The Jungle is indisputably Upton Sinclair’s best and most influential book. He was, nevertheless, never entirely happy with its reception. While it contributed to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 and other consumer protection legislation, his intent was to lay bare the capitalist system and demonstrate the need for democratic socialism. This message was largely ignored.
The Jungle’s critique of capitalism is unrelenting. Sinclair depicts a world that is dominated, as his title suggests, by might rather than right, a world that pits everyone against everyone else and metes out rewards on the basis of clout rather than merit. People are lured to the cities in droves and then discarded when they no longer serve the purposes of the powerful. They are maimed, forced to work in unsafe and unsavory conditions, and pushed, psychologically and physically, well past their breaking points.
Even as Sinclair describes the wedding feast in the opening chapter, he mixes images of gaiety and trays of piping-hot food with vignettes that chronicle the hardships of those forced to work as canners, picklers, beef boners, and general laborers. These workers’ tales are tragic, yet the workers refuse to admit defeat.
Jurgis personifies their defiance, constantly vowing to work harder and refusing to accept the systemic causes of his sufferings. He dedicates himself to achieving the American Dream and is convinced that through his own resolve and determination he can provide for his family and loved ones and rise through the system.
Characterizing Jurgis as a strict individualist who believes that anyone can succeed, Sinclair makes a direct appeal to his nonsocialist readers. The characters in The Jungle are not slackers; they are working men and women with simple dreams and expectations who are more than willing to contribute their fair share.
To bring his point home, Sinclair depicts a family more than willing to make sacrifices in order to become full-fledged members of the larger social order. Even Jurgis’s father, who is clearly too old to endure the ruthless conditions of the factory, pours his energies into securing employment so the family can afford the basic necessities and provide the youngsters a proper education.
From the beginning, it is clear to the readers that Jurgis and his family are fighting against the odds. Each new detail makes it abundantly clear that the system tempts people with unrealistic dreams and then erects insurmountable barriers to prevent the attainment of those dreams. Instead of a promised land, the family finds a land where greed and exploitation rule. It is not only the greed of the factory owners that the family encounters but also that of the owners’ lackeys who sell repossessed tract homes as new, the judges and politicians who have long since abandoned any moral scruples, and the slumlords who live in splendor while their tenants are surrounded by filth and disease. Added to this mix are the churches and the missions that are callously indifferent to the conditions the poor endure, and, quite often, contribute to their suffering.
For the first two-thirds of the book, however, Jurgis is ill-equipped to comprehend the realities that surround him. Until the time of Antanas’s death, he clings to a vague belief that, despite their setbacks, he and the remaining family members will somehow be able to save enough money to allow them a comfortable life and to revive “their habits of decency and kindness.”
Once he loses his son, however, he loses the last vestige of hope. He steels himself against emotions and heads for the country. He recovers his health there but finds that even those farmers who are willing to help him (and many are not) treat their work animals better than they do their hired hands. Jurgis resorts to guile and thievery as a way to make ends meet. He cannot, however, silence his conscience, and after coming to terms with the painful losses that he already endured, returns to the city and resumes his search for a better life.
Although the most memorable and horrifying scenes in the book are those that center on the meatpacking industry, Sinclair goes to great lengths to demonstrate that conditions in other industries are no better. Whether Jurgis is working at Packingtown, at the Harvester Works, at the steel mills, or in the city’s underground tunnels, he is treated with indifference and contempt and, when supply exceeds demand, summarily discharged, “turned out to starve for doing his duty too well.” The brutalization is underscored by Sinclair’s use of numerous analogies that compare the individuals to wild and hunted animals and of parallels between the fate of the innocent livestock and the fate of the common working person. Factory life is variously compared to an inferno, a bubbling cauldron, and a medieval torture chamber, where it is considered good sport to extract the last ounce of flesh from the hapless workers. The factory, however, is only a reflection of society’s disregard for democratic values and its indifference to truth and justice.
This, not the vile conditions and practices of the meatpackers, is Sinclair’s primary message. It is not, however, the message that the majority of his readers received. Coming as it did on the heels of the embalmed beef scandal exposed by William Randolph Hearst in 1899, the book merely added to the clamor for stricter regulation of the meatpacking industry, and Sinclair’s larger purpose was ignored.
In part, the fault was Sinclair’s. Rather than integrating his call for democratic socialism into the fiber of the novel, he tacks it on almost like an addendum; it lacks authenticity. In describing Jurgis’s conversion, he somehow loses sight of Jurgis, reducing him to spectator status, and does not fill the void that this creates with any memorable presence. Sinclair was aware of the flaws that weakened the last third of the novel and, at one point, even suggested ending the novel with Antanas’s death and then publishing a sequel. One might wish that his publisher had agreed. It would have strengthened The Jungle and allowed Sinclair the time to develop his critique of the role the political and judicial system plays in the disempowerment of the average citizen. Whether it would have made his socialist appeal any more compelling, however, is a moot point.