For this assignment, I have chosen the following fictional accounts of the US: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and The Return of Mr. Wills by Mary Austin. Both of them discuss the same stage of American history, which is the period between 1880 and 1910. Although these two stories refer to the same time in the US history, they show that time from two completely different perspectives, and that is why it is hard to determine, which one of them gives a better description; still, in my judgment, The Jungle provides readers with more details that help to understand the US history.
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At the end of the nineteenth century, America had to cope with massive flows of immigrants coming from such countries as Canada, South America, China and Japan, as well as from different part of Eastern Europe. As data shows, there were almost 11 million of immigrants between 1870 and 1900.
The majority of them knew only several words in English and were not familiar with the country as such. Naturally, the immigrants did not have any particular knowledge or skills and headed to America with only one purpose – to find a simple and routine job. The US, at the same time, faced the technological development, which resulted in the situation when machines made the majority of goods and products, and highly skilled craftspeople were not as necessary as before.
So, the factories considered the newcomers as the cheap labor force, which was needed to cope with one or two simple and routinely repetitive tasks. Additionally, as far as the immigrants were searching for jobs, they mainly headed to cities. At the same time, many native-born Americans lived in the cities as well.
As a result, those were overpopulated: more than 40% of all American population lived in the cities by 1990. The demand for workplaces became higher and higher, and factory managers realized that people could be provided with even more unpleasant working conditions, forced to work even harder, with longer hours and lower wages.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair presents those events very well. We see Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian, and a family of his fiancée, Ona. All of them are in Chicago, where they have just recently moved. The author describes the living conditions provided for the immigrants very vividly. Every individual in the boarding house has only a mattress and some bedding. Some of the people even share the same mattress: a person who works at days uses it at nights and vice versa.
The place where the boarding house is located is even worse. Jurgis and Ona go for a walk and find out that the place they are going to live in is a dumping ground, with flies “literally blackening the air” and lots of garbage everywhere (Sinclair 34). Additionally, there is “an odor for which there are no polite words” (Sinclair 35). The author gives many other details, which describe the situation. Gradually, readers notice that people here live in unpleasant and even unsanitary conditions.
Besides, they also work at days and nights (long hours), and we can make a conclusion, that they do not get much for their work (low wages) because otherwise they could afford themselves a better housing. Hence, the workers are exploited. Additionally, considering the fact that Ona’s family and Jurgis leave their country for America only after many of their friends have already done the same, we can also understand that the story is about the flow of immigrants, not a single case.
Later, this guess is confirmed when the narrator tells that the boarding house is “for the occupancy of foreigners – Lithuanians, Poles, Slovaks, or Bohemians” (Sinclair 32). The author also lets us know that the main characters do not speak English well enough.
This fact becomes evident because of the following phrase: “The law says that the rate card shall be on the door of a hotel, but it does not say that is shall be in Lithuanian” (Sinclair 28). So, the story tells about the events in details, which is why it is not hard to guess what period of history is described.
The Return of Mr. Wills by Mary Austin is very different from the previous story. First of all, the main character here is a woman, and the story itself is more of the feminist literature. In the period between the 1880 and 1910, women worked as hard as men did. The same was true for children. Moreover, as a result of industrialization and deskilling (which have already been discussed before), the number of women in the labor force vastly increased, almost doubled. Consequently, the general discontent spread.
That was probably the first time when women began to fight for their own independence. That movement was supported by the Progressives, who consisted of middle- and upper-class Americans and wanted all levels of government systems to take measures in solving the problems occurred in the US by 1900. As a result, the Progressives achieved some success, for example, there were the restrictions on women’s labor, and the federal government allowed the votes for women in 1920.
The story by Mary Austin implies the women’s efforts to gain the independence. It is about a woman abandoned by his husband who leaves her on her own with four children to care about since he wants to search for the lost mines in the desert. However, instead of grieving for her husband, Mrs. Wills rebuilds her life, takes a job, rearranges her house, and becomes much happier.
As the narrator says from the very beginning, “Mrs. Wills had lived seventeen years with Mr. Wills, and when he left her for three, those three were so much the best of her married life that she wished he had never come back” (Austin 244). Apart from this, there are also many other feministic phrases in this story, for example, the author writes, “she not only did not need Mr. Wills, but got on better without him” (Austin 246). Additionally, the story shows how little depends on the woman.
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As a prime example, she can not get a divorce since the church allows those only if there is another woman. Even though Mrs. Wills tries to explain that her husband has left the family for three years because of the desert and that desert should be considered as another woman, nobody agrees with that. Finally, the woman realizes that the best (and only) possible option to get rid of her husband is to send him to the desert again.
Although this story implies the struggle of women for their rights, it does not talk about any historical events directly. It seems to me that it is even impossible to determine the time to which it refers. If we had not considered this story under this topic and if I had read it under different circumstances, perhaps I would not have recognized it as a link to the period of 1880-1910. Besides, the main characters of The Jungle and The Return of Mr. Wills are too different.
Jurgis Rudkus and those people who have come to America with him are immigrants, and they represent the working class. They do not have any decent place to live and are going to work hard for low salaries. Mrs. Wills and her family seem to be relatively wealthy. At the very least they have their own house and jobs.
Since the main problems of the end of the nineteenth century in the US relate to the working class, Mrs. Wills’ story can hardly describe those. Considering all of these, I believe that The Jungle is much more useful for the understanding of America at the time. As for the similarities, I have not found many of them, apart from the fact that the stories can be related to the same period of the US history.
To conclude, two stories we have considered within this topic differ from each other greatly. Although they describe the same period in the US history, they do it from two different perspectives, which is why it is hard to choose the better one. Still, in terms of history, The Jungle contains much more details and information about the end of the nineteenth century. Therefore, from my point of view, it is more useful in this regard.
Austin, Mary. “The Return of Mr. Wills.” The Century Magazine (1907): 244-246. Print.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle, Minneapolis, Minnesota: Filiquarian Publishing, 2008. Print.