The Jungle Upton Sinclair
The following entry presents criticism on Sinclair's novel The Jungle (1906).
Sinclair was a leading “muckraker,” a group of early twentieth-century American journalists and writers who sought to initiate reforms by exposing social and political excesses and abuses, and The Jungle is one of the best-known pieces of the muckraker movement. Variously admired and excoriated by critics, the novel is responsible for bringing to light the appalling working and sanitary conditions of Chicago's slaughterhouses.
Plot and Major Characters
The Jungle established Sinclair as a leading social critic. At the request of Isaac Marcosson, a reformative editor and publisher, Sinclair spent seven weeks investigating the Packingtown district of Chicago, where he observed the living and working conditions of the meat-packing industry and talked intimately with workers. His goal was to write a tract for socialism as well as a romantic exposé of the betrayal of the American dream by focusing on Jurgis, a worker who tolerates the squalid environment to support his family. After becoming injured and attacking his supervisor for sexually harassing his wife, Jurgis loses his job and watches his family die as a result of health-related disorders. Jurgis becomes alternately a vagabond and a strike-breaker in the meat-packing plant strike of 1904 before discovering in the socialist cause “brothers in affliction, and allies.”
Sinclair commented that he had “aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” The widespread public horror over the relatively brief passage of The Jungle that describes contaminated meat led to the establishment of the Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug Acts. Disappointingly for Sinclair, the novel resulted in little improvement of workers' conditions or the poverty of their families. At the book's publication, however, hopes were high that Sinclair's exposure of the brutal realities of working-class life would bring about genuine social and political change. Jack London wrote: “[What] Uncle Tom's Cabin did for black slaves, The Jungle has a large chance to do for the wage-slaves of today.” From a literary standpoint, The Jungle employs stark naturalism. Jurgis moves his family from Lithuania to Chicago expecting to achieve the American dream; instead, their life becomes a nightmare of toil, poverty, and death. Through Jurgis's story Sinclair delivers a striking indictment of capitalism and free market societies.
The Jungle garnered widespread praise from conservative and liberal reviewers for its candid exposure of social realities. It has been translated into many languages and has been read worldwide. For years it was circulated throughout the communist world as a faithful depiction of the inherent oppressiveness of the capitalist system in the United States. Western critics have focused largely on Sinclair's impressive use of naturalism to tell his story and on the shocked impression left on the reader. Some have questioned Sinclair's claims that the novel is an accurate depiction of conditions in Packingtown, accusing him of exaggerating the horrors he supposedly encountered during his research. Some reviewers have faulted the novel's conclusion, in which Jurgis is captivated by the ideological doctrine of radical intellectuals, as didactic, simplistic, or unconvincing. However, because of its criticism of the American dream as unattainable and its demand that the dream be more inclusive and transformed into economic reality, The Jungle remains an important work in the tradition of the social novel.