Comparing Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Kate Chopin's The Awakening
On the surface, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, and The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair do not have anything in common. The Awakening features Edna, a bored housewife who flouts the rules of society. The Jungle features Jurgis, a poor Lithuanian immigrant who struggles to survive in a society that uses people and then discards them. Though Edna and Jurgis come from completely different walks of life, they do share one common trait - the awakening of the spirit to the world around them.
Socially speaking, Edna and Jurgis are worlds apart. Edna is an upper middle class housewife, while Jurgis is a lower class immigrant. This difference plays a large part in how they are treated by society and the consequences they suffer for their actions. Edna is a gentlewoman, and a rich man’s wife. Her social status affords her some protection in society. Although social strictures are heavily enforced during this time, Edna is able to move out of her husband’s house before she is socially ostracized.
Before that, she ran around with different men, sent her children away, and even spent time gambling, all without feeling much effect socially. It takes the extreme action of moving out of her husband’s house to ruin her social standing. Even so, Edna does not expend a lot of energy worrying about what society thinks of her.
This autonomy is a direct result of her social standing. The belief that she can be her own person, regardless of the rest of the world is one that a person of lower social standing cannot maintain without serious consequences. At this period in time, life is very hard for those in the lower classes, and flouting society makes life even more difficult. Jurgis has first-hand knowledge of this in The Jungle, when he attempts to defend his wife, Ona, from her foreman. Not only is he imprisoned for attacking the man who took sexual advantage of his wife, he is also blacklisted in the stockyards. Jurgis is unable to find work, and his life begins a steady downhill slide. Jurgis’ social standing is a large factor in his treatment.
He has no recourse against the foreman, because he is poor and can barely speak English. There is no one for Jurgis to turn to when he is blacklisted in the stockyards and socially, he is completely ostracized. Edna, for all that she flouts society, still maintains her closest friendships. She is never given the cut-direct; while Jurgis struggles for work to support his family, Edna lives in a world of her own making, and does not have to struggle as he does. The differences in their social standing plays a large role in their respective experiences; if Edna had not been so wealthy, she would have been truly ostracized, while if Jurgis had the ability to make more money, he might not have gone to jail or been blacklisted.
Another factor in the different treatment of Edna and Jurgis is their sex. Jurgis, as a man, is expected to be the bread-winner for his family. As a poor immigrant, he has a very difficult time maintaining his family, especially since he is ignorant of the society he has joined. He is taken advantage of over and over again.
Yet because he is a man, he is expected to continue supporting his family, without much outside help, under almost any circumstance. As a woman, Edna does not feel the same social pressures that Jurgis faces. She is not expected to contribute much to her family. She is somewhat responsible for her children, but there is a nanny, servants, and a cook to do most, if not all, of the work. Therefore, Edna’s life is mostly one of leisure, while Jurgis toils constantly against insurmountable odds.
Another major difference between Edna and Jurgis is the experiences they encounter at the hands of the society of which they are a part. Edna spends time with a group of Creole people who accept her because of her husband. She has never had to work to make a living; in fact, she has very few ideas of how the world works.
When Edna begins to act out against her position in society, she faces almost no opposition of any kind. Her husband believes she is suffering from some woman’s trouble and hopes it will pass. One of her good friends urges her to take care of her children. Otherwise, Edna is free to exist as she pleases with almost no consequences.
Jurgis’ life is the polar opposite of Edna’s. From the beginning of The Jungle, he must struggle to survive. He and his family are taken in by a man who sells them a house, but neglects to tell them of the interest and insurance costs. Almost all of the family must work so that they can pay the additional costs.
Even so, they often go without much food or any coal for heat. Jurgis is completely at the mercy of the packers in the stockyards; if there is not enough work, he cannot make enough money to support his family. The working conditions are appalling and the pace is brutal. Jurgis’ whole life in Chicago is an endless stream of hurdles which must be overcome, with no end in sight. Unlike Edna, Jurgis does not really have a life at all; he works all day and falls into bed exhausted at night, only to get up and repeat the process the next day.
During the periods he is not working, he is in a constant struggle against starvation, homelessness, and death. Jurgis’ life is full of consequences and most of them are the result of his social standing, not a result of his actions. Edna, on the other hand, lives a life of ease, but is not any happier for it.
Despite the large differences between Edna’s and Jurgis’ lives, there is one striking similarity. They both reach a point in their lives where they awaken to the world at large. Philosophically, their views are strikingly similar. Edna and Jurgis both wish for equality and freedom. Edna is awakened to the fact that she does not need material things and the trappings of society to be happy. Jurgis is awakened to the fact that there is life beyond toiling like a slave for almost no pay, and that there are larger things than his own existence. Before they become aware, Edna and Jurgis both live like rats on a wheel, forever circling with no realization that there is life beyond the wheel.
Jurgis’ awakening takes place when he is at the lowest point in his life. He is practically starving, and living on the streets of Chicago. Jurgis takes shelter in a socialist rally. A young woman, who is of a better social class than he is, calls him comrade, and he is so shocked that he begins to pay attention to the speaker out of curiosity.
The tenets of Socialism and the eloquence of the speaker change Jurgis’ life. Suddenly he has hope, where before he had none. He reaches out to the speaker and is introduced to a man who gives him a place to sleep, and he even finds work. Jurgis finds a belief system, something larger than himself, that lifts him out of his dreary life.
Edna’s awakening comes about in an entirely different manner. Rather than Jurgis’ clarity, which takes place in a matter of hours, Edna’s development is a series of steps in a certain direction. It begins with being thrown into a new society. This group of people is more open, more relaxed in certain social ways, such as flirting. Edna then begins to spend time with a young man to whom she is attracted.
Part of her awakening is due to the unhappiness she feels in her current life, and the rest is due to her increasing desire for a new life, with less strident social strictures. In the beginning of The Awakening, Edna cannot imagine flouting any social rules, but by the end of the novel, she has broken every major social stricture. She does not even feel particularly remorseful.
Through all of the trials that Jurgis and Edna face, there are many differences between them. Edna is an upper-middle class housewife who is dissatisfied with life, while Jurgis is a poor immigrant struggling to stay alive. Yet they both experience an awareness of life that gives them a striking commonality. Both novels are about people, and though they come from completely different backgrounds, they share a common trait of awareness of themselves and their surroundings.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening and Selected Short Stories. Public Domain Books, 1 Sept. 1994. Kindle Ed.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle: The Original Uncensored Version. Seven Treasures Publications, 2008. Kindle Ed.