Sublime Wastelands: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

by Samantha Bennett

Written for Wilderness to Wasteland: American Landscape and Identity (LARTS 346, Spring 2010)

“They stood there while the sun went down upon this scene, and the sky in the west turned blood-red, and the tops of the houses shone like fire. Jurgis and Ona were not thinking of the sunset, however—their backs were turned to it, and all their thoughts were of Packingtown, which they could see so plainly in the distance. The line of buildings stood clear-cut against the sky; here and there out of the mass rose the great chimneys, with the river of smoke streaming away to the end of the world. It was a study in colors now, this smoke; in the sunset light it was black and brown and gray and purple. All the sordid suggestions of the place were gone—in the twilight it was a vision of power. To the two who stood watching while the darkness swallowed it up, it seemed a dream of wonder, with its tale of human energy, of things being done, of employment for thousands upon thousands of men, of opportunity and freedom, of life and love and joy. When they came away, arm in arm, Jurgis was saying, ‘Tomorrow I shall go there and get a job!’” (29)

–Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 1906.

In this passage from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the author effectively demonstrates how an industrial wasteland can be perceived as a sublime landscape, focusing on the relationship between the infinite and the individual and on industry’s profound effect on both nature and humanity. Analyzing literary devices, stylistic details, and other patterns, this essay examines Sinclair’s use of language in communicating how the industrial sublime points to both individual and collective human potential.

Sinclair’s figurative language and diction relay the sublime images that inspired newly arrived immigrants in early twentieth-century Chicago’s Packingtown. He invokes a feeling of the infinite, a key quality of sublime landscapes, with the phrase “a river of smoke streaming away to the end of the world.” He furthermore relates the infinite to the individual, and specifically to recent immigrant Jurgis: “it seemed a dream of wonder . . . with employment for thousands upon thousands of men.” When observing this scene, Jurgis is swept up into the feeling of infinite possibility and the utopian idea of the American Land of Plenty, both of which sustained immigrant hope during this era. Secondly, Sinclair’s use of color in this passage is important to the recognition of Packingtown’s sublimity. The color palette ranges from the striking and bold in his use of red, to the subtle in his use of the neutral colors of black, brown, and gray. Interestingly, it is the natural sunset he describes as being “blood-red” and fiery while the putrid smoke coming out of the great chimneys is described as “a study in colors . . . in the sunset light it was black and brown and gray and purple. All the sordid suggestions of the place were gone.” This striking juxtaposition of the harshness of nature against the beauty of industry conveys the idea of the industrial town as sublime. Furthermore, it demonstrates how industry can have a profoundly moving effect on humanity, inspiring one to take on all possibilities. The diction of the final phrase, “Tomorrow I shall go there and get a job!” is indicative of the third stage of the sublime experience, namely, that the wonder and grandiosity of the scene is transferred unto oneself (Weiskel 25, 46). Jurgis is filled with an uplifted feeling of hope for “opportunity and freedom . . . life and love and joy.” Jurgis has not yet learned the lesson Jacob Riis outlines in his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives. Riis acknowledges the immigrant ideal of the American promised land, commenting however that this dream cannot ever be successfully realized in the brutal industrial landscape such immigrants inhabit: “The poorest immigrant comes here with the purpose and ambition to better himself and, given half a chance, might be reasonably expected to make the most of it,” yet the immigrants are rarely given this “chance” (74).

Sinclair’s highly structured text, combined with his contrast of nature and industry, emphasizes his determination to portray the town as sublime and to demonstrate the necessity for unity between these two elements of the landscape. The order of phrases in this passage is important to Sinclair’s task: he begins by describing the natural sunset as harsh and wild. He then shifts to the sun’s reflection upon the town using the characters’ similar movement away from the actual sunset and toward Packingtown, cleverly signaling readers to transfer their focus accordingly. The characters’ shift of focus logically appeals to the audience, who at first glance may categorize the sunset as inherently more sublime. Jurgis and Ona look away from the setting sun, which turns the sky in the west “blood-red” and makes “the tops of the houses sh[i]ne like fire.” These hellish images stand in stark contrast to the description of Packingtown: “All the sordid suggestions of the place were gone—in the twilight it was a vision of power.” In this passage, Sinclair uses the natural phenomenon of a sunset to raise the industrial town into a sublime landscape, while also emphasizing the need for continued marriage between technology and landscape. As Jurgis and Ona gaze out at Packingtown it is nature that, for a moment, makes an impact on man’s industrial civilization. The sun’s rare appearance transforms Packingtown into a “vision of power.” Scholar David Nye gives us a logical explanation of this experience in his book American Technological Sublime: “the industrial sublime combined the abstraction of a man-made landscape with the dynamism of moving machinery and powerful forces” (126). Here, Sinclair shows not the machinery, but its results. Furthermore, Sinclair utilizes contrasts of light and dark, something that Nye says is “drawn from the tradition of the sublime in painting” (127). Indeed, the idea of smoke reflecting light in a beautiful way is visited by George Wesley Bellows in his painting The Lone Tenement (1909). In the painting, the sky and several plumes of smoke from a river barge are shades of white, blue, gray, purple, eggshell and yellow. While these colors don’t come across as extraordinarily sublime, they do come across and as quite beautiful, a quality seemingly far from the industrial wasteland that actually exists in such environments. Both Sinclair and Bellows use color to emphasize the sublimity of the unification of nature and industry.


George Bellows
The Lone Tenement, 1909
Chester Dale Collection

Sinclair’s use of a solemn yet uplifted tone indicates that this passage is a moment of great importance both to the story and to the theme of the industrial sublime. The tone relays a sense of infinite possibility and freedom, communicating well two qualities of the sublime experience. The element of syntax in the passage above helps to further establish the solemnity of the tone. Grammatically, Sinclair arranges a series of phrases in close succession: “it seemed a dream of wonder, with its tale of human energy, of things being done, of employment for thousands upon thousands of men, of opportunity and freedom, of life and love and joy.” The rapid succession of phrases acts as a catalyst for a swelling of emotion and hope in Jurgis. Vivid appeals to the senses continue the construction of a solemn tone, emphasizing the sublimity of the situation, despite its inherently industrial nature. Sinclair appeals to both the sense of sight and the sense of taste: “in the twilight it was a vision of power” “[t]o the two who stood watching while the darkness swallowed it up.” He personifies the darkness as if it is something tangible that can be ingested. Lastly, the image of Jurgis and Ona coming away “arm in arm” appeals to our sense of touch and demonstrates the importance of meaningful human interactions.

When the sun finally sinks into darkness, Sinclair writes that the scene seemed “a dream of wonder, with its tale of human energy, of things being done.” At the climax of Sinclair’s sunset there is no sense of finality or of the earth regaining its hold on mankind, only of the persistence of the human work ethic, and the dawn of a civilization that would cease to sleep. This sense of infinity translates into the endlessness and possibility of human progress, and shows how industry and nature must be irrevocably linked for such a future to succeed—an outcome that ultimately fails for his protagonists. Sinclair forces us to think beyond the story into the present time, and to make our own conclusions about the continued sublimity of America as an industrial nation.

Works Cited


Bellows, George Wesley. The Lone Tenement. 1909. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Nye, David E. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1994.

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. 1890. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. 1906. New York: Bantam, 1981.

Weiskel, Thomas. The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.


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