Just finished reading Sinclair’s The Jungle with my 9th grade American Lit. class. I’d not read it before, and it was a treat to experience the confusion, disgust, and morbid pathos of the novel along with them. A couple comments by my brilliant students left me thinking about what makes a story good.
A couple students basically said that so many terrible things happened to the characters, it was hard to care about them by the end of the book. The spiraling down toward death and poverty relentlessly robbed us of the breathing-space necessary to empathize with the characters. We knew Sinclair had factual evidence for most of the horrendous details, but the repetitive cycle of disaster broke the “suspension of disbelief” (to use Tolkien’s phrase) necessary for fiction to work its magic.
Another issue was the pseudo-redemption at the end: Jurgis’ sudden and miraculous conversion to Socialism. One key idea I’m experimenting with in teaching literature is the theory that every good story will follow the Biblical Story: creation–fall–redemption. As we read through classic American works (so paltry compared to the literature of Christendom), we ask whether the characters found Biblical redemption or not. It’s a great exercise, and The Jungle failed abysmally. The main problem is that Sinclair’s paean to Socialism (voiced through a weird assortment of characters at the end) is too complicated to be good news. The kids couldn’t understand it. I’m not sure I understood it! Redemption can’t be that complicated. It reminded me of all the N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments) cronies in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. All the psycho-social-babble is just that: Babel.
A lesson from Sinclair is that propaganda doth not good fiction make. Christians should especially remember this as we turn out cartloads of aesthetically inferior fiction with a good moral, or cool eschatalogical disasters. Like too many well-meaning Christian authors, Sinclair gets so caught up in his message, he forgets the story, and so we stop caring too. The best stories are full of light & dark, silence & and roaring, tension & rest. The Jungle was all tension. It would make a better rap “song” than novel.
Besides all that, I’m sure glad we live in an era of better food standards! People are disgusting sinners: Sinclair at least got that right!