Last Updated on May 21, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571
THE JUNGLE presents the tragic story of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian peasant, and his family and friends, who are lured to America with promises of good wages and quick wealth. In Packingtown, they discover that Chicago is literally a “jungle” in which the non-English speaking immigrant is easily victimized by crooked and unscrupulous employers, political bosses, labor leaders, and real-estate hucksters. They are brutalized by an economic system that exploits them for their labor and then discards them when they are no longer productive.
When Jurgis and his family first arrive in Chicago, they are confused and bewildered. He goes to work at a packing house for $45 a month, but soon his father, wife, and relations must also find work to meet their expenses. Despite their best efforts, they find themselves slipping into poverty, disease, and squalor. When Jurgis is injured at work, he loses his job, his father dies, and his wife and child become ill. After serving a prison term for violence, he drifts miserably from job to job until one night by chance he hears a lecture on socialism.
Sinclair’s bleakly deterministic novel was meant to dramatize the plight of the workers in the meat-packing industry, but the primary effect of his novel was to arouse his readers’ indignation over the unsanitary conditions in which their food was produced. “I aimed at America’s heart,” he remarked, “and by accident hit it in the stomach.” His novel was based on careful investigative journalism and provides a vivid account of the inhumane conditions that many immigrants faced in adjusting to American life.
As a naturalistic novel, THE JUNGLE suggests that Jurgis is helpless in struggling against his social environment. Sinclair believed that socialism was the answer, but instead his novel led to reforms in the meat-packing and food-processing industries.
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. Provides a useful discussion of Sinclair’s place within the radical movement, an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of his fiction, and useful comparisons to the works of Charles Dickens.
Yoder, Jon A. Upton Sinclair. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975. Analyzes the reasons Sinclair’s works have been neglected and why Sinclair deemed The Jungle a failure. Explains the underpinnings of Sinclair’s vision of democratic socialism.
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