One of the central characteristics of melodrama is the concept of the “victim-hero”. In Linda Williams’ Playing the Race Card, she writes, “melodrama focuses on victim-heroes and on recognizing their virtue. Recognition of virtue orchestrates the moral legibility that is key to melodrama’s function.” (Williams, 29) She explains that this bodily suffering of the victim-hero is key to the recognition of their virtue and identification as “good”, and this victimization helps to further the notion of the adversity brought upon them by some “evil” force or “villain”. This concept is reinforced by Elisabeth Anker in Villains, Victims and Heroes: Melodrama Media, and September 11, when she writes about the five primary qualities of melodrama. Of these five, three particular qualities that she mentions are “a locus of moral virtue that is signified throughout the narrative by pathos and suffering and can be increased through heroic action; the three characters of a ruthless villain, a suffering victim, and a heroic savior (though the latter two characters can be inhabited in the same person: the virtuous victim/hero); dramatic polarizations of good and evil, which echo in the depiction of individuals and events”. (Anker, 24) We see this very battle between victim-hero and villain, good and evil, in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
In The Jungle, Sinclair writes a story about a young Lithuanian couple that moves to Chicago in order to try to secure a better life. It is in this search for financial security that we see the classic battle of good versus evil play out; Jurgis Rudkus, a poor industrial worker, versus the evil capitalist system. From the beginning of the story, Sinclair begins his depiction of Jurgis as a likeable and relatable character, which ultimately sets the stage for him as the story’s victim-hero. In the first chapter, we are introduced to the young, optimistic, hard-working and energetic Jurgis, also described as “a very steady man, and does not easily lose his temper” (Sinclair, 21), during his wedding reception. At the end of the evening when there is a substantial bill that the couple seemingly cannot afford to pay, Jurgis vows to work harder, not only to be able to pay off their debts to the bar, but rather as an overarching statement of his dedication to ensuring the financial security of his family. But as we would come to see, this would not be an easy task before Jurgis.
Although Jurgis is able to quickly secure work, jobs in Packingtown are both extremely hard and dangerous, requiring back-breaking labor in unsafe working conditions. Despite the difficulty of his work, Jurgis earns enough money for the family to be able to buy a new home. But shortly after the purchase, it becomes apparent that the sale of the house was a sham, with the agreement containing numerous hidden costs and the house being poorly maintained over the years. In addition to the purchase of the questionable new home, Jurgis and his family would continue to struggle as Ona would be fired from her job and become pregnant shortly thereafter.
This struggle would only continue to worsen for the family, and more specifically Jurgis, as the story progressed. Working as the sole source of income for his family, including a newborn son, Jurgis is hurt on the job and is forced into three months of bed rest with no type of compensation from the factory. To make matters even worse, they refused to give him his job back once he was healthy enough to work once again. After a long search for employment, he is forced into working at what is described as the foulest place in Packingtown, the fertilizer factory, and begins to drink heavily. Soon after, he learns that Ona is pregnant once again.
Then one night after Ona does not return home from work, Jurgis learns that her boss forced her into sleeping with him. Enraged, he goes out and attacks him, landing him in jail for a month. Once again, his family would be forced to survive without his wages, and this would result in their eviction from their home and moving into a run-down boardinghouse. Upon his first entrance to the boardinghouse after his release from jail, Jurgis walks in on Ona prematurely giving birth. However, the attempt is unsuccessful, and resulted in both her and the baby’s deaths. After witnessing this, Jurgis once again disappears on a drinking binge. This seems to be the cycle that he is trapped in; as soon as things begin to go his way, he has everything he has worked for ripped away from him.
The cycle continues throughout the entire story. After trying to recover from his latest alcoholism stint, he attains a good job at a steel mill. Revitalized and hopeful for the future, Jurgis is once again destroyed when his remaining son drowns in a muddy street, and spirals back into alcoholism and turns to a life as a beggar. Although he is able to find yet another job, this time working digging tunnels, he once again injures himself, loses the job, and is becomes a beggar once again. And though he is able to work as a scab when a strike hits, Jurgis is arrested after attacking his late wife’s boss once again. After being released from jail and completely down and out, Jurgis wanders into a Socialist rally and hears a speech that inspires him and causes him to adopt their beliefs. Part of the "hero" concept that Williams discusses is motivation of action against the "enemy." This can be seen at the end of the novel Jurgis quits his job and joins the Socialist Movement to fight for workers' rights and to dismantle the evils of capitalism.
Throughout The Jungle, Sinclair utilizes the concept of the “victim hero” in order to convey the extreme struggles that the working class faces as a result of the exploitation of the capitalist system. Jurgis Rudkus is a character with whom the audience is meant to relate to and empathize with, being depicted only in a positive light and being devoid of any legitimate character flaws. Though he is put in numerous situations that can universally be described as wrong, such as his drinking binges or attacks on his wife’s boss, the audience understands that he is only reacting to pain caused to him by his environment, despite his attempts at trying to earn a better life for himself and his family. It is rather the oppression caused by capitalism that we look toward disdainfully as the “evil” source for the working class’ hardships. As Williams discusses in her book, this is the sense of "moral legibility" that she discusses. Jurgis' character does not change, but rather it is the evil of capitalist society that breaks down his character. It is through these depictions of the working class as a “victim-hero” and of capitalism as their “villainous oppressor” that Sinclair tried to garner support for the middle-class as well as the Socialist movement.