The People Of The Abyss

His novel The People of the Abyss (1903) may not have caused as significant of a stir as Upton Sinclair’s work The Jungle (1905), but Jack London certainly grabbed peoples’ attention by exposing the lifestyle of residents of London’s East End. London’s book was not the first written about the subject. It was the first, however, that was an eye witness account, as London lived in the area for several months and experienced the same conditions as nearly 500,000 of that great city’s poorest inhabitants. London explains in the preface of The People of the Abyss, how he commenced this undertaking with no real expectations or preconceived notions. Naturally by the conclusion of his journey through the slums, London had developed an opinion on why these people were so poor and the reason they were in this situation. He blamed the British social and political system for placing these individuals in this deep, dark void. “For the English, so far as manhood and womanhood and health and happiness go, I see a broad and smiling future.  But for a great deal of the political machinery, which at present mismanages for them, I see nothing else than the scrap heap”.

The primary theme of London’s investigative work is utter physical and moral humiliation endured by the citizens of East London. In London’s mind, the East End slums are a social chasm the English government shunts those of the lower social classes to and which is essentially a death sentence. These people will never escape the yoke of complete and utter poverty and are doomed to a life of misery, starvation, suffering and continued exposure to the elements. These East End residents were on the verge of becoming subhuman and not much better than mere animals. In fact, the district was a “huge man-killing machine”.

Another theme of the novel is London’s attempts to persuade the reader he presents a unique depiction of the slum dwellers because he was raising in the working class. Therefore, he possessed a deeper appreciation for the East End conditions and the horrible things these people had to endure. There were several reviewers of the novel that felt London was too critical of the slums and they could not possibly be that awful. London, however, who had gone through life as a hobo for a period of time, was truly astonished at how horrendous life was in the East End, as he had never witnessed that kind of abject poverty and dehumanization in America. He found it unbelievable the British Empire was at its zenith or a time of tremendous prosperity, yet nearly half a million people were living in squalor and the government did not seem to even acknowledge it. “That an old woman of seventy-seven years of age should die of SELF-NEGLECT is the most optimistic way possible of looking at it.  It was the old dead woman’s fault that she died, and having located the responsibility, society goes contentedly on about its own affairs”.

In London’s mind one of the main reasons the slums were so congested was the political and social policies of England forced poverty onto a certain percentage of its citizens. For example, “In short, the London Abyss is a vast shambles.  Year by year, and decade after decade, rural England pours in a flood of vigorous strong life, that not only does not renew itself, but perishes by the third generation”. All of the slum’s denizens received a paltry wage, but were forced to pay exorbitant prices for rent. There simply was no affordable or adequate housing available for most of London’s working class.

Although the British government had instituted such legislation as the Housing of the Working Classes act of 1890 and the Public Health Amendment Act of 1890 which did provide regulations for public care and there were slums that were destroyed in response to these laws, the East End still was virtually ignored. The overcrowding and sanitation concerns were certainly major issues, but London also discussed how the government literally threw the working class into the slums to starve. People had tremendous difficulty paying for food and rent on the wage they earned. London notes this was quite different from America, as workers received better wages and the poverty of this city’s working class was far more severe than in his native land. He writes, “As a vagrant in the “Hobo” of a California jail, I have been served better food and drink than the London workman receives in his coffee-houses; while as an American labourer I have eaten a breakfast for twelvepence such as the British labourer would not dream of eating”. London also described the constant scramble for any kind of nourishment.

In the last chapter of the book, London squarely plants the blame on the government and English society for the deplorable conditions in the East End. He contends the British political class completely mismanaged the system during the Industrial Revolution. They also did not provide any succor for the working class. They had no desire to care for their poor or infirm, they only wanted the profits to spend on their pursuits as they wished. The poor were essentially enslaved by the British political class for their ends and their inhumane policies. There are 40,000,000 of the English folk, and 939 out of every 1000 of them die in poverty, while a constant army of 8,000,000 struggles on the ragged edge of starvation. This was London’s solution to the problem, “In short, society must be reorganised, and a capable management put at the head.  That the present management is incapable, there can be no discussion.  It has drained the United Kingdom of its life-blood.  It has enfeebled the stay-at-home folk till they are unable longer to struggle in the van of the competing nations.  It has built up a West End and an East End as large as the Kingdom is large, in which one end is riotous and rotten, the other end sickly and underfed”.

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