Here are my thoughts on the book itself, and be warned that there are spoilers ahead. First, while the pacing is slower than most modern books, I thought it moved darn fast for the period. I’ve shelved the book as a “classic,” but maybe I should cross list it as horror since it is definitely a brutally horrific novel.
Jurgis Rudkus is a Lithuanian immigrant who comes to Chicago with his family in search of a better life. He is healthy, vigorous, strong, and hopeful, and he is steadily broken by the wheel of industry as it casually grinds him and his family into pulp. The corruption of the housing market, the dreadful and dangerous work in the factories, the lack of proper sanitation and adulterated milk and food, all work insidiously to destroy member after member of Jurgis’s family. Jurgis himself survives, but only as every love and illusion is stripped from him. The story reminded me a great deal of the tale of Job from the Bible.
The book is fiction of course, but Sinclair spent quite a few weeks in Chicago while researching the book. He lived among the working class during that time, and while the pattern of events that happen to Jurgis do not describe any single person, they do reflect real things that happened to real people in those days. Overall, the book is a searing indictment of the greed and corruption that can be found in a Capitalist economic system, particularly when that system is allowed to run itself with scarcely any government oversight.
The one misstep in the book comes at the end, I thought, and it has to do with Sinclair’s “searing” indictment. Sinclair was a Socialist, or what we would more likely call a Communist these days. At the end of the book we find Jurgis given new hope and vigor by his exposure to the socialist party. The last couple of chapters of the book are an outright ode to the glory to be had by the working man if he but joins the Socialist party. In reality, of course, while Communism seems like a good plan in theory, it can easily end up as brutal as any Capitalist system. It’s not the system that is truly at fault; it is the people who run these systems, people who are full of greed and care nothing for the lives of those they exploit. This is why in any system there needs to be a series of checks and balances. Far too many humans are not to be trusted with unfettered power.