Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bodies in The Jungle: Capital and Value in Physicality

     Like Michelangelo's The Last Judgment, Sinclair's The Jungle is a collage of bodies that are bent, muscled, pained, stretched, writhing.  However, while Michelangelo's purpose is to artfully recreate a biblical moment, Sinclair aims to illustrate the plight of the stockyard workers of Chicago.  With descriptions of working bodies drenched in animal blood and remains, poisonous fertilizers and filth, Sinclair evokes a picture of not only the working conditions of the Chicago meatpacking industry in the early 20th century, but also paints the living conditions of the workers who literally work themselves to the bone.

    Following the story of Jurgis, the novel's protagonist, the narrative illuminates the corrupted power of capitalism and how "survival of the fittest" is law in the stockyards.  As the novel describes the abominable working and living conditions of the stockyard workers, it too reveals the sad truth that the only value a working man or woman has is their bodies.  In this sense, capital is not only found in monetary value but is also found in a body's physicality.  The body is a  medium of exchange, measurable and dispensable, valuable only to the extent that it can perform work. In other words, the body has market value.  It can be sold in different ways.  The sad thing is that along with the body comes the soul.

       Observe the story of Jurgis who in the beginning, with his "mighty shoulders and giant hands," easily found work (Sinclair 6).  Jurgis who "could take up a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound quarter of beef and carry it into a car without a stagger, or even a thought" exemplifies the body with great value and capable of work (Sinclair 6).  That is, Jurgis's value as a worker is not measured by his competency or his eagerness to work but rather, the ability and capability that his muscular form represents.  Jurgis's body represents a body primed for production.  It is a body able to effectively produce manual labor.  Hence, Jurgis's value is not derived from his character as  a person but rather is derived through the productive capability his body represents.

    Because the body is the medium that dictates the worker's productivity, it also indicates when the worker has no value.  Such was the case for Jurgis who, after being imprisoned and taken advantage by the capitalist system, loses value and capital when his muscles wane.  Indeed, Jurgis realizes how "the world of civilization" was "a world in which nothing counted but brutal might, an order devised by those who possessed it for the subjugation of those who did not" (Sinclair 556).  In other words, if a man is not part of the capitalistic power then his value in society is determined by his physicality for it is the only medium of exchange he possesses.

  Essentially, The Jungle illustrates the dehumanization of men and women whose only real value in the capitalistic world is the economic productivity of their physical being.  Without money, power and knowledge, they are economic objects treated and identified as cogs in the capitalist machine. 

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. 1906. BBeB Book. 12/18/2009