American Literature Unseen for OCR A level.

This is a passage from Upton Sinclair: The Jungle which was used as a handout in a training session at the English and Media Centre today. I thought I would write an unseen response -45 minutes – in the same vein as my Dystopian unseens which can be found on here elsewhere   


The training looked at exploratory writing. I like the SCASI framework I am used to from the IBDP – this is a mixture of the two, I suppose. Feedback very welcome. I am not as confident in this genre as in Dystopia. Please feel free to offer critique.

the jungle2


Written in 1906, this passage seems to fall into the category of ‘Immigrant Experience’ which became increasingly common in American Literature around the turn of the 20th Century.

From the outset, the title of the book is reflected in the setting of the new urban environment into which the Lithuanians are decanted  – or ‘tumbled out’ like so many objects- in every way as perplexing as a jungle. The distant buildings are not only ‘towering’ but are ‘black’ suggesting both a barrier and a sense of, if not evil, then certainly threat. The environment is sufficiently disorienting that they bare reduced to ‘cowering’ in doorways like  small animals. Once rescued by authority, the enormity of the city makes itself felt. This is reminiscent of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, in which Carrie’s arrival in Chicago is one of disorientation and loneliness. The idea of the innocent ‘farm hand’ arriving in the new urban jungle is exacerbated here by the fear of the new arrivals – who cross the street to avoid the police and do not speak the language. Such a fear of authority can also be seen in another great ‘journey’ novel -The Grapes of Wrath, in which the Okies fear all authority on their arrival in California because of the corruption and cruelty of the police. Not everyone is welcoming to newcomers.

The sheer size of the city is accentuated as they begin their journey to the stockyards: not only does the first part of the journey last ‘a full hour’, but roads run for ‘mile after mile, and the length is made explicit when Sinclair writes ’34 of them’, an almost unfathomable size. As they travel, the housing becomes less and less salubrious and Sinclair uses colour to highlight the change – gradually the ‘hideous’ landscape becomes ‘yellow’ and parched. The smoke is so thick that they actually taste the setting – the odour of pollution has become so thick. The passage is reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s ‘Valley of the Ashes’ as he explores the hopelessness of the urban development of New York in the 1920s. For some the stench is an ‘intoxicant’ – they are excited by the presumed opportunity to find work.

This is the driving force of the immigrant novel and the sense of the journey to find the positive outcome is tangible in this passage. It is also clear that the apart from ‘Jonas’ – the possible protagonist – this is a large group of anonymous travelers, portrayed as lacking any individual identity. Throughout the passage they are referred to by the plural pronoun ‘they’ as though lacking any individuality, indeed not unlike the cattle with which they will be working in the stockyards. They are unable to communicate beyond the name of the city into which they have arrived and are clearly on the very outer reaches of society. This focus on those from the lowest reaches of society is a feature of the new modernism and realism which was developing in the early 20th century.

The whole passage is recounted from the position of an omniscient narrator which enhances the sense of helplessness of the immigrant mass. As they travel the sentences grow in length and the sense of size is created – the anaphora of ‘here and there’ suggests the somewhat random nature not only of the immigrants gaze but also of the urban development. The only descriptors tend to be negative – ‘dirty’, ‘ugly’ or ‘dingy’. Even the railway is a ‘tangle of switches’ suggesting an unstoppable and unplanned growth.  At times the writer engages directly with the reader by shifting to a second person address – ‘you could literally taste it…’ in order to add emphasis to the filth in the air. The bareness increases as the stockyards are reached and the writer mentions for the first time in the passage the origin of the journey – Lithuania. The journey in the American novel is ofte of great distance – The Grapes of Wrath or Huck Finn’s journey down the Mississippi for example – suggesting the vastness of the country to be explored. Now we see the introduction of the idea of America’s place in a wider world. A journey which can be barely imagined which ends in the stinking stockyards and slaughterhouses of Chicago.

Despite the length of journey, the arrival is one of joy. This journey ends in new opportunity, just as the Joads hope for their journey. The message is clear. Americans journey to make the most of their situation – just as the Pioneers journeyed to open the country up to settlers, now the next generation will journey to the New World and begin their lives anew, however harsh the environment.