Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
The Jungle is possibly one of the most referenced books in history and political science classrooms all across the United States. Sinclair's novel has generated worldwide renown and it achieved a great deal of public awareness (and public anger) about unsavory meat-packing processes. Though Sinclair wrote over 90 books, his name is synonymous with The Jungle. Almost without fail, textbooks describing meat-packing practices refer to Sinclair's masterpiece as the standard for comparison.
Immediate response to concerns aroused by the book was evident in 1906 legislation such as the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. The Jungle became an instant classic in 1906; it has retained this status today and can easily be found in your local bookstore. What follows is a synopsis of the content, intent, and purpose behind the beautifully-written novel of The Jungle.
The Jungle follows the story of Jurgis Rudkus and Ona Lukoszaite, who are newly-married Lithuanians and recent immigrants to the United States. The story starts with their wedding reception banquet in Packingtown, a section of Chicago whose purpose is evident from the title. Although the celebration is a happy one and Jurgis and Ona look forward to their future together, dark clouds are already gathering on the horizon.
At the conclusion of the reception, it is found out that not enough money has been collected to cover the celebration. It turns out that a number of young men have a habit of attending receptions uninvited and leaving without paying. Thus, Jurgis and Ona receive an abrupt introduction to the moral decay in and around Packingtown.
Life was hard in Lithuania, and Jurgis and Ona traveled to the United States in search of the American Dream. Sinclair continually praises Jurgis' physical strength and massive size in an effort to indicate how the years of hard, merciless labor will wear Jurgis down. While his family and friends were nervous about how they were going to survive without jobs in the weeks after their move, Jurgis was immediately selected from a crowd for a job based upon his impressive physical appearance of strength.
At every turn, Upton Sinclair outlines the exploitative nature of the system of Packingtown. He describes the cold, wet, moldy, disease-ridden, and unhealthy working conditions facing laborers and the meat which they process. He mentions how milk is adulterated with formaldehyde and sausage with potato flour (a nutritionless ingredient by essence).
He illustrates the lack of job security, workers' rights, and fair treatment in general. Medical knowledge of cancer is not high at this time, and Marija, one of Jurgis's friends, is overjoyed when she learns that she has netted a job painting metal cans, which is one of the more lucrative tasks available in Packingtown. None of them suspect anything, however, even when they learn that few women make it longer than ten years painting the cans (with paint that is likely to be filled with lead and other carcinogens).
With the effort of his children to add their wages to the family and a gargantuan effort by Jurgis and Ona, the family manages to make ends meet for a while. The first bad times happen, however, when Jurgis sustains a slight ankle roll on the cattle-processing floor that happens to result in a torn ligament. By continuing to work, Jurgis aggravates the injury and necessitates further rest. Once he is recovered, he discovers that his job is gone and he has difficulty finding work. To make matters worse, Ona is approached by an unsavory character at her job named Phil Connor and raped after working hours. Once Jurgis finds out, he goes mad with rage, finds the man, beats him to a bloody pulp, and is immediately sent to jail.
The falling action of the novel is a continuation of Jurgis' struggle for survival. Ona dies, his family falls apart, and Jurgis leaves and becomes a "hobo." Eventually, however, Packingtown draws him back, and he enters back into the fray minus the idealism he left Lithuania with. A jail acquaintance named Jack Duane convinces him to become a professional street thief, and Jurgis is soon offered a job by one of the local party bosses. Though Jurgis earns a great deal more money as a foreman responsible for the "speeding up" (pushing workers to exhaustion) he is consumed by guilt and drinks on a frequent basis. During a second encounter with Phil Connor, he is again consumed by rage and beats the man. Apparently, however, Connor turns out to be a man of some importance (the local party was grooming him to be a state congressman). Jurgis is forced to run for his life, and he again finds himself out in the cold.
The final few chapters of the novel reveal Sinclair's deeply-held political opinions. Jurgis attends a number of Socialist rallies and is caught up in the fire of reform and workers' rights. He spends a great deal of time attempting to undo some of the damage of the sanctity of human life that he found himself temporarily a part of. At the closing scene of The Jungle, Sinclair reveals the surprisingly strong performance of the Socialist Party and describes the hope of a bright new future that this will bring to the nation and its workers. Thus, Sinclair's true motivation behind the book is revealed.
Although he does attempt to push for support of socialism and to decry the disgusting meat packing plant procedures, his true purpose is to advocate the rights of workers. Sinclair believed that the legislation brought about by his book was not for the benefit of the nation, as the inspection procedures would cost the government a great deal of money. As he put it, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." Sinclair's wishes were eventually satisfied, however, by legislation in the latter half of the 20th century that would protect and promote workers' rights. The Jungle provides vivid imagery and a fantastic storyline that should be an integral part of every book collection. Its impact is evident today in the popularity of stories about bad food and the way the media propagates information like this as hot news, such as the "Jack-In-The-Box" virus E. coli.