Literary Cities ENGL 012
February 17, 2014
“I Know Not Whether the Laws be Right, or Whether the Laws be Wrong”1
The laws that different societies operate under reflect each society’s unique values. In The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, two very different societies are depicted. These two societies have two different goals, and therefore two different sets of laws which govern them. Laws are always contentious, and both Sinclair and Wharton present the law in their respective novels to the reader for evaluation. The authors also evaluate these laws themselves, Sinclair in an openly didactic manner, and Wharton with a more subtle, but deeply critical technique.
In The Jungle, society is Packingtown, Chicago, Illinois. The goal is simple: efficiency of production. Packingtown feeds America meat for the lowest possible cost. Therefore, it uses every scrap of every animal that it slaughters, and exhausts every ounce of the strength and energy in every man, woman, and child it employs. The goal of efficiency puts value on strength and resourcefulness. Strength is the most valued quality in a person, and his value to society lasts only as long as does his strength. When Jurgis first arrives in Packingtown he is given a job within half an hour because “he was young, and a giant besides” (Sinclair 27). However, as his body and mind are inevitably worn down, his strength ebbs, and so does his value. He is injured and can no longer work, and is then trampled by the unforgiving and uncompromising society in which he lives.
Efficiency also propagates resourcefulness, and in this case ruthless resourcefulness. In the meatpacking process this resourcefulness manifests itself in how the the industry can “use everything of the pig except the squeal” (162), which is ingenious from a business standpoint, but also very dangerous to public health. There is no such thing as spoiled meat, because it can always be doctored in a way that will make it sellable. In the same way as this, the employees are used as hard as they possibly can be, until they are spent, and then disposed of. “They had got the best out of him – they had worn him out, with their speeding up and their carelessness, and now they had thrown him away” (149)! This ruthless resourcefulness is the way the meatpacking industry makes money, and it is also the only way the inhabitants of Packingtown can make a living. Jurgis’ trials trying to find steady, honest work lead him nowhere. He begins to make money when he turns against his morals and becomes a criminal, mugging people for their money. He draws the parallel himself: “Before long Jurgis would think no more of it than they did in the yards of knocking out a bullock” (302).
These values of strength and resourcefulness combine to create the law of Packingtown, which is the law of Social Darwinism. In this version of Darwin’s theory of evolution, only the strong and the resourceful survive. Integrity, loyalty, and any traditionally accepted virtue is of no value. “It’s a case of us or the other fellow” (302), as Duane, Jurgis’ partner in crime, puts it. Strength will keep you afloat as long as your strength can last, and then only cunning resourcefulness and the willingness to hurt others to further your own survival will keep you alive.
It is very clear that Upton Sinclair is opposed to the idea of Social Darwinism. His depiction of the horrors that it produces in the meatpacking industry and in the lives of his characters is more than enough evidence of that. He even proposes an entirely new set of laws at the end of the novel, the system of Socialism. Sinclair wrote The Jungle as an exposé of the meatpacking industry. He had political motive, and was advocating for social and political reform.
Sinclair was a muckraker, and wrote The Jungle to make an obvious statement. Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence in a completely different style, but was making just as powerful an argument about New York City’s high society. This is a caste system of elites, whose goal is to maintain the good reputation of the family name and the social power that comes along with it. This goal of maintenance is all about clinging to the old traditions, and keeping outside, modern, and foreign influences from changing the society that the same family’s ancestors created long ago.
Every member of society who would like to remain a member of society aspires to this goal of maintenance. They put up elaborate facades to shroud any departure from the purity and perfection that society would like them to exhibit. These values reflect the need of keeping family names untarnished by scandal, or at least untarnished by people accepting that scandal exists. Everyone knows that each family has its own scandals, but it is so important to them to keep up the guise of perfection that none of them will accept the imperfections, or speak of them in a straightforward manner. For instance, when Ellen Olenska, a cousin of the well-respected Mingotts, first arrives in New York, it is clear by her dress and demeanor that she is out of place. But because acknowledging that would mean acknowledging a tarnish on the Mingotts’ reputation, when someone criticizes her out loud it is considered inappropriate, even though every single member of society was thinking exactly the same thing. To think something is one thing, but to say it is “against all the rules of their code” (Wharton 31).
This facade affects more than what can and cannot be said out loud. Similar to how in The Jungle everything that people do feeds into the efficiency of the meat packing industry, everything is affected by the goal of maintaining the social structure of New York City. Who people marry and how their engagements and wedding ceremonies play out are not based on people’s feelings for one another, but by which pairs and processes are most advantageous to society. The narrator Newland, and his wife May’s marriage is conceived under the pretense of love, but well before the wedding takes place that love is gone. Their marriage is but “a dull association of material and social interests” (36) that will keep strong their society and their family’s positions within that society. Proof of this is that the elaborate pretenses that shroud social interactions exist equally as strongly within their relationship. They “speak with the code in which they had both been trained” (219) instead of being forthright and honest with each other.
The survival of this complicated and exclusive society depends on these elaborate pretenses. This results in a complicated social code that is strictly adhered to. If a person violates the code, she is expelled from society, as evidenced by the story of Ellen Olenska. When society decides to reject Ellen because of her questionable past, the case is taken to the der Luydens, society’s “Court of Last Appeal” (45). In accordance with the subtle ways of their society the der Luydens invite Ellen to dinner, thereby issuing a decree that she is to be accepted as a social elite. But Ellen refuses to abide by the rules of social conduct. She laughs at the laws that high society reveres, and she scoffs at the practices that keep the society intact. “Does no one cry here, either? I suppose there’s no need to, in heaven” (63), she says sardonically. Ellen does not accept the invitation to cover up her past of scandal and become part of the society she was born into, and worse, society learns of her relationship with Newland and thinks there is more to it than there is. To preserve May’s place in society, she is excluded in the same way she was accepted, with a farewell dinner attended by the van der Luydens.
Wharton uses the story of Ellen not only to exhibit the strength of the social law in this society, but also to critique it. The reader sympathizes with Ellen for her strength and independence, and therefore questions the society that will not accept her. Newland’s relationship with Ellen is an even stronger argument against the social code. Newland falls in love with Ellen soon after he meets her, but he is already promised to May. Throughout the novel Newland is struggling between what is “right” by the standards of society, which is to stay true to May, and what he wants, which is to be with Ellen. The reader desperately wants him to choose Ellen, but he never does, even when May dies, and he has no reason not to. The final passage of the book is Newland turning away from Ellen’s door, refusing to even see the woman whom he loves.
It could be argued that Newland was better off with May for more than societal reasons if it was not for the final chapter of the book, when Wharton deals the social code of New York City its final blow. At the end of the book time jumps forward and the reader is shown that Newland and May’s son Dallas no longer obeys the social code. He is forthright in his manners and is marrying into a family that Newland would not have deemed acceptable even 25 years previously. “Dallas belonged body and soul to the new generation…it had never been possible to inculcate in him even the rudiments of reserve” (291). Dallas is successful and likable, and is a clear depiction of where society has gone. With this final image of a more modern society, Wharton leaves the reader convinced that there was something deeply wrong with the caste, reserved society in which the novel is set it, and that it was in no way sustainable.
In The Age of Innocence and The Jungle the laws of society are either explicitly turned over in the future, or it is argued that they should be. Sinclair and Wharton both make strong arguments against their respective societies. Sinclair argues in a straightforward, edifying manner, with grotesque description and heavy pathos. Wharton argues it in an understated way, and uses where she directs the plot to guide the reader’s sympathies. By vindicating the character of Olenska through the eventual change in society, she solidifies the reader’s ideas about the society she is critiquing. Sinclair is coming from a time of drastic and dramatic social change, so his critique of society reflects that urgency. On the other hand, Wharton is writing about a time of subtlety and nuance, so her argument is just as understated. At their heart, these arguments are equally powerful.
1. Sinclair 194
Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. United States of America: Penguin Books, 1985. Print. the