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Book Review: The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

The book that turned millions into vegetarians was meant to turn them into socialists.


The Jungle

Originally published in 1906, approximately 149,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.



Few books have so affected radical social changes as The Jungle, first published serially in 1906. Exposing unsanitary conditions in the meat–packing industry in Chicago, Sinclair's novel gripped Americans by the stomach, contributing to the passage of the first Food and Drug Act. If you’ve never read this classic novel, don’t be put off by its gruesome reputation. Upton Sinclair was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who could turn even an exposé into a tender and moving novel.

Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, comes to America in search of a fortune for his family. He accepts the harsh realities of a working man’s lot, laboring with naive vigor—until, his health and family sacrificed, he understands how the heavy wheels of the industrial machine can crush the strongest spirit.




Note that the free version linked above at Project Gutenberg is the edited 31-chapter version, not the complete 36-chapter version.

Most Americans know that Upton Sinclair was a muckraking author whose most famous novel, The Jungle, led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. His expose of the enormously powerful meat packing industry that ruled Chicago horrified the country with descriptions of floor sweepings and rotting gangrenous corpses being ground into sausage, and the occasional worker being rendered into lard. Unless you've read it, though, it's less obvious that Sinclair was trying to horrify the country with the working conditions of poor laborers, and the massive concentration of wealth among a few conglomerates.

The Jungle is a socialist tract in novel form. But it's a good read even if you are not favorably inclined towards socialism. Sinclair could write, and I've found his novels to be quite entertaining, with a panoply of characters, and informed and well-researched (if thoroughly and unapologetically biased) stories that speed along in pleasing dramatic fashion.

The protagonist is Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant. This may have been one of Sinclair's mistakes, since he tried to make an American audience in 1906 feel sympathy for an Eastern European immigrant at a time when there was not much sympathy for any immigrants, least of all Eastern Europeans. Unsurprisingly, Americans cared more about eating poisoned-rat-and-horsemeat-sausage than the plight of starving immigrants.

There is almost no farewell—the dancers do not notice them, and all of the children and many of the old folks have fallen asleep of sheer exhaustion. Dede Antanas is asleep, and so are the Szedvilases, husband and wife, the former snoring in octaves. There is Teta Elzbieta, and Marija, sobbing loudly; and then there is only the silent night, with the stars beginning to pale a little in the east. Jurgis, without a word, lifts Ona in his arms, and strides out with her, and she sinks her head upon his shoulder with a moan. When he reaches home he is not sure whether she has fainted or is asleep, but when he has to hold her with one hand while he unlocks the door, he sees that she has opened her eyes.

"You shall not go to Brown's today, little one," he whispers, as he climbs the stairs; and she catches his arm in terror, gasping: "No! No! I dare not! It will ruin us!"

But he answers her again: "Leave it to me; leave it to me. I will earn more money—I will work harder."


Jurgis and his family arrive in Chicago, and make one mistake after another, being unfamiliar with the country and easy prey for the enormous apparatus of the meat packing industry. They buy a house which turns out to be a debt-trap, and quickly discover that there is no amount of work that is hard enough, and no such thing as loyalty to good workers. Jurgis's working conditions are truly horrific, and no matter how bad they get, there is always a worse job, and the packers can always find hungry unemployed men willing to work for even less.

If Sinclair stretches credibility a little bit, it is perhaps in the way that Jurgis and his family suffer every single bad thing that can happen to a poor working family. One bad thing after another happens, and every single time Jurgis seems to be having a bit of luck, you just know he's about to get smacked down again. He winds up working in a fertilizer mill - the very worst of jobs, except for being a beggar, which he also ends up as. He loses his family. He goes to jail. He gets beaten by cops. He gets blacklisted. He temporarily becomes an important political operative (thus seeing how the vote is bought and sold), only to be cast back into homelessness again. He gets kicked in the face by fate so many times, you have to admire him for sheer survival.

This is some serious grimdark dystopian fiction, and it's historical reality.

All the while, Sinclair is mostly showing us the horrors in a dramatic fashion without spelling out the message. The root cause of the problems he describes are obvious: massive concentration of wealth and unregulated hyper-capitalism.

The Jungle may not convince you that socialism is the answer — Sinclair only half-heartedly addresses counter-arguments to socialism in the excessively didactic final chapter of the novel — but it certainly demonstrates why unions rose to power, and why socialism was a going concern in the early part of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the last part of the book is where it becomes a full-blown Author Tract.

"How would Socialism change that?" asked the girl-student, quickly. It was the first time she had spoken.

"So long as we have wage slavery," answered Schliemann, "it matters not in the least how debasing and repulsive a task may be, it is easy to find people to perform it. But just as soon as labor is set free, then the price of such work will begin to rise. So one by one the old, dingy, and unsanitary factories will come down—it will be cheaper to build new; and so the steamships will be provided with stoking machinery, and so the dangerous trades will be made safe, or substitutes will be found for their products. In exactly the same way, as the citizens of our Industrial Republic become refined, year by year the cost of slaughterhouse products will increase; until eventually those who want to eat meat will have to do their own killing—and how long do you think the custom would survive then?—To go on to another item—one of the necessary accompaniments of capitalism in a democracy is political corruption; and one of the consequences of civic administration by ignorant and vicious politicians, is that preventable diseases kill off half our population. And even if science were allowed to try, it could do little, because the majority of human beings are not yet human beings at all, but simply machines for the creating of wealth for others. They are penned up in filthy houses and left to rot and stew in misery, and the conditions of their life make them ill faster than all the doctors in the world could heal them; and so, of course, they remain as centers of contagion, poisoning the lives of all of us, and making happiness impossible for even the most selfish. For this reason I would seriously maintain that all the medical and surgical discoveries that science can make in the future will be of less importance than the application of the knowledge we already possess, when the disinherited of the earth have established their right to a human existence."


But historically, it helps to see why people actually bought into socialism as something other than a bogey-man or a quaint historical relic, and dramatically, if you like reading stories where the main character gets kicked across the pages like a dog, Upton Sinclair is grimmer than a lot of grimdark fantasy authors.

The Jungle (1914)

Surprisingly, a 1914 silent movie is evidently the only time this book has ever been adapted for film. According to Wikipedia, it's now a lost film, with no known surviving copies.

Poll #1881160 The Jungle

Have you read The Jungle?

Yes, and I liked it.
2(25.0%)
Yes, and I didn't like it.
1(12.5%)
No, but now I want to.
2(25.0%)
No, and I don't want to.
3(37.5%)

Have you read anything else by Upton Sinclair?

Yes.
1(12.5%)
No.
7(87.5%)







Verdict: Most books written by an author on a soapbox suffer for it. The Jungle is a fine novel, and Upton Sinclair is quite good at presenting a dramatic, brutally gripping story that only starts really whacking you over the head with an explicit political message towards the end. Sinclair a far better writer, and a far more effective one, than Ayn Rand, that's for sure.

Also by Upton Sinclair: My review of Oil!.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, books1001, history, reviews, upton sinclair
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