History: This book was written in 1906, and exposed corruption of the American meatpacking industry during the early 20th century. The sad state of turn-of-the-century labor is placed front and center for the American public to see, suggesting that something needed to be changed to get rid of American "wage slavery". Sinclair wanted to persuade his readers that the mainstream American political parties offered little means for progressive change. Upton Sinclair came to Chicago with the intent of writing The Jungle; he had been given a stipend by the socialist newspaper The Appeal to Reason. Upon his arrival in the lobby of the Chicago Transit House, a hotel near the stockyards, he was quoted as saying, "Hello! I'm Upton Sinclair, and I'm here to write the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the Labor Movement!". He rented living quarters and immediately immersed himself in the city by walking its streets, talking to its people, and taking pictures. One Sunday afternoon, he worked his way into a group of Lithuanian immigrants getting together for a wedding party – "Behold, there was the opening scene of my story, a gift from the gods". He was welcomed to the festivities and stayed until two o'clock in the morning.
Plot: The novel opens with a dramatic description of a Lithuanian wedding feast, which introduces the reader to all of the major characters and some of the secondary characters; Jurgis Rudkus, his bride Ona, their extended family and their friends. The musicians play, the guests dance, food and drink flow freely, but an undercurrent of terror foreshadows what is to come – their generous hospitality has cost them much, but the traditional donations expected of the guests are few in number and small in size. Lured away from Lithuania by promises of work, the Rudkus family has arrived in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois at the end of the 19th century, only to find that their dreams of a decent life are not likely to be realized. From the beginning, they have to make compromises and concessions to survive. They quickly make a series of bad decisions that causes them to go deep into debt and fall prey to con men. The most devastating mistake was the decision to use all their money for the down payment on a house that is beyond their means, without researching the costs and legal issues involved in homeownership. The family had envisioned that Jurgis alone would be able to support them, but one by one, all of them — the women, the young children, and Jurgis's sick father — are forced to find jobs and contribute to the meager family income. The reality of having to work in a capitalist society takes a hold of their family as they are forced to succumb to the demands of the upper class. As the novel progresses, the jobs and means the family uses to stay alive lead to their moral decay.
They are faced with a cruel world of work in the Chicago Stockyards, where everyone has his or her price, where everyone in a position of power, including government inspectors, the police and judges, must be paid off, and where blacklisting is common. A series of unfortunate events — accidents at work, a number of deaths in the family that under normal circumstances could have been preventable — leads the family further towards catastrophe. Jurgis Rudkus, the book's main character, is young, strong, and honest, but also naïve and illiterate; this Lithuanian farmboy is no match for the powerful forces of American industrial capitalism, and he gradually loses all hope of succeeding in the New World. After Ona dies in childbirth — for lack of money to pay for a doctor — and their young son drowns in the muddy street, he flees the city in utter despair. At first the mere presence of fresh air is balm to his soul, but his brief sojourn as a hobo in rural America shows him that there is really no escape — even farmers turn their workers away when the harvest is finished.
Jurgis returns to Chicago, and holds down a succession of jobs outside the meat packing industry — digging tunnels, as a political hack, and as a con man. After injuring himself at work, he is forced to spend some time in the hospital. When he is released, he has no money and cannot find work, so he becomes a beggar. One night, a wealthy young man named Freddie Jones gives him a one-hundred-dollar bill, but when Jurgis asks a bartender to change it for him, the man cheats him, giving him ninety-five cents back. Jurgis attacks the man and is again sent to jail. In prison, he meets Jack Duane. When the two men are released, Jurgis becomes Duane's partner, and the two commit burglaries and muggings. Jurgis is eventually recruited to work for the corrupt political boss, Mike Scully. When a series of strikes hits Packingtown, Jurgis crosses the picket lines, undermining the efforts of the union but making a great deal of money as a scab.
He is again sent to prison for attacking a man that shamed his sister. After being released, he is forced to live on charity. By this time, Jurgis has completely lost touch with his family. One day, however, he meets an old acquaintance who tells him how to find Marija. He learns that Marija has become a prostitute to help support Teta Elzbieta and the children. She is also addicted to morphine. Jurgis wants to see Teta Elzbieta again but not before he finds a good job.
One night, his spirit all but crushed by privation and misery, Jurgis wanders into a socialist political rally, in which an orator delivers a speech that fills Jurgis with inspiration. Jurgis joins the socialist party and embraces its ideal that the workers—not a few wealthy capitalists—should own factories and plants. Jurgis finds a job as a porter at a socialist-run hotel and is reunited with Teta Elzbieta. He attends a socialist rally in which the speaker sums up Jurgis's new beliefs: if more people convert to socialism, the speaker declares, then “CHICAGO WILL BE OURS!”
Review: “The Jungle” is very well written and extremely moving. Unfortunately it did not have the effect that its author intended. Sinclair is quoted as saying, “I aimed at the public‘s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Like many other authors of his time, Sinclair was an advocate of socialism as the panacea to end “wage slavery” and corruption. Indeed, the last 45 pages of the book are to a large extent devoted to the character’s discussion of socialistic ideas and goals. The reality is that “The Jungle” did little to sway its reader’s toward Socialism, and had no notable effect on reform of worker’s rights. It did however, lead to the formation of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Beef Inspection Act, both of which became law less than six months after “The Jungle” was published.
Opening Line: “It was four o’clock when the ceremony was over and the carriages began to arrive.”
Closing Line: “CHICAGO WILL BE OURS!”
Quotes: "There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where things are behind bars, and the man is outside."
Rating: Very Good. But very depressing.