The Jungle

The Jungle
© 1906 Upton Sinclair
475 pages


Welcome to The Jungle, but we don’t have fun and games. We have despair, ruin, and death.    The Jungle begins as the story of the Rudkus-Lukoszaite family, who have arrived in America from Lithuania, very hopeful about building a new life for themselves. One of their countrymen owns a prospering shop, and they — leaving the farms of eastern Europe behind — hope to do likewise.     They are directed into the sinkhole of Chicago, Packingtown, where most immigrants are directed, and in that expanse of animal-processing plants, saloons, and shantys, they and their dreams go to die.  In 30-odd chapters we  see a strong, proud man crushed and chewed beyond recognition, until by the final chapters he is barely there at all — but we’ll get to that.

The Jungle is famous, or rather infamous, for inspiring more expansive regulation of the food industry in the early 20th century, despite that not being its intention. The novel was written as a serialized story/tract (published in the socialist Appeal to Reason)  by Upton Sinclair,  with the aim of  stirring up outrage and sympathy with the inhumanity of industrial poverty. Sinclair wanted readers to see the endless line of animals waiting for every little bit of them to be processed, and the endless supply of immigrants who would work for pennies,  who were used up and left to die by the same industry, were one in the same. Instead, people saw the early bits  depicting people falling into vats and being rendered into lard, or  cutting up every sickly animal or moldy bit of meat for use a sausage, and ignored everything else.

“Everything else” is….grim. Depressing. Grisly. Take your pick.   Jurgis and his family begin strong, proud, and hopeful; Jurgis’ response to any dilemma, any challenge, is simple: “I will work harder!”  But after a few bad financial choices, the family is placed on the brink of ruin and stays there, occasionally drifting into dire and deathly straits before bobbing up again, like some ghastly corpse in the water.  Early on, Jurgis is resolved that his wife and the youngsters will not work, but circumstances force otherwise, and soon it’s all they can do to keep off starvation.  Things really fall apart when Jurgis is injured and confined to bed for two months; when he returns, weak and haggard, he struggles to make a way for himself again, and any progress he makes is invariably disrupted by his own temper or outside tragedy.

In the beginning, The Jungle is utterly effective at winning the reader’s sympathy for proud Jurgis and his increasingly desperate family, but then,  in the last third,  the story….disappears.  Jurgis changes, and then he’s just a mute background piece, listening to speeches and  conversations between people designed to invoke a conversion to socialism. The novel ends with a cry to take Chicago, and….well, what of Jurgis? The sad remnants of his family?   We don’t know, and that’s annoying.  Ayn Rand’s novels may have also been author tracts, but at least they gave us resolution.

I enjoyed The Jungle far more than I thought I would, given my aversion to authoritarian systems like socialism,    and am glad I took it on.

Critical appraisal of novel from the Foundation for Economic Education

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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13 Responses to The Jungle

  1. I have always been curious to read this. Now I’m really enticed! From your review, it has hints of The Grapes of Wrath, but obviously different. Bummer about the author’s aversion: although it may be essential to the story; nonetheless, why pull a reader into the lives of characters only to leave them hanging or missing?

    Ruth @ GreatBookStudy

    • Sinclair seems to have been a prolific writer of exposure-type stories in which he examined different industries. Since this was being serialized, he may have started working on another project and lost interest in Jurgis…or the character was far less important to him than his point.

  2. Mudpuddle says:

    it takes a lot of courage to read Sinclair… your post gives a good idea of what the book is about without grossing persons out too much… tx for that…

  3. Marian says:

    Wow…if that’s all based on true situations, that’s awful. I’m not sure I could stomach this one.

    • I don’t know how much is just hearsay and how much has some grounding in reality, unfortunately. I chose to read it purely as a story, with no documentary/journalistic aspects.

  4. Anonymous says:

    As someone who has lived through several Socialist governments I just have to say it wasn’t all that bad….. [lol]

    • I think Sinclair probably had Russian-style socialism in mind, not the softer Labor stuff. 😉

      • Anonymous says:

        I was kinda wonder what kind of Socialism he was thinking about as it was published 11 years before the Russian revolution. Marxist ideas maybe??

      • The book ends with the workers of Chicago being urged to take the city, and given how corrupt politics was in the story (the unions are in bed with the political machine — even Jurgis is compromised by them), perhaps Sinclair had an urban uprising in mind, a commune de Chicago.

  5. Brian Joseph says:

    Great review. I read this a long time ago. I thought that it took real problems and portrayed them in a way that was over the top. I agree that socialism (as portrayed in this book, the term has come to mean many things) is a bad way to go. I also agree that the book was entertaining in a dark sort of way.

    • Like Gulag Archipelago in that respect – darkly entertaining, I mean — although Solzhenitsyn’s writing, even in translation, has more wit and grace in it. He’s on my definite-read-more list once the classics club list is completed.

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