the labor industry’s treatment of workers, greed, corruption and politics. Readings will yield clear and explicit conclusions about the horrific labor conditions of late 19th and early 20th century America as well as a pro-socialist agenda within the text. While these are important and intentional messages from Sinclair, the novel can be expanded in breadth and depth of meaning though a Marxist and Affect Theory analysis and methodology. The philosophical ideals regarding class and labor in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle reveal a series of pointed criticisms that align with Marxist values on the emancipation of workers including estranged labor, “historical materialism” and Althusser’s ideological apparatuses, augmented by Affect Studies’ considerations of “forces and feelings” and “fear, bodies and objects” presented in Sinclair’s writing.

The disciplines we will use as contextualization for Sinclair’s novel, Marxism and Affect Studies, cover a wide range of ideas and philosophical principles. Marxism provides an economic and sociopolitical philosophy that assembles a variety of ideas that present socialism as its solution for contemporary political problems. These ideals are summated by principles that, “wealth should be distributed more equitably, that class differences should be abolished, that society should be devoted to providing for everyone’s basic needs, etc.” (Rivkin and Ryan 711). Marxist literary criticism takes into consideration these ideals and resulting Marxist philosophies such as estranged labor and historical materialism, and the context of a work in the historical, social, and economic spheres. Affect theory, on the other hand, considers affective experience and the body as primary in the experience of emotions such as fear, and connects these phenomena with literature and its emotive powers through narrative storytelling as well as “feeling power”. These affective experiences are linked to sociopolitical elements of literature as well through a series of ramifications including political manipulation, cultural discourse, and broad affective psychology.

When approaching Sinclair’s novel, the deeply ingrained connection to socialism is clear through its primary character Jurgis. Jurgis experiences a conversion to socialism through a combination of grievous circumstances, environmental factors, and political persuasion. Thus, a Marxist reading of the text is inevitable and ultimately necessary for a deeper understanding of Sinclair’s narrative message. With this considered, ideological ramifications of the novel and its storytelling are vital when analyzing any passage. Althusser’s idea of ideologies that, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject” (774) can be explored within the socialist ideas presented to Jurgis. Ball points out the transformation and progression of Jurgis and explores its significance to socialist ideas: “Not only does Jurgis undergo a conversion, but he becomes an evangelist for his newfound faith.” (226). Considering the implications of Sinclair’s personal “conversion” to socialism’s ideals connects Jurgis’ literary significance to a Marxist interpretation, just as Ball points out his conversion: “he described his own discovery of socialism in religious terms, as “a conversion” or “a visitation by angels” (226). Sinclair contextualizes Jurgis’ transformation as a product of his experiences, but also more positively as a cause worthy of evangelizing. Jurgis finds solace in his newfound ideology, and the linguistic choice to compare his conversion to a spiritual one speaks to Sinclair’s intention of glorifying Marxist ideology. Rather than illustrate it as a subversively persuasive, or even as a wholly rational argument, it is rather a sort of salvation from the grips of unfettered capitalism and its wide-reaching effects on the individual worker.

In addition to these observations, Marx’s ideas of private property and the implications of idealist socialism are central to Sinclair’s writing, particularly when considering Jurgis’ character development and transition. The connection of Marxist estranged labor is strengthened by Sinclair’s writing style, detail, and his inclusion of real contemporary happenings in the industry; “The Jungle contains specific and detailed descriptions of meat processing…Sinclair refers to actual food scandals of the recent past” (Graf 912). Its grounded depiction of the harsh realities of the industry make it more impactful as a representation; “The Jungle was a true, factual description of the working and production conditions” (Graf 920). The realities of the work are brutally real and described with a cold detachment that undoubtedly reaches the reader with great affect; “Meantime, heedless of all these things, the men upon the floor were going about their work. Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats…squeals and life-blood ebbing away together” (Sinclair 39). Again, the visitors laugh nervously in the face of this uncomfortable reality just as Jurgis will later when remembering the stories. The horrors of the novel illustrate even further the Marxist view of labor and its disconnect between the worker and fulfillment; “The narrator employs similar rhetorical techniques in describing the horrors of children raking through the garbage dump for chicken feed” (Taylor 172). The escapism even articulates a necessary survival beyond the conditions of the worker: “the wedding must be read as an effort on the part of inarticulate characters to forget for a time that they are impoverished and brutalized by an inhuman system that allows them no voice” (Taylor 172). The system, in the form of a capitalistic economy and its resulting sub-systems, are according to the novel so flawed and oppressive to the working class that they must subvert what Althusser would call their internal verbal discourse, or consciousness, in order to stay sane and survive.

Sinclair’s novel proposes and explores a variety of sociopolitical ideologies that align with Marxist ideals through its narrative progression and dialogue, particularly relevant is Althusser’s ideological state apparatuses, ideology “made possible by the subject”. Althusser asserts of the subject: “if he does not do what he ought to do as a function of what he believes, it is because he does something else’s, which, still as a function of the same idealist scheme, implies that he has other ideas in his head…as a man who is either ‘inconsistent’ or cynical, or perverse” (771). We can explore Althusser’s idea through a variety of characters in The Jungle, namely Jurgis and his disappearance. Although so many forces are working against him and make him effectually powerless many times throughout the novel, Jurgis acts according to his ideology at each moment in the novel and therefore his actions reflect his ideology at that time. As he transitions into a pro-socialist worker he begins to act in accordance with his newfound ideology, a series of events that support Althusser’s individual ideological claims.

In addition to presenting these claims, Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” asserts several ideas, important for us are ideology representing “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” and ideology as made possible by the subject. It is important to note theoretical limitations to this application, however, especially considering the idea of individuals as “always-already subjects” as an abstract reading. His ideas of consciousness producing recognition and knowledge preceding ideology and discourse make Graf’s explorations of the truth in detail and thematic meaning more impactful. In his article “Truth in the Jungle of Literature, Science, and Politics: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Food Control Reforms during the Progressive Era.” (2020), Graf explains much of the historical context surrounding the novel’s origins including food production norms, hygiene and consumer movements, rising mass media, and an in-depth exploration of “conflicting truth claims” regarding Chicago’s slaughterhouses. This context, particularly the implications of labor conditions and their concealed reality, is very important for a Marxist analysis of Sinclair’s text. Not only were the conditions so inhumane and “animalistic” as we have established, but the truth was concealed by concerned parties including politicians (Graf 904-905). Many of these issues were a direct product of capitalism and its natural progression to departmentalized industries; “The distance between production and consumption widened, which also decreased consumer knowledge regarding how their food was produced” (Graf 906). The truth of many of the details of the meat-packing industry specifically are debated because of an effort to provide “conflicting truths”. This makes Sinclair’s literary presentation of these horrors more necessary and culturally effective.

There is also a direct link between Adorno and Horkheimer’s idea of “The Culture Industry” and the awful living options provided to characters in the novel. The family is provided with such an awful housing deal that is backed by the authors’ ideas of the housing projects apart from perhaps being hygienic; “Yet the city housing projects designed to perpetuate the individual as a supposedly independent unit in a small hygienic dwelling make him all the more subservient to his adversary – the absolute power of capitalism” (Adorno and Horkheimer 1). The workers do not occupy the economic space that the authors extend with their later arguments, but this evaluation of the realities of working-class Americans is appropriate and directly relevant to many of the sub-par conditions they encounter.

Jurgis’ socialist transformations proves one of the most impactful moments in the novel, both in narrative effect and in philosophical depth. Ball explores the socialist transformations of character in the works of Jack London and relevant to our discussion Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Ball considers, “The extent to which Christianity pervades Sinclair’s conception of socialism” (225) and Jurgis’ conversion, even extending into the ramifications of such a development. While the direct relation of religious ideology to socialism is clear through Ball’s analysis, its connection to Marxist ideological comparisons is an additionally relevant note. This directly relates to Althusser’s ideas on conditions of existence as well as Marx’s ideas in Manifesto on labor’s effect on the individual, “Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence” (Marx 733). Marx asserts that consciousness is determined by life, or in this case Jurgis’ consciousness and intellectual, ideological conclusions are formed by “life” as the “starting-point” preceding ideology. According to Marx, Jurgis’ “conversion” to Socialism is practically predetermined by his circumstance and experiences, if not literally so. Still according to Adorno and Horkheimer this is not a choice that will bear useful fruit and this observation is complemented by Marx’s ideological theories we have just discussed; “freedom to choose an ideology – since ideology always reflects economic coercion – everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same” (22). According to Sinclair, Jurgis’ “salvation” as socialism is necessary for his survival as a result of his capitalistic environment rather than an ideological failure. As we have established, Sinclair depicts Jurgis’ ideological revelation as an epiphany rather than a deficiency of choice.

There is substantial literary significance of transformation of the protagonist, the narrator’s influence on the reading experience, and most importantly the impact of rhetorical techniques including considerations of characters being “impoverished and brutalized by an inhuman system that allows them no voice” (172). This is another strong Marxist idea that “industry robs the individual of his function” (Adorno and Horkheimer 4), and results in an experience that affects “readers’ emotions and wills” (176). The interconnectedness of a Marxist reading with that of Affect Studies’ placing importance on the body make for a powerful combined reading of The Jungle. While Marxism focuses on the social, political, and economic repercussions of literature, Affect Studies focuses on the reader’s cognitive and bodily response to the author’s linguistic and stylistic choices within the text. The aesthetic significance of Sinclair’s writing is directly related to Ahmed’s comments on the “coldness” of certain literary passages and additionally to her comments on the significance of the position of the feared object. Taylor’s article opens up possibilities of discussion of linguistic characteristics of Sinclair’s writing for their relationship to Affect Studies.

Sara Ahmed’s 2004 publication “Affective Economies” explains the role of emotional reading through “economies of hate”, fear and includes considerations of psychological, historical and political influences on emotional readings. While the problem arises of the article itself addressing very specific instances of history affecting contemporary readings, the bodily reactions of anxiety in literary contexts are certainly applicable to Sinclair’s writing and linguistic style. Her example asserting that, “fear is felt as coldness” (125) can be applied to much of Sinclair’s writing, as well as her assertions of fear felt when the object is “passing by” (124). Whether it is the detailed descriptions of the plant laborers and the horrors seen within or the repeated hopelessness of Jurgis situations down to the smallest details such as his living conditions and the apathy of the meritocracy; “He had less than seventy-five cents in his pockets, and a dollar and a half due him for the day’s work he had done before he was hurt. He might possibly have sued the company, and got some damages for his injuries, but he did not know this, and it was not the company’s business to tell him” (234). Not only did his employers fail to pay him on time but withheld legal information that could have salvaged his health. These are instances that make readers feel Jurgis’ fear, but even more strongly represent “economies of hate”.

Sinclair’s set of characters also display a palpable literary representation of Ahmed’s ideas on “economies of fear” and bodily reactions to anxiety in literature. Ahmed’s example that explains the phenomenon of, “fear is felt as coldness” (125) can be applied to much of Sinclair’s writing and his characters, as well as her assertions of fear felt when the object is “passing by” (124). This is exemplified by many stories, and early on by Jurgis’, “stories about the breaking down of men, there in the stockyards of Chicago…stories to make your flesh creep” (Sinclair 25). Oddly this makes Jurgis laugh, likely out of no other available emotion. This creates a narrative dissonance for the reader that makes us question Jurgis as a character but also how deep his wounds may be. This can be felt as “coldness” that Ahmed refers to extended into his character but also into the reader during the narrative experience. Another prime example is outlined by Taylor’s article: “the narrator also interprets the workers’ lives as a desperate struggle for survival, establishing that unjust economic relations are the proper context in which to read the novel” (171). Again, this can be found related to Jurgis: “Poor Jurgis was now an outcast and a tramp once more. He was crippled-he was as literally crippled as any wild animal which has lost its claws, or been torn out of its shell” (Sinclair 290). Not only does this passage highlight Jurgis’ shattered sense of self but reinforces a Marxist analysis almost literally and explicitly in the text. Marx’s explanations of alienated labor including the alienated man apply directly to Jurgis clearly through two foundational ideas: “The relationship of the worker to labour engenders the relation to it of the capitalist, or whatever one chooses to call the master of labour” (724) and the dehumanization of the individual man in a capitalist system: “man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating…he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal” (721). This is such a recurring and underlying theme throughout the novel that it is impossible to ignore, especially when analyzing Jurgis’ character.

The relevant Marxist and Affect Studies analyses we have explored give a novel perspective to many of the known aspects of Sinclair’s story with new connections. Jack London’s quote about the novel supports socialist idealism and summates the novel’s message succinctly; “It will open countless ears that have been deaf to Socialism. It will make thousands of converts to our cause” (Gray 302). Especially when looking at Jurgis’ transformation of character and ideology in conjunction with the labor conditions displayed in the novel, we see pointed criticisms of capitalism’s shortcomings. Marxist analysis of The Jungle is particularly strong in revealing Sinclair’s intended philosophical propositions while Affect Studies’ ideas of “economies” of emotion reveal the effectiveness of his depictions of the shortcomings of capitalistic business and its resulting over-production. While some later Marxist theorists such as Adorno and Horkheimer provide conflicting modernized ideas on ideological choice and cultural evolution, Marx and Engel as well as Althusser’s foundational philosophies are directly relevant and impactful in Jurgis’ character arc, especially considering its publication in the early 20th century. There are theoretical limitations in application of Althusser’s texts, however, especially considering the idea of individuals as “always-already subjects” as an abstract reading. Affect Studies and its major texts’ focus on modern politics creates gaps in a contemporary reading of The Jungle, thus requiring a more focused analysis of the text with specific theorists’ works. Despite these shortcomings, these two theories in conjunction with one another prove effective in expanding meaning in Sinclair’s novel.

Works Cited

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Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Verso, 1971.

Ball, Andrew J. “‘Salvation through Socialism’: Conversion in the Work of Jack London and Upton Sinclair.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 47, no. 2, Fall 2020, pp. 1–15. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.ezproxy/10.1353/saf.2020.0010.

Freeden, Michael. Ideology: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford, 2003. EBSCOhost,

Graf, Rüdiger. “Truth in the Jungle of Literature, Science, and Politics: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Food Control Reforms during the Progressive Era.” Journal of American History, vol. 106, no.4, Mar. 2020, pp. 901–22. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.ezproxy/10.1093/jahist/jaz676.

Gray, Richard. A History of American Literature. Available from: MBS Direct, (2nd Edition). Wiley Global Research (STMS), 2011.

Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology: Part I” The Marx-Engels Reader. Norton, 1978.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. Foreign Languages Pub. House, 1956.

Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. John Wiley & Sons Incorporated, 2017.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.

Taylor, Christopher. “‘Inescapably Propaganda’: Re-Classifying Upton Sinclair Outside the Naturalist Tradition.” Studies in American Naturalism, vol. 2, no. 2, 2007, pp. 166–78. EBSCOhost,