The Jungle by Upton Sinclair: The Struggle to Reach the American Dream

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair is a vivid and brutal representation of the meatpacking and slaughtering industry in the early 1900s. If you have ever seen a horror movie, you perhaps know what takes place after the killer finds a victim. There are screams, blood, death, and fear to spare. The Jungle has all these aspects, but it is not a piece of horror fiction. Instead, the novel is a political fiction. It is a well-informed critique of the social, political, and economic issues of the food industry and the rapidly developing capitalist society of the early 20th century. It focuses on an immigrant Lithuanian family that cannot catch a break within the confines of factory life, and their struggle to live their idea of the American Dream. Sinclair uses the poor immigrant family searching for a better life to brilliantly highlight the social and economic inequalities of work in the food system caused by capitalism.

About the author, Upton Sinclair, in full Upton Beall Sinclair, was born on September 20, 1878, in Baltimore, Maryland. He was a prolific American novelist and polemicist for socialism, health, temperance, free speech, and worker rights, among other causes. His classic muckraking novel The Jungle is a landmark among naturalistic proletarian work, one praised by fellow socialist Jack London as “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery”. Sinclair’s parents were poor, but his grandparents were wealthy, and he long attributed his exposure to the two extremes as the cause of his socialist beliefs. His public stature changed dramatically in 1905, after the socialist weekly, Appeal to Reason, sent Sinclair undercover to investigate conditions in the Chicago stockyards. The result of his seven-week investigation was The Jungle, first published in serial form by Appeal to Reason in 1905 and then as a book on February 26, 1906.

Though intended to create sympathy for the exploited and poorly treated immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry, the novel instead aroused widespread public indignation at the low quality of and impurities in processed meats and thus helped bring about the passage of federal food-inspection laws. As Sinclair commented at the time, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident, I hit it in the stomach”. Two years later after the book was published, The Jungle became a bestseller. Upton Sinclair spent his life writing and even made an attempt on involving himself in politics. He had written over 100 books and other works in several genres. In the year 1943, he won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. On November 25, 1968, American journalist and author Upton Sinclair died in his sleep at the Somerset Valley Nursing Home, Bound Brook, New Jersey.

The book begins where many stories end, with a wedding. Jurgis and Ona Rudkus, two recent immigrants of Chicago, are being married in the style of their Lithuanian homeland. It is a festive beginning, even as it is made plain that Jurgis, Ona, and all their neighbours are desperately poor; not a penny of the feast passes without being accounted for, and the wedding party ends not with thoughts for the honeymoon but with worries over whether frail Ona will be able to work the next day after all the partying. In fact, she could not, and from that point, the disintegration of Jurgis’s family begins. Told both in flashback and in painfully advancing present, Jurgis, Ona, and their extended family struggle to work their way to the “American Dream”. Along the way, they were cheated, robbed, jailed, and defrauded by means legal and not. Ignorant of the legal protections of their new country and in truth not having many defences, they were put through inhuman working schedules, denied food and utilities, and forced to send their children into the streets for work. Through it all, the family kept working, believing in the American way with a heart-breaking faith—until a crime too great to ignore shatters the household.

At every turn, Upton Sinclair outlines the exploitative nature of the system of Packingtown, the area where Jurgis and his family live. He illustrates the lack of job security, worker’s rights, and fair treatment in general. Sinclair mentions how milk is doctored with formaldehyde and sausage with potato flour. Medical knowledge of cancer was not high at this time, and Marija, Ona’s cousin and Jurgis’s friend, was overjoyed when she learns that she has netted a job painting metal cans, which was one of the more lucrative tasks available in Packingtown. None of the suspected anything even when they learned that few women made it longer than ten years painting the cans (with the paint that is likely to be filled with lead and carcinogens).

With the effort of his children to add to their wages to the family and a gargantuan effort by Jurgis and Ona, the family managed to make ends meet for a while. The first bad times happened when Jurgis sustained a slight ankle roll on the cattle-processing floor that resulted to further rest. Once he was recovered, he discovered that his job was gone. And he has difficulty finding work. To make matters worse, Ona was approached by an unsavoury character at her job named Phil Connor, the antagonist of the novel, and raped Ona after working hours. Once Jurgis founded out, he went mad with rage found the man, knocked him to a bloody pulp, and was immediately sent to jail.

The falling action of the novel is a continuation of Jurgis’s 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. During the 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.

Throughout The Jungle, the nature of space and place can be examined in the meatpacking district. In theory, the stockyard is a space where livestock is slaughtered, but Upton Sinclair turns the stockyards of Chicago into a humanised place for the reader. Sinclair uses the emotional and dramatic experiences of Jurgis and his family in order to attribute meaning to the reader. The horrible, and farfetched experiences of the stockyards are humanised and given meaning through the main character’s vivid accounts. The novel is mainly a third person narrative, so the action in the story is seen through the narrator, describing the protagonist, Jurgis, and his experiences. Throughout the account, the working conditions are shared in great detail from the smells, feelings, temperatures, sights, and emotions experienced. By creating a space that the reader can come close to experiencing, Sinclair establishes a foundation in which he can better connect the reader to the social and economic issues of the meat industry.

Outside the stockyards, the idea of space extends to the surrounding slums and neighbourhoods inhabited by meatpackers and low-skilled laborers of Chicago. The Stock Yard created these neighbourhoods so that workers and family members could live in close proximity and comfort, but the slums were strongly characterised by poverty, disease, and pollution. Sinclair humanises this place and connects the reader to the slums through emotional descriptions of the vile living conditions. These enormous neighbourhoods are crammed with poorly built houses and shoddy apartments. The streets are unpaved, filled with deep ruts, and often flow with water during heavy rains. This can be proved in chapter 21 when Jurgis’s son, Antanas, drowned in the streets. There are no sewer systems or trash collections, so the neighbourhoods are often dirty and susceptible to varmints and disease. Sinclair focuses on this space in order to highlight the social an economic inequality of the meatpacking industry that left thousands of immigrants and workers in unbearable conditions.

Prior to the concentration of slaughterhouses and meat processing in the late 19th century, animals were slaughtered and processed in geographically diverse locations, predominantly in backyards. In the early 19th century, as America begun to shift from an agricultural system to an industrial system, the effects of urbanisation and technological developments caused the centralisation of slaughterhouses to major cities. As a result, enormous meat processing facilities were developed that monopolised the industry mainly in Chicago. In The Jungle, Sinclair focuses on the infamous Union Stock Yard, which was an enormous slaughterhouse that was unlike anything ever created in the food industry. When the family first arrived at the stockyards, they were awestruck by the monstrosity of the situation, “It was like the murmuring of the bees in the spring…a world in motion…It was only by an effort that one could realise that it was made by animals, that it was the distant lowing of ten thousand cattle, the distant grunting of ten thousand swine” (2).

In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair emphasises the connection of where the meat travels to whether it is back to the farms or to the soldiers fighting abroad. During the second half of the 19th century, animal slaughter and meat production were located in numerous cities, but changes in trade routes during the Civil War, the development of railways, and mechanical refrigeration led to the centralisation of meat production in Chicago. By moving all the production to Chicago, companies benefited from the economic monopolisation of the meat industry, a more developed transportation network, and a concentration of infrastructure. There was only one place where ranchers could sell their livestock and there was only one place that consumers could get meat, which simplified the markets. Upton Sinclair highlights the geographic connection of the Chicago Stock Yard to a consumer, which created a network that spanned from coast to coast and overseas.

Through the experiences of Jurgis’s Lithuanian family, Upton Sinclair indicates the strong connection that foreigners had with the rising industrial systems in America. While in Lithuania, Jurgis and his family hear about the “American Dream” that promises them political freedom and an opportunity to increase the quality of their lives. Specifically, they hear from a number of friends, especially from Jokubas Szedvilas, that in America, one did not have to serve in the army or pay “rascally officials” and he could marry happily and make a decent wage (2). The family became obsessed by the “American Dream” and was connected by beliefs of financial and political freedom; however, the family was thousands of miles away from America and the reality that as immigrants they would be taken advantage of, robbed, and discriminated against. Their aspirations for abundant living diminished when they found that wages were below subsistence, they were tricked into renting an old decrepit house, and that work was limited to horrible occupations. Sinclair continually praises Jurgis’s physical strength and massive size in an effort to indicate how the years of hard, merciless labour will wear Jurgis down.

After painting a vivid picture of the social and economic inequalities of the meat industry in Chicago, Upton Sinclair introduces the theory of socialism as a solution to the suffering. In the last few chapters, Jurgis learns about the theory of socialism and instantaneously becomes a supporter and advocate. Jurgis listens to discussions and debates about the atrocities that capitalism creates in the industrial system. After Sinclair has grasped the attention of the reader through the gruesome experiences of the Lithuanian family, he uses Jurgis as a medium to share his own strong beliefs about socialism. Sinclair rushes Jurgis through the experience of adopting, learning, and advocating socialism by cramming his experience into two chapters. Finally, the last chapter of The Jungle serves as an outlet that Sinclair uses to unleash his final ideas to the reader, whereas throughout the rest of the book, he seamlessly relays his own account of the meat industry through the life of Jurgis. It is clear that in the last few chapters, Jurgis quickly converts to socialism solely for the purpose of spreading Sinclair’s socialist ideology to the reader. Throughout the book, the intentions of Sinclair to inform people of social issues in the meat industry flowed throughout the book until the awkward presentation of the solution of socialism.

Sinclair uses The Jungle to enlighten consumers and policymakers about the atrocities that resulted from the industrialisation of slaughterhouses. He embarks them on a treacherous journey of unveiling the dangerous working conditions, unfair treatment of workers, and below subsistence wages of the meatpacking industry. Over a century later, the existing food system in America finds itself with lasting effects of the efficiency-driven and productive concentration of the Union Stock Yard. Today, most of the meat industry is controlled by a handful of companies that benefit from enormous economies of scale and rely on immigrant labour just like the stockyards of Chicago in the early 20th century. Written in 1906, The Jungle remains an effective tool in reminding readers about the complexity of the food industry and the potential for gruesome mistreatment of humans and animals. In this day and age, consumers are often separated from the production of their food and moral issues of food production can go unnoticed. Even to this day, The Jungle serves to urge consumers and policymakers to strive for a just food system that provides humane treatment to both workers and animals.

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 unsavoury meatpacking processes. Though Sinclair wrote over 100 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.

Over a century later, The Jungle remains as a reminder to consumers and policymakers about the complicated food system and the potential for mistreatment of workers and animals. The agglomeration of food production established over a century ago created the foundations of the current food system and as a result, meat production is still in the hands of only a few large companies.

In my opinion, the first chapter of the book is boring. In fact, in a lot of ways, I would encourage people, if they are to read the book, to skip the first chapter because it is not what I feel essential to the story, The Jungle naturally begins in chapter 2 introducing the family and their life in Lithuania. The first chapter was very difficult for me, there are a lot of difficult names especially if you are not familiar with the Lithuanian culture, and you also do not know where the story is going. I liked the way the author uses metaphors and imagery instead of using dialogues to show the circumstances in the story. I really recommend this book because of how the author depicts a big issue in society and how real the story is. The Jungle is not perfect. Upton Sinclair himself—and seemingly every reader since—struggled with the ending. Having followed Jurgis’s local, almost unstoppable descent into financial, physical, and moral ruin, Sinclair apparently found it impossible to end the story on such a dark note.

In conclusion, weak ending notwithstanding, The Jungle remains one of the most powerful American novels. More readable than Uncle Tom’s Cabin and more relevant than Huckleberry Finn, it is a socially motivated story worth reading for itself and still—sadly—relevant to the issue of the day. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is the story of a family who struggles their way into meeting the “American Dream” but ended poorly and miserably. It is a conflict between capitalism and socialism, justice and equality, and social Darwinism. The book teaches you that family is at the centre of everything, despite the allures of the “American Dream” and the promises of wealth by capitalism, poverty is the real result, and working hard is futile if equality is not served.


Read more