Sinclair’s mastery of the melodramatic mode is shown through his use of The Jungle as a reaction to the harsh difficulties associated with living in the modern, industrial world of the early 20 th century. Sinclair devotes the majority of The Jungle to exposing the plight of the working class in capitalist society. As Ben Singer describes in Melodrama and Capitalism, “Melodramatic conflicts gave dramatic shape to the adversities and insecurities of the modern world… scenarios is which good people experience duress from forces beyond their control resonated with the urban masses” (Singer, 133). In The Jungle, Sinclair knowingly narrates a melodramatic struggle between a virtuous immigrant family and the “duress” of capitalist forces to resonate with masses of readers.
A key point Singer makes about melodrama is that it “dramatizes a world in which competition, advanced to the point of social hostility, prevails as a consequence of the “every-man-for-himself” basis of capitalist modernity (Singer, 139). In The Jungle, Sinclair communicates the advancement of social hostility brought about by modernity with the struggles Jurgis faces upon adjusting to his new job in America. For example, when Jurgis first arrives at his place of work, he learns a disconcerting truth:
“It seemed strange, it was even terrible, when you came to find out the universality of the sentiment; but it was certainly the fact—[the workers] hated their work. They hated the bosses and they hated the owners; they hated the whole place, the whole neighborhood— even the whole city, with an all-inclusive hatred, bitter and fierce (63).”
Jurgis found it “terrible” to learn that the men working with him at the meat factory grew to despise not only their work, but also everyone and everything around them. As the novel progresses, Sinclair makes the reader aware that this “all-inclusive” resentment is a consequence of the capitalist principle that every worker has to “shift for himself…. and if he gets the worst of it, there is nobody to listen to him holler (64).”
Moreover, Singer states that classic melodramas “reflected the revolutionary shift in political and ideological power” by “demonizing venal, abusive aristocrats" (Singer, 134). While Sinclair does not demonize a designated group of individuals, such as aristocrats, he does demonize the abstract villain of capitalism by exaggerating the suffering of those susceptible to its exploitive forces. For example, Sinclair illustrates the cruelty of job insecurity, a hallmark of capitalism, through the suffering it causes Ona:
“Ona was scarcely able to stand with exhaustion; but if she were to lose her place they would be ruined, and she would surely lose it if she were not on time that day. (82).”
Ona must drag herself to work each day, despite her near inability to stand, because requesting time off would inevitably put her job in jeopardy. This instability, as Singer mentions, is a force of modernity. Ona's suffering also serves to bring light to her virtue, as she has not done worthy of such uncontrollable suffering. Linda WIlliams argues in Playing the Race Card that "recognition of virtue orchestrates the moral legibility that is key to melodrama's function". The suffering of the victim-heroes throughout the novel thus serves to enhance their moral legibility and derive melodramatic power for Sinclair's narrative.
As the novel progress, Jurgis comes to the realization that capitalism should be blamed for this suffering: “They could not see that “economical” management by masters meant simply that they, the people, were worked harder and ground closer and paid less! They were wage-earners and servants, at the mercy of exploiters whose one thought was to get as much out of them as possible…" (349). Jurgis is furious that those who still have faith in capitalism cannot see that it is the very source of their suffering. Sinclair describes that these people as being “at the mercy” of the managing capitalist class, which only serves to exploit them.
By the end of the novel, Sinclair contrasts the suffering sustained under capitalism with the merits of socialism: “Every Socialist did his share, and lived upon the vision of the “good time coming”… No matter how poor a man was, or how much he suffered, he could never be really unhappy while he knew of that future…" (359). Essentially, Sinclair makes it seem as though even if one suffers as a Socialist, he would never truly feel the weight of that suffering. In a capitalist society, however, one would feel it tremendously. In this sense, Sinclair successfully uses melodrama to call for a “revolutionary shift in power” from the demonic evils of capitalism to what he views as the goodness of socialism.