Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a piece of literature that will not soon be forgotten. Its powerful descriptions and ideas are still felt today. Though originally intended for other purposes, its motivating words helped to facilitate legislations that give us fresh food today. With its insight into the “Packingtown” of Chicago, it is able to bring corruption and poverty to the surface and bring it to the attention of all America. Though hailed as a “failed Socialist propaganda” its impact on society was greater than even Sinclair could have fathomed.
To first understand Sinclair’s motives for writing such a powerful book, we must first understand Upton Sinclair himself. Sinclair was born in Baltimore, Maryland to a Upton Beall Sinclair Sr. and Priscilla Harden. His father was an alcoholic, which probably foreshadows the way alcohol is perceived in The Jungle. His family then moved to New York City and lived in the Bronx. Although his immediate family was poor, he had wealthy grandparents, having seeing these two extremes is what he said made him become a socialist. He wrote many books, none though that came close to the fame and impact that The Jungle had.
By having lived in poverty and growing up during the time period that these atrocities were taking place, gave Upton the motivation and the drive to want these conditions to improve. The issues and conditions shown in The Jungle are extremely relevant to the time. Though the characters and storyline were fictitious, the actual events and conditions within “Packingtown” were very real. The living conditions of immigrants and the extremely poor treatment and exploitation of them are also main issue that Sinclair wanted to get out to the public.
These issues, being a very part of our society, was a real eye opener for many people of America who were blind to the actual practices taken by many of the businesses at that time. This helped to spur on the movement that created the Pure food and Drug act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. The Storyline itself plays an intricate part in showing how corrupt the Capitalist system had become in America. Jurgis Rudkis and Ona Lukoszaite are two Lithuanians who come to America to achieve the “American Dream. This American dream that anyone can become successful in the Land of the free. This tone is set forth in the first chapter by having them being married in Chicago in the Lithuanians traditional matter. They have an open buffet and bar to everyone outside. Automatically the scandals of capitalism and how it has corrupted the immigrants who do not help pay for the wedding and who eat the food and drink the alcohol, then creep away in the shadows. Which leaves the family with not only no money to start their new life with, but are in debt because of the wedding.
From here things turn from bad to worse. Jurgis ends up getting a job down in Packingtown, the center for all of the meat packing and processing in Chicago. Jurgis gets a walkthrough of factory and instantly sees the extremely poor working conditions, as well as the business practices of factory itself. The Imagery painted by Sinclair of how the hogs were hooked and killed gives a chilling picture for the readers: Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats.
There was a long line of hogs, with squeal and lifeblood ebbing away together; until at last each started again, and vanished with a splash into a huge vat of boiling water. This shows how mechanical and merciless the killing of the hogs was in these factories. This along with the imagery of how the businesses would put diseased meat mixed in with the fresh beef is what spurred the country to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act as well as the Meat Inspection Act. Though Sinclair wanted to show the horrible working conditions and the corruption of the Capitalists businesses, this was not his original intentions.
As time wears on, the work wears down the family. Everyone, including the children, have to take up jobs to help support the family. Ona picks up a job sewing, while Marija, Ona’s cousin, picks up a job painting cans. Two of the children, Nikalojus and Villmas, end up having to drop school and pick up newspaper selling to help out. This helps to aid in showing the impoverished conditions that a lot of the immigrants had to endure just to survive. To further show the harsh conditions, and the uncompassionate business leaders, many people are killed off throughout the novel.
During the cold winters the factories are not adequately heated, nor are they allowed to take days off during the extreme weather conditions. So with sickness spreading around, and the workloads not lessening at all, many workers die because of these conditions. Ona herself, after giving birth to a son, has to return to work a week later, which takes a toll on her health which, after miscarrying her second child, ends up killing her. Antana, Jurgis’ son, ends up dying after slipping in the mud and drowning in a puddle after a long day of work.
This is all seen as another sacrifice that Jurgis has to make to capitalism to survive. That Capitalism was tearing his family apart before it ever really was able to set down a foundation. Eventually, to survive, Marija goes to work in a brothel and makes the statement “When people are starving…. and they have anything with a price, they ought to sell it, I say. ” She is of course referring to her body, thus using prostitution to survive. This shows the desperation of these people, that to survive, to eat, to have a roof over their heads, they had to turn to prostitution.
This happened more times than not within these poor communities. Miss Henderson, Ona’s boss’s mistress, runs one such brothel that Marija ends up working for. When Jurgis finds Marija she says that they could not support the children with legitimate jobs but now she was hooked on morphine and as such was going to stay in prostitution. This idea of working to live is shown again in Chapter 29 when Jurgis is talking to Ostrinski, a socialist party speaker, is talking about Capitalism.
Ostrinski calls it “wage slavery”; that though America is the “land of the free” that people are not free from the grueling work that is pressed upon them by the privileged few who work together for their own personal interests and gains. Ostrinski, and socialism, become a shining beacon of hope for Jurgis. Ostrinski and the socialist party believe that nothing will change until the working people become conscious of what’s going on around them and organize together to better their conditions. That the ultimate goal is for the meat packing industry become publicly owned which would eradicate the extremely harsh conditions.
From this point on Jurgis works tirelessly to sway people to the Socialist party, and even ends up getting a job at a hotel that is owned by a very active socialist party member. Another important factor that is shown within The Jungle is the corrupted political system. Mike Scully, an Irish politician, is a prime example of real life urban bosses. These people would buy votes through any means necessary, whether it is finding people jobs, or outright buying the votes, which is what originally happened with Jurgis.
Once Jurgis turns to a life of crime, he starts to work for one of the political machines. He works for a Republican candidate, under Scully, and when he ushers in groups of workers to vote for this candidate, becomes 300 dollars richer through graft. This shows how a lot of the urban bosses worked from the inside to gain popularity with the working man. These shady practices were of daily occurrence during this time period, and by exposing it were able to educate the people a little bit more on how these urban bosses system worked, and how to avoid it.
The Jungle ended up becoming one of the most powerful and impressionable books of its time. Upton Sinclair poured his own life experiences and his passion for socialism into this book, and it can be seen throughout this epic story. This enthralling tale was able to turn America’s blind eye away from immigration and the working conditions. It created quality over profit within the meat industry, and while it did not convert many to Socialism, it was able to show many people the wholes within the Capitalist ideals. Overall, The Jungle is one piece of literature that will echo through time.