Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Chicago. Midwestern American city to which many immigrants, mostly eastern European, flocked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to find work in the meat-packing industry. A major railroad terminus, Chicago had a brisk economy, but its wealth was unevenly distributed. The captains of industry exploited the workers, who worked under appalling conditions for paltry wages, swelling the owners’ bank accounts.
*Lithuania. Small eastern European country on the Baltic Sea from which Jurgis Rudkus, the novel’s protagonist, emigrates hoping to find a better life in the United States. Early chapters of the novel contain flashbacks to Jurgis’s life in Lithuania that reflect the environment from which he has come.
Packingtown. Industrial area in Chicago where meat-packing houses are concentrated. Workers in Packingtown typically live nearby in run-down dwellings. Noxious smells from the meat-processing factories fill the air, and Packingtown’s sewers often overflow, sending streams of polluted water into the streets. In one such overflow, Jurgis’s young son drowns.
In 1904, Sinclair gained firsthand experience with such conditions after being sent by a socialist newspaper to investigate Chicago’s stockyards and packinghouses. He spent seven weeks living among workers in the packinghouses, after which he wrote The...
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The Jungle was written specifically to draw attention to the working conditions faced by laborers in America, specifically the immigrants who came, mostly from Europe, and had no choice but to work long hours for whatever meager pay they could get. Throughout the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, their situation became increasingly difficult. One reason was that a great number of unskilled laborers came to America at the time, so that employers could offer low wages for miserable jobs and always find someone willing to do the work. The United States population more than doubled, for instance, between 1850 and 1880, growing from 23 million to 50 million people; twenty years later, it was up by fifty percent more, to 76 million. Some of this was due to the country's expansion and acquisition of new western territories, but much of it was due to the fact that Europeans left hard conditions at home for the abundance of the new land. For example, the Irish potato famine of 1845-1847 caused millions of Irish people to leave their land in search of a new life. The first wave of immigrants came from western Europe. As word about America's strong economy spread deeper into the continent and travel became easier (by locomotives across land and steamships across oceans), people came from more distant countries, including Lithuania, where the Rudkus family of the novel came from. As the number of unskilled workers grew, urban...
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The Jungle takes place in the meatpacking plants, stockyards, and settlement houses of Chicago during the opening years of the twentieth century. As much a work of journalism as of fiction, the novel grew out of Sinclair's firsthand observations of life in the "Yards" and his interviews with workers, foremen, and politicians. Although Sinclair wanted his novel to focus on the merits of socialism, its impact stemmed from its raw depiction of the inhumane working conditions at the packing plants and the health hazards posed by filth in the slaughterhouses. The novel's naturalistic setting thus proved far more important to its success than did its political content.
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Most of this book is told from Jurgis Rudkus' point of view, giving readers information that Jurgis would have experienced or heard about and providing access to his feelings and opinions. The book's first chapter provides the most obvious exception to its overall narrative structure. Chapter 1 has an omniscient narrator who is not identified with any particular character, shifting attention from one wedding participant to the next, like a movie camera panning a crowd scene. A reader who was only familiar with the first chapter would not be able to tell that this is a book about Jurgis: the characters who receive the most attention in that part of the book are Ona's cousin Marija Berczynskas and the fiddler Tamoszius Kuszleika, who in fact only receives passing mention throughout the rest of the tale. Once the narration settles on Jurgis, from Chapter 2 on, its hold is loose, slipping every so often into the point of view of another character. For example, in the course of describing the work situations of other characters, such as Ona or Elzbieta, the narration will say what these characters thought, which is actually a violation of the pattern established in the rest of the book, which only gives access to Jurgis' mind.
The Jungle was written the way that was most common in the nineteenth century, the way that Charles Dickens and Mark Twain produced novels: as a continuing serial for a newspaper, with new...
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Sinclair saw The Jungle as a narrative setting forth the effects of "a system which exploits the labor of men and women for profits." He wished to avoid journalistic exposition: "What Socialism there will be in this book, will, of course, be imminent; it will be revealed by incidents — there will be no sermons." For most of the novel, Sinclair is true to his planned technique. The narrative follows the adventures of the protagonist in a naturalistic environment where only the ruthless survive. Vivid description of outrageous industrial practices insured audiences' reception of the story as actual fact and produced at least some of the social reform hoped for by the author. The novel begins with the vesilija, a Lithuanian wedding feast, an expression of individual hope and confidence in a society directed by traditional values. Jurgis, the central character, is then bombarded by episode after episode, each constructed to demonstrate that hope is vain in a society dedicated to the values of capitalism. Having made that point, Sinclair was then faced with the problem of introducing socialism as the best alternative. Jurgis is brought full circle to another kind of hope in his political conversion, but seeming to rush to the end, Sinclair changes his technique and pours in his measure of socialism in the form of lectures and discussions for which Jurgis, like the reader, serves little more purpose than to sit as an audience. Sinclair himself was not completely...
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Sinclair's expose of Chicago's meatpacking industry produced an immediate decrease in American meat consumption and soon led to the passage of stricter laws regulating the food industry. As an agent of reform, The Jungle fit squarely into the tradition of muckraking journalism, an outgrowth of the progressive movement that dominated American cultural and political spheres in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An adjunct to the "trust-busting" fervor that drove political activists to fight for legal restraints against corporate monopolies, muckraking strove to expose in print—and thus, eventually, eradicate— social and political injustice.
Critics analyzing The Jungle's literary merits often remark on the book's naturalistic elements, drawing comparisons to other novels that depict humanity as controlled or victimized by social factors. To the extent that The Jungle shows pessimistic determinism, its precedent can be seen in the work of the French naturalistic writer Emile Zola. If examined primarily for its journalistic and inflammatory elements, The Jungle recalls the writing of Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and other pieces of Revolutionary War-era propaganda. Jack London, himself a naturalistic writer, called The Jungle the Uncle Tom's Cabin of wage slavery, and Sinclair acknowledged a debt to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel. If precedents ranging from Zola to Paine to Stowe seem...
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Upton Sinclair's overwhelming concern was the betterment of society; art was little more than a sometimes useful tool in the work of improving conditions among the working classes. The Jungle was first conceived as an analogy between the wage slavery imposed on workers and the slavery earlier imposed on blacks. The stockyards of Chicago were selected as an ideal example of the brutality that capitalism allows the privileged to inflict on the poor. Sinclair painstakingly researched all his works; for The Jungle, he spent two months in and around Chicago's packing houses. Disguised as a worker, he observed the squalor, filth, and despair that the greedy few spawn as the natural byproduct of an economic system designed to promote personal gain. Returning to his home in New Jersey, Sinclair novelized his data in less than six months. At first rejected by major publishing houses for fear of libel, Doubleday and Company determined by its own investigations that the book contained nothing libelous — it was all quite true — and published The Jungle in 1906 as "a searching expose."
The filth in the industry that feeds the nation was the thrust of Double-day's marketing and, to be sure, the object of the readers' horror; but more than this, Sinclair's concerns included the exploitation of workers, the dangers of unsafe machinery, the abuses of child labor, and the degrading effects of slum existence. Of course, The Jungle did not...
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Compare and Contrast
1906: The Pure Food and Drug bill introduced, in part, as a result of revelations made in The Jungle, was opposed by conservative politicians. Republican Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, 64, asked, "Is there anything in the existing condition that makes it the duty of Congress to put the liberty of the United States in jeopardy? ….. Are we going to take up the question as to what a man shall eat and what a man shall drink, and put him under severe penalties if he is eating or drinking something different from what the chemists of the Agricultural Department think desirable?"
Today: The debate still continues about whether government safety standards are an infringement of manufacturers' freedom.
1906: The worst earthquake to hit an American city shook San Francisco, registering 8.3 on the Richter scale. The resulting fire lasted three days. In the end, 2,500 died, 250,000 were left homeless, and damages were estimated at over $400 million.
1989: An earthquake crippled San Francisco, measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale (which means that its impact was one-tenth of the 1906 quake). The quake killed 90 people and caused $6 billion in property damage, mostly due to the collapse of the double-deck Nimitz Highway and the buckling of the Bay Bridge.
Today: A growing number of scientists are convinced that a major tremor, greater than any on record, is due to shake California's San Andreas...
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Topics for Discussion
1. What elements in the plot have caused critics to accuse The Jungle of being too melodramatic to be classified as good literature?
2. "Muckraking" is a term applied to investigative journalism intent on effecting social change, often to the point of abandoning any pretext at objective reporting. Why have some critics called The Jungle a muckraking novel?
3. Does Sinclair consider Jurgis moral or immoral? In Sinclair's view is it sinful to become a thief or prostitute?
4. Most "naturalistic" fiction ends on a pessimistic note and suggests that man has little control over his environment. Is there any reason to think that Jurgis's life will improve?
5. Do any of the characters in The Jungle seem to be unique individuals, or are they all simply two-dimensional figures whose experiences serve only to convey Sinclair's political message?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research the Socialist movement in America at the turn of the twentieth century.
2. Along with French and Russian writers, Sinclair helped establish the tradition of naturalism. Research the characteristics of the "naturalistic novel" and analyze how The Jungle fits into the movement.
3. Read Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and compare it to The Jungle.
4. The meat-packing industry remains controversial today. Research some of the practices that people find unacceptable.
5. Research the Pure Food and Drugs Act passed by Congress in 1906 and explain why it was necessary.
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Topics for Further Study
Many of the incidents included in The Jungle are based on actual events. Research the 1904 beef strike in Chicago and other cities, the International Harvester Trust created in 1902, the settlement house movement, or the Socialist movement in the early years of the twentieth century, and report on the background of Sinclair's fictionalized events.
What steps are taken by the government to assure that meat sold today is sanitary and safe to eat? Examine the inspection process and explain it visually with a chart that shows the steps of the process.
Music often helps people to understand the mood of a different time or culture. Find some songs that would have been popular in Chicago in 1905, and explain how their lyrics and melodies reflect the way of life described in The Jungle.
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Critics commonly remark on The Jungle's naturalistic elements and so have drawn comparisons to the great novels that have depicted humanity as a species like all others directed by uncontrollable biological or social factors. To the extent that The Jungle shows pessimistic determinism, its precedent can be seen in Iimile Zola. The Jungle is polemical; so sometimes was Leo Tolstoy. If The Jungle is seen as journalistic and propagandistic, the search for precedents can look as far back as Thomas Paine. Before the book was written, Sinclair remarked, "The novel will not have any superficial resemblance to Uncle Tom's Cabin . Fundamentally it will be identical with it — or try to be." Indeed, Jack London, himself a naturalistic writer and Sinclair's friend, called The Jungle the Uncle Tom's Cabin of wage slavery. Precedents ranging from Paine to Tolstoy seem like a mixed list, and The Jungle itself is a mixed bag, employing narration and exposition in the tempering of naturalistic pessimism with socialistic optimism.
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The Jungle was Sinclair's first success and remains his most powerful and popular book; the remainder of his work is now virtually unread. While critics agree that much of Sinclair's writing is notable primarily for its uneven quality, one of the author's novels deserves mention both for its literary merits and its thematic similarities to The Jungle. In 1914 the National Guard was called to Ludlow, Colorado, to break a strike by United Mine Workers. The Guard fired into a tent camp, killing several women and children. Sinclair visited Colorado and found the plight of the miners as moving as the Chicago wage slavery that inspired his earlier masterpiece. Three years after the Ludlow massacre, he published King Coal, the story of a wealthy young student, Hal Warner, who poses as a miner to investigate working conditions in the Colorado mines. Warner becomes a union advocate and plays a leading role in organizing the workers before returning to college with a new purpose in his life: "To fight for the working people." Warner's experiences present a panorama of an industry as corrupt, oppressive, and dangerous as any Sinclair took arms against, and the author had high hopes for the novel's success. Its reception, however, was disappointing.
Only two of Sinclair's works have been adapted for film. The Gnomobile: A Grace Gnew Gnarrative with Gnonsense but Gnothing Gnaughty (1936), a children's story that reveals a surprising...
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An audio recording of The Jungle was made by Blackstone Audio Books in 1994, read by Robert Morris.
An unabridged recording of The Jungle, narrated by George Guidall, was released by Recorded Books, Inc. in 1998.
Audio Book Contractors released an audio version entitled Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in 1998.
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What Do I Read Next?
In 1962, a few years before his death, Sinclair published his view of his long life and many accomplishments in The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (Harcourt, Brace). While The Jungle and the social changes that resulted from it are clearly the most notable accomplishments in his life, his life was filled with other publications and deeds that make it notable, including the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union and breaking the Rockefeller oil trust with his novel Oil!.
Leon Harris' biography Upton Sinclair: American Rebel, published in 1975 by Thomas Y. Crowell Company, is a thorough picture of the author's life. It paints a generally positive picture of the author's life, a picture that his critics might find a little too rosy.
Theodore Dreiser's book Sister Carrie was published a few years earlier than The Jungle, in 1900. It shocked readers of the day with its grim realism and frank sexuality, presenting what might be the best example of the realistic style that Sinclair used to make his social message powerful. Dreiser's later and more famous book, An American Tragedy (1925), about a famous murder in Chicago, also reflects Sinclair's style and social concerns.
James R. Barrett's book Work and Community in The Jungle: Chicago's Packinghouse Workers, 1894-1922 is an explanation of the social situation that Sinclair wrote about. Published in 1987, this book makes an...
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For Further Reference
Bloodworth, William A. Upton Sinclair. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977. A biographical and critical study.
Brooks, Van Wyck. Emerson and Others. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1927. Includes a critique of Sinclair's rhetoric.
Filler, Louis. The Muckrakers: Crusaders for American Liberalism. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1968. A general study with attention to Sinclair.
Gottesman, Ronald. Upton Sinclair: An Annotated Checklist. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1973. The most complete bibliography of works by and about Sinclair.
Harris, Leon. Upton Sinclair: American Rebel New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975. A thorough biographical study.
Yoder, Jon. Upton Sinclair. New York: Ungar, 1975. A brief but helpful survey of Sinclair's work.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Van Wyck Brooks, "Upton Sinclair and His Novels," Sketches in Criticism, Dutton, 1932, pp. 291-98.
Bernard Dekle, "Upton Sinclair: The Power of a Courageous Pen," Profiles of American Authors, Tuttle, 1969, pp. 70-74.
Melvyn Dubofsky, 'Big Bill' Haywood, St. Martin's Press, 1987.
James R. Green, The World of the Worker: Labor in Twentieth-Century America, Hill and Wang, 1980.
Granville Hicks, "The Survival of Upton Sinclair," College English, Vol. 4, no. 4, January, 1943, pp. 213-220.
Daniel Nelson, Shifting Fortunes: The Rise and Decline of American Labor, from 1920 to the Present, Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1997.
Walter B. Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society, Harvard University Press, 1956.
Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair, Harcourt Brace World, 1962.
Jon A. Yoder, Upton Sinclair, Frederick Ungar, 1975.
For Further Reading:
William A. Bloodworth Jr., Upton Sinclair, Twayne, 1977. A brief, comprehensive, scholarly look at the author's career and how his political activities intertwined with his social goals.
Floyd Dell, Upton Sinclair: A Study in Social Protest, Doran, 1927.
Dell was a prominent writer and social activist in Sinclair's time, and his critical study...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bloodworth, William A., Jr. Upton Sinclair. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Portrays Sinclair as a literary rebel who weds art and ideology and sacrifices the last four chapters of The Jungle in his attempt to introduce hope into an otherwise dismal world. Analyzes the novel as a contemporary tragedy, paying attention to the conservative biases inherent in the message.
Harris, Leon. Upton Sinclair: American Rebel. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975. Depicts Sinclair as the most influential (but not the best) writer in the United States because he changed the way Americans viewed themselves, their rights, and their expectations. Bibliography.
Mookerjee, R. N. Art for Social Justice: The Major Novels of Upton Sinclair. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1988. Argues that Sinclair’s novels must be assessed as an extension of his social activism and desire to communicate with the masses. Examines Sinclair’s use of a documentary style and defends Sinclair’s characterization, noting that in addition to Jurgis, Sinclair manages to give heroic status to both Marija and Elzbieta.
Rideout, Walter B. The Radical Novel in the United States: 1900-1954. New York: Hill & Wang, 1956. After distinguishing between radical fiction and social protest fiction, examines the two major strains of the radical novel....
(The entire section is 268 words.)