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The Jungle

By: Upton Sinclair

The Jungle is a 1906 novel by the American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair (1878–1968). The novel portrays the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrialized cities. Sinclair's primary purpose in describing the meat industry and its working conditions was to advance socialism in the United States. However, most readers were more concerned with several passages exposing health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meat packing industry during the early 20th century, which greatly contributed to a public outcry which led to reforms including the Meat Inspection Act. Sinclair said of the public reaction, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." The book depicts working-class poverty, lack of social supports, harsh and unpleasant living and working conditions, and hopelessness among many workers. These elements are contrasted with the deeply rooted corruption of people in power. A review by the writer Jack London called it "the Uncle Tom's Cabin of wage slavery." Sinclair was considered a muckraker, a journalist who exposed corruption in government and business. In 1904, Sinclair had spent seven weeks gathering information while working incognito in the meatpacking plants of the Chicago stockyards for the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason. He first published the novel in serial form in 1905 in the newspaper, and it was published as a book by Doubleday in 1906.

Jurgis Rudkus marries his fifteen-year-old sweetheart, Ona Lukoszaite, in a joyous traditional Lithuanian wedding feast. They and their extended family have recently immigrated to Chicago due to financial hardship in Lithuania. They have heard that America offers freedom and higher wages and have come to pursue the American Dream.


Despite having lost much of their savings being conned on the trip to Chicago, and then having to pay for the wedding—and despite the disappointment of arriving to a crowded boarding house—Jurgis is initially optimistic about his prospects in Chicago. Young and strong, he believes that he is immune to the misfortunes that have befallen others in the crowd. He is swiftly hired by a meat packing factory; he marvels at its efficiency, even while witnessing cruel treatment of the animals.


The women of the family answer an ad for a four-room house; Ona, who came from an educated background, figures that they could easily afford it with the jobs that Jurgis, proud Marija, and ambitious Jonas have gotten. While they discover at the showing that the neighborhood is unkempt and the house doesn't live up to the advertisement, they are taken in by the slickness and fluent Lithuanian of the real estate agent and sign a contract for the house.


However, with the help of an old Lithuanian neighbor, they discover several unexpected expenses in the contract that they must pay every month on time, or else face eviction—the fate of most home buyers in the neighborhood. In order to meet these costs, Ona and thirteen-year-old Stanislovas (whom the family had wished to send to school) must take up work as well.


While sickness befalls them often, they cannot afford not to work. That winter, Jurgis's father, weakened by exposure to chemicals and the elements at his job, dies of illness.


Some levity is brought to their lives by the arrival of a musician who courts Marija, and the birth of Jurgis and Ona's first child. However, this happiness is tempered when Ona must return to work one week after giving birth, and Marija is laid off in a seasonal cutback. Jurgis begins to attend union meetings passionately; he realizes that he had been taken in by a vote-buying scheme when he was new to Chicago, learns that the meat factories deliberately use diseased meat, and learns that workers frequently came down with ailments relating to their dangerous and unsanitary work.


Work becomes more demanding as wages fall; the working members of the family suffer a series of injuries. In the midst of this hardship, Jonas deserts the family, leaving them no choice but to send two children to work as newspaper boys. The youngest child, a handicapped toddler, dies of food poisoning; only his mother grieves his death.


After recovering from his injury, Jurgis takes the least desirable job at a fertilizer mill. In misery, he begins drinking. He becomes suspicious of his pregnant wife's failure to return home on several 

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Upton Sinclair

United States

Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. was an American writer, political activist and the 1934 Democratic Party nominee for Governor of California who wrote nearly 100 books and other works in several genres. Sincl...

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