Written by Sam Nichamin
The first words of Singer’s article are “Melodrama was, in a quite literal sense, a product of Modernity” (Singer131). Singer explains that the reason that modernity caused this need for melodrama stems from the upheaval of “traditional feudal and religious authority and the rise of modern capitalism” (Singer132). This loss of religion, accompanied by the anxiety of a new capitalist world led to widespread anxiety and feelings of tremendous instability and insecurity.
Melodrama provided a venue for resacralization. The virtue of the proletariat was again rewarded in stories where the evil aristocratic villain was overcome by the power of good. The homelessness that the audience now felt in their new capitalist world was treated by the comfort of melodrama, much the way such feelings would have once been quelled by the comfort of faith and religion. Singer states that melodrama “served a quasi-religious ameliorative function in reassuring audiences that a higher cosmic moral force still looked down on the world and governed it with an ultimately just hand” meaning that eventually virtue would reign victorious (Singer134).
By providing this restored faith in the virtue of the common-man, hope and “the will to believe” are restored (Singer135). Melodrama thus presented many of the same functions that religion provided in the times before the sweep of modernity and capitalism. Visiting a theater to view melodrama becomes similar to sitting in a chapel to take part in a religious service. Picking up a melodramatic text becomes akin to picking up a bible or other piece of religious writing. The underpowered and hopeless are redeemed.
The Communist Manifesto works to provide a similar resacralization in the ways that the other melodramatic pieces that Singer mentions do. Marx and Engels villainize capitalism and its victors, the bourgeoisie. At the same time, they canonize the proletariat who are unfairly victimized by the powerful, smaller bourgeoisie. The proletarian are ‘enslaved’ in the Bourgeoisie’s ‘industrial army’ and are thus drowned in powerless hopelessness, and are lost in the religious void. But, the Communist Manifesto provides hope for these hopeless people! According to Marx and Engels the proletariat can band together and create revolution! Hope, order, and justice can be restored through the revolution of the proletariat. The suffering of the virtuous can be rectified by their own action, rather by the cosmic powers that Singer speaks of.
There is a clear void of religion in Upton Sinclair’s melodramatic tale The Jungle. A family of Lithuanian immigrants comes to America in search of the American dream. Their virtue and determination become evident. Soon though, so too is the hopelessness of their situation. It is clear that to get ahead in the capitalist America, one must drop the preconceived values of American virtue and become a cog in the machinery of corruption and sin. The sense of instability, homelessness, and insecurity that Singer, Marx, and Engels allude to is both clear and pervasive. Neither religion, nor any other sacred comfort can be found to defeat these feelings from modernity and capitalism. Life in America seems morally broke. Around every corner there is a lack of virtue being rewarded—corrupt politicians win elections, pimps make healthy livings, and so on and so forth. It is made evident that capitalism in America has adopted a secularist standpoint and that has left a void in the first chapter of The Jungle. At Jurgis' wedding the older members of the family were portrayed as complaining about the lack of tradition in the veselija. It was not the motions of the wedding they were mad about, but the fact that Jurgis and Ona were worried about the bill at the end of the wedding. They reminisced about a time where people helped each other financially for the greater good of the couple and the wedding. This idea of working for a greater good is gone with the secularism brought about by capitalism because people have become individualistic. People are concerned about their own wealth and health in American society and the novel shows how that effects Jurgis and his family.
Jurgis’s most powerful interaction with religion shows the secular nature of the setting of the book. Jurgis listens to a sermon and ‘”found his soul filled with hatred” (Sinclair 190). The only reason that he attends the revival is to stay warm and he feels that the preacher cannot possibly have an understanding of the real, modern world that Jurgis lives in. Religion loses its power because it is not applicable to the godless world of capitalism and modernity.
If the problem with religion is that it does not express what Jurgis feels and experiences, then Socialism becomes the solution. It creates a resacralization and Jurgis again feels the importance of the virtues that he earlier valued and his hope is restored. Socialism is even referred to as “ the new religion of humanity- or you might say it was the fulfillment of the old religion, since it implied but the literal application of all teachings of Christ” (Sinclair 264).
The introduction of socialism into the plot makes for socialism becoming the abstract hero, riding in to conquer the villain and save the innocent victims. It is left untold whether socialism does conquer capitalism in the story. It must be left open ended, as the hope was that the melodramatic piece of fiction would lead to the real world defeat of capitalism by socialism. It is a cry to arms. It is, however, not as revolutionary of a call as the one contained within the Communist Manifesto. Nor is it as passive as the resolutions that Singer describes, where outside forces manifest themselves to defeat the villains and restore order and good. That is where the genius of The Jungle lies—it elicits great sympathy for the plight of the proletariat, and then gives a realistic outline for how this wrong can be corrected and order restored. People must come together, organize and work towards a common good. The feeling of victimization is overwhelming, but the feeling of what must be done to take action, collectivize and defeat evil is graspable and seems entirely possible and manageable.