Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers; under such circumstances immorality was exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it was under the system of chattel slavery. Things that were quite unspeakable went on there in the packing houses all the time, and were taken for granted by everybody; only they did not show, as in the old slavery times, because there was no difference in color between master and slave.
This quote from Chapter 10 comes from Sinclair’s explanation of Ona’s working conditions; she is forced to work under Miss Henderson, who runs a prostitution ring, and most of her coworkers are prostitutes. Sinclair presents these conditions as a horrible situation for the modest, moral Ona but also offers an explanation in which the system of prostitution is examined in rough economic terms. As with every other failing among the working class in the novel, prostitution is shown not as an innate fault of the women involved but rather as the fault of the capitalists and the economic oppression that they force upon the impoverished immigrants. This passage also hints at the sexual oppression that young working girls are forced to endure from their bosses and foreshadows Ona’s rape at the hands of Phil Connor.
Additionally, the last sentence raises a Marxist argument about the appearance of calm surrounding social relations under capitalism. The argument runs that social relations under capitalism are no less exploitative than those that existed under slavery and in feudal societies but that capitalism conceals the true turbulent nature of these relationships under a veneer of naturalness and inevitability. The difference between wage labor and these antiquated forms of subjugation is only a matter of transparency; though the “difference in color between master and slave” is no longer applicable to the owner-laborer relationship, the oppression remains the same.
[T]he meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.
This long description from Chapter 14 is among the most famous and influential passages in the novel and helps to explain why the book caused so much public furor upon its publication. Sinclair intended the book to raise public consciousness about the plight of the working poor, but he relied on a pseudo-naturalistic technique that emphasized the physically revolting filth and gore of the stockyards. As a result, the novel caused outrage about the unsanitary quality of the meat that was sold in stores rather than the oppression of the poor. The public pressed less for the socialist reforms that Sinclair backed than the public reform to food laws. The image of all kinds of waste being dumped in with the consumer’s product is surely revolting; that it is dumped in without any regard for the consumer by greedy capitalists is infuriating. Sinclair himself stated: “I…