Published in 1906, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle detailed the struggles of a Lithuanian immigrant. Fictional Jurgis Rudkus lived in Chicago with his family at the start of the twentieth century. What wasn’t fictional about The Jungle was how Sinclair detailed the cruel, unsanitary, unforgiving, Capitalistic work conditions the majority of immigrants faced at the time.
I came across these passages before I’d reached the fiftieth page of the novel. A few members of Jurgis’s family were touring a slaughterhouse/meat-packing factory and, at this point, watching hogs go down the ‘killing line.’
It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics. And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs; they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly; and they were so very human in their protests – and so perfectly within their rights! They had done nothing to deserve it; and it was adding insult to the injury, as the thing was done here, swinging them up in this cold-blooded, impersonal way, without a pretence at apology, without the homage of a tear. Now and then a visitor wept, to be sure; but this slaughtering machine ran on, visitors or no visitors. It was like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory.
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. Was it permitted to believe that there was nowhere upon the earth, or above the earth, a heaven for hogs, where they were requited for all this suffering? Each one of these hogs was a separate creature. Some were white hogs, some were black; some were brown, some were spotted; and some were old, some were young; some were long and lean, some were monstrous. And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart’s desire; each was full of self confidence, of self importance, and a sense of dignity. And trusting and strong in faith he had gone about his business, the while a black shadow hung over him and a horrid Fate waited in his pathway. Now suddenly it had swooped upon him, and had seized him by the leg. Relentless, remorseless, it was; all his protests, his screams, were nothing to it – it did its cruel will with him, as if his wishes, his feelings, had simply no existence at all; it cut his throat and watched him gasp out his life. And now was one to believe that there was nowhere a god of hogs, to whom this hog-personality was precious, to whom these hog-squeals and agonies had a meaning? Who would take this hog into his arms and comfort him, reward him for his work well done, and show him the meaning of his sacrifice? Perhaps some glimpse of all this was in the thoughts of our humble-minded Jurgis, as he turned to go on with the rest of the party, and muttered: ‘Dieve – but I’m glad I’m not a hog!’
Yes, Sinclair wants us to know that there is a ‘god’ of hogs – a god to whom hogs are precious, and a place where hogs will rest after their suffering is through. So the hogs believe, that is.
Jurgis’s quote, at the end of the passage, is ironic. Jurgis, in The Jungle, suffered through what seemed an entire life of extra-ordinarily, exorbitantly traumatic events, as did the majority of the immigrant characters. Like Sinclair said, the hogs had lives and thoughts. They had free will, self confidence, self importance, and dignity. And they were conscious in their final moments.
Why do most people accept that humans have (a) god(s), but we don’t accept the same for hogs? Are we really so different, humans and hogs?
We assume hogs can’t have a god, but we don’t know very much about the consciousness of a hog. Humor me for a moment – if we could openly communicate with hogs, share some language, would we doubt their belief in a god so much? No, and we wouldn’t doubt their consciousness or intelligence, either. We would know what they think, believe, trust and hope, what they take joy and pride in.
If we were able to understand that, wouldn’t we believe that our lives (ours and hogs’) have the same degree of meaning? Why can’t we both have gods who watch over us? Gods who have plans for our ‘meaningful’ lives? Gods who even love us? Could we share the same god?
You may have already realized it, but Sinclair’s story is not really about the difference between humans and hogs at all. It’s about the difference between social classes, ethnicities, and beliefs of people.
Beyond the obvious, literal sentiment that no hog (nor any animal, nor human) should be killed in the procession-like manner (characteristic of the slaughterhouse), Sinclair was drawing an inference relating natural-born citizens of a place and immigrants; the way that capitalist society treated “others.”
“…they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly… and so perfectly within their rights,” Sinclair said. Immigrants came with pure intentions – to improve their life circumstances, and to ensure more opportunities for their growing families. They still do, but today we call them “refugees,” besides “immigrants.”
And when Sinclair said, “…it was adding insult to the injury, as the thing was done here, swinging them up in this cold-blooded, impersonal way, without a pretence at apology,” he symbolized the ruthless way immigrants have been “welcomed” places (in this case, the United States), century after century. “…this slaughtering machine ran on… all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory.”
When he added, “Some were white hogs, some were black; some were brown…” he couldn’t have made his point much more obvious.
Sinclair outrightly, finally revealed his intent in the last fifty pages of the novel. A colleague of Jurgis’s helped him realize the truth about his employers.
Jurgis recollected how, when he had first come to Packingtown, he had stood and watched the hog killing, and thought how cruel and savage it was, and come away congratulating himself that he was not a hog; now his new acquaintance showed him that a hog was just what he had been – one of the packers’ hogs. What they wanted from a hog was all the profits that could be got out of him; and that was what they wanted from the working man, and also that was they wanted from the public. What the hog thought of it, and what he suffered, were not considered; and no more was it with labour, and no more with the purchaser of meat. That was true everywhere in the world, but it was especially true in Packingtown; there seemed to be something about the work of slaughtering that tended to ruthlessness and ferocity – it was literally the fact that in the methods of the packers a hundred human lives did not balance a penny of profit… it was the incarnation of blind and insensate Greed. It was a monster devouring with a thousand mouths, trampling with a thousand hoofs; it was the Great Butcher – it was the spirit of Capitalism made flesh.
Jurgis’s god — the god whom he slaved for and hoped would reward him, but in the end absolutely, mercilessly butchered him – was Capitalism. The god to whom his life meant nothing; only selfish gain. Both Jurgis and the hogs were subject to the mercy of “the Great Butcher.” Both the hogs and the Butcher desired success, prosperity, and comfort, but they couldn’t possibly work toward those things together. Capitalism wouldn’t slow down for anything; it wouldn’t try and understand those who worshipped it. Jurgis’s god wouldn’t give him a fleeting thought.
Sinclair’s was a sick, sad story of a sort of “religion.” He created an allegory that involved hogs and a slaughterhouse God, but his story was truly one of immigrants and their “god,” capitalism. A group of devoted believers migrated toward the entity that they worshiped, only to find that it was ruthless. It didn’t love, and it didn’t forgive. So far removed, so misunderstanding, their god might as well have been a member of another species.
Sinclair, Upton. Chapters 3, 29. The Jungle. 1906. 39-52. Print.