The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Literary Review

Categories: The Jungle Book

The Jungle Review

During the Progressive Era of the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, conditions for the average labourer were very poor and worsening day by day. There were very few safety regulations, and gruesome deaths occurred frequently in almost every line of work the average laborer was qualified for . Work days were unreasonably long, usually 12 hours in one day, and sometimes more. This resulted in the formation of unions that fought against their unfair work conditions; naturally, the big corporations that were being opposed retaliated, and the rift between classes grew .

The Jungle, written by Upton Sinclair in 1906, explores the lives of a family of immigrant workers trying to make a living in Chicago during this time . Many problems and ideas that were present during the time were expressed in the narrative of their lives, including chasing the elusive American Dream, class differences, the rising appeal of Socialism among workers.

The book follows a Lithuanian family traveling to the United States because they had heard about the great opportunities there.

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Their final goal is Chicago, and when they finally arrive there, they start to search for jobs and a permanent home. One of the first places they see is the stockyards, where animals are killed and the meat is processed. Here, as the group watches the slaughtering of the pigs, the reader is introduced to the falsehood of the American Dream:

“One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical . . . Each one of these hogs was a separate creature .

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. . And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart's desire; each was full of self-confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity. And trusting and strong in faith he had gone about his business, the while a black shadow hung over him and a horrid Fate waited in his pathway. Now suddenly it had swooped upon him, and had seized him by the leg. Relentless, remorseless, it was; all his protests, his screams, were nothing to it . . . Who would take this hog into his arms and comfort him, reward him for his work well done, and show him the meaning of his sacrifice? . . . Our friends were not poetical, and the sight suggested to them no metaphors of human destiny; they thought only of the wonderful efficiency of it all.”

This excerpt not only illustrates one of the many horrors of the meat industry, it also gives the reader a glimpse into the fate of “our friends” (as they are often referred to by the narrator). It serves as foreshadowing that they didn’t pick up on; they were too captivated by the efficiency of the system to realize the cruel metaphor.

After trying their hardest to make a living in Chicago, having to work dangerous jobs for long hours and unreasonably low pay, and losing the lives of some of their family members, they felt like they were merely existing, and living was not possible.“They were lost, they were going down—and there was no deliverance for them, no hope; for all the help it gave them the vast city in which they lived might have been an ocean waste, a wilderness, a desert, a tomb.”⁴ -- and possibly a jungle.

The title of the book alludes to the wild, survival-of-the-fittest way of life that kept Chicago economically afloat. In the wild, natural selection weeds out the weaker species and allows the stronger species to carry on surviving. The same principle existed in Chicago during the Progressive Era; the wealthy higher-ups would continue surviving, while those of lower social standing were left to die out. This concept was known as Social Darwinism , and it was touched upon in The Jungle. The reader sees both ends of the spectrum as the narrative follows Jurgis Rudkus, a member of the Lithuanian family. He worked for years in various low paying jobs, including in the meat packing and fertilizer departments. However, when his grandfather, wife, and son all die as a result of the sort of life they are forced to live, Jurgis makes his way into the politics of Chicago, and the reader discovers just how corrupt the system is. Despite the fact that it is corrupt, all of these people of power have a better chance of survival than any of the workers that carry them through life.

The Jungle also discussed the gaping hole between the upper and lower classes during the Progressive Era. The lower class works for almost nothing, and the upper class takes what the lower class earns; the gap was widening rapidly, and it was very difficult to rise in class.

“And so all over the world two classes were forming, with an unbridged chasm between them—the capitalist class, with its enormous fortunes, and the proletariat, bound into slavery by unseen chains. The latter were a thousand to one in numbers, but they were ignorant and helpless, and they would remain at the mercy of their exploiters until they were organized—until they had become "class-conscious."

This quote summarized the class conflict exactly; it also brings about the concept of “class-consciousness”. Being class-conscious is being aware that you are in the lower class for unfair reasons, and being aware that you can change that for yourself.

Overall, The Jungle illustrated the hardships (to say the least) of the honest worker in the Progressive Era of America. Although life was rough, as pointed out by the narrative of the family, changes were always happening, and the fight for fair labor wouldn’t end until the workmen were given a fair chance at a living.

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Literary Review. (2024, Feb 22). Retrieved from

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