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The Jungle is a 1906 novel written by author and journalist Upton Sinclair. Sinclair wrote this novel to highlight the plight of the working class and to remove from obscurity the corruption of the Americanmarker meatpacking industry during the early 20th century. The novel depicts in harsh tones the poverty, absence of social programs, unpleasant living and working conditions, and hopelessness prevalent among the working class, which is contrasted with the deeply rooted corruption on the part of those in power. 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". The novel is also an important example of the "muckraking" tradition begun by journalists such as Jacob Riis.Upton Sinclair came to Chicagomarker 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.

The novel was first published in serial form in 1905. "After five rejections", its first edition as a novel was published by Doubleday, Page & Company on February 28, 1906, and it became an immediate bestseller. It has been in print ever since.

Public and federal response

Chicago meat inspectors in early 1906

Upton Sinclair originally intended to expose "the inferno of exploitation [of the typical American factory worker at the turn of the 20th Century]," but the reading public instead fixated on food safety as the novel's most pressing issue. In fact, Sinclair bitterly admitted his celebrity rose, "not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef". Sinclair's account of workers falling into rendering tanks and being ground, along with animal parts, into "Durham's Pure Leaf Lard", gripped public attention. The morbidity of the working conditions, as well as the exploitation of children and women alike that Sinclair exposed showed the corruption taking place inside the meat packing factories. Foreign sales of American meat fell by one-half.

Many of the book's assertions were confirmed in the Neill-Reynolds report, commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. The President was suspicious of Sinclair's socialist attitude and conclusions in The Jungle, and so sent labor commissioner Charles P. Neill and social worker James Bronson Reynolds, men whose honesty and reliability he trusted, to Chicago to make surprise visits to meat packing facilities. Despite betrayal of the secret to the meat packers, who worked three shifts a day for three weeks to clean the factories prior to the inspection, Neill and Reynolds were still revolted by the conditions at the factories and at the lack of concern by plant managers.

Even though the meat packers had forewarning and time to clean up, the only claim in Sinclair's work which they failed to substantiate was that workers who had fallen into rendering vats were left and sold as lard . Roosevelt was so concerned about the impact of Neill and Reynold's report on western stock growers and European meat importers that he did not release the findings for publication. Instead, he helped the issue by dropping hints from the report, alluding to disgusting conditions and inadequate inspection measures.

In order to calm public outrage and demonstrate the cleanliness of their meat, the major meat packers also lobbied the Federal government to pass legislation paying for additional inspection and certification of meat packaged in the United States.

The combined pressure, coupled with the public outcry, led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which established the Bureau of Chemistry that would become in 1930, the Food and Drug Administration.

Sinclair rejected the legislation, as he viewed it as an unjustified boon to large meat packers partially because the U.S., rather than the packers, was to bear the costs of inspection at $30,000,000 a year. He famously noted the limited effect of his book by stating, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

Plot summary

Panorama of the beef industry in 1900 by a Chicago based photographer
The novel opens with a dramatic description of a Lithuanianmarker wedding feast, which introduces the reader to all of the major characters and some of the secondary characters; Jurgis Rudkus (originally "Rudkos"), his bride Ona, their extended family and their friends. Nearly every person who has passed by the building has been invited to attend the feast, as was the custom from the old country. 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 Lithuaniamarker by promises of work, the Rudkus family has arrived in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicagomarker, Illinoismarker at the end of the 19th century, only to find that their dreams of a decent life are not likely to be realized. Jurgis has brought his father Antanas, his fiancée Ona, her stepmother Teta Elzbieta, Teta Elzbieta's brother Jonas and her six children, and Ona's cousin Marija Berczynskas come along. 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 downpayment 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 Stockyardsmarker, 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 toward 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.
Men walking on cattle pens in the Chicago stockyard (1909)

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 — but injuries on the jobs, his past, and his innate sense of personal integrity continue to haunt him, and he drifts without direction. One night, while looking for a warm and dry refuge, he wanders into a lecture being given by a charismatic socialist orator, and finds a sense of community and purpose. Socialism and strong labor union are the answer to the evils that he, his family, and their fellow sufferers have had to endure. A fellow socialist employs him, and he resumes his support of his wife's family, although some of them are damaged beyond repair.

Soon after, the socialist rally is triumphantly chanting "Chicago will be ours!" and Jurgis has caught the eye of a sympathetic young woman.

Ona Rudkus is Jurgis' wife who follows him to America from Lithuania.

Elzbieta Lukoszaite is Ona's stepmother, and the mother of seven children.

Marija Berczynskas is Ona's cousin, who came to America with the family. A strong, sturdy woman with great spirit, she performs heavy tasks at the packing plants.

Minor Characters

Grandmother Majauzskiene is the family's Lithuanian neighbor.

Dede Antanas is Jurgis's elderly and soft-spoken father who accompanied him to America.

Jokubus Szedvilas is a fellow Lithuanian immigrant who owns a deli on Halsted Street.

Jadvyga Marcinkus is a fellow Lithuanian immigrant and a friend of the family.

Tamoszius Kuszleika is a fiddler who, for a while, is Marija's fiancé.

Jonas Lukoszaite is Elzbieta's brother and Ona's uncle, who also comes with the family to America.

Stanislovas Lukoszaite is one of Elzbieta's children. Stanislovas is thirteen, but secures false papers in order to work at a lard can factory.

Mike Scully is the Democratic "boss" of the yards.

Connor is a boss at the factory where Ona works.

Miss Henderson is Ona's superintendent at the wrapping-room and Connor's former mistress.

Antanas is Jurgis and Ona's baby.

Vilimas and Nikalojus are two of Elzbieta's other children.

Kristoforas is one of Elzbieta's children. He is crippled.

Juozapas is another one of Elzbieta's children, also crippled.

Kotrina is Elzbieta's daughter.

Judge Pat Callahan is a crooked, xenophobic judge who sentences Jurgis to jail time after he beats Connor.

Jack Duane is a con man Jurgis befriends in jail.

Madame Haupt is a midwife who fails to save Ona's life.

Freddie Jones is the son of a wealthy beef baron who, in a drunken stupor, brings Jurgis to his mansion for food and drink, where he gives Jurgis a $100 bill.

Buck Halloran is an Irish "political worker" who oversees the vote-buying operations.

Bush Harper is a man who works for Mike Scully as a union spy.

Ostrinski is a Polish immigrant. A Socialist, he befriends Jurgis and teaches him the tenets of Socialism, and how it can overcome the "evils" of a capitalist society.

Tommy Hind is the Socialist owner of Hind's Hotel. He employs Jurgis and encourages him to tell his story of working in the packing plants to guests.

Mr. Lucas is a Socialist priest and itinerant preacher.

Nicholas Schliemann is a Swedish philosopher and Socialist.

Jungle as metaphor

Upton Sinclair titles his book The Jungle to make a specific criticism of the capitalist system. The mechanization of American society was supposed to bring progress and increased order. Sinclair, however, notes that this increased industrialism has had the reverse effect. Sinclair's Packingtown more closely resembles an amoral jungle, or Thomas Hobbes' envisioned "state of nature" — individualistic, ultra-competitive, and amoral. Every man must learn to fight for himself, and the strong constantly prey on the weak. Thus Sinclair contradicts the belief that industrialization and capitalism bring increased order by equating such a reality to that of the jungle. The Jungle is a major critique of laissez-faire capitalism and the greed and fierce competition that it brews.

Using a rain forest as a literary device was not new to literature at the time; its romantic connotations had been explored by Rudyard Kipling in the Jungle Book (1894). Mowgli, the hero of these works, is adopted by animals, and thrives with their help. A somewhat darker version of the metaphor was employed by W.H. Hudson in Green Mansions (1904), in which Rima, a girl raised in the Amazon, is undone by the sophisticated machinations of her lover and her adoptive father; and by Frank Baum in the first of the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz novels (1900), wherein the protagonists are terrorized during their passage through a dark forest.

By using the jungle as metaphor, Sinclair suggests that those who attempt to succeed through capitalist means are not "the fittest" but instead are the most corrupt.


  1. Young, "The Pig That Fell into the Privy," p. 467
  2. Arthur, 43
  3. Upton Sinclair, "Is The Jungle true?", Even if only one tenth of it is, it is enough to make people feel sick.The Independent, May 17, 1906 – as quoted and cited in: Giedrius Subačius (2006), Upton Sinclair: The Lithuanian Jungle. Rodopi, ISBN 9042018798.
  4. " Of Meat and Myth," Lawrence W. Reed, The Freeman, November 1994
  5. Young, "The Pigg That Fell into the Privy," p. 477
  6. Upton Sinclair, "The Condemned-Meat Industry: A Reply to Mr. M. Cohn Armour", Everybody's Magazine, XIV, 1906, pp. 612-613
  7. Sinclair, "The Jungle" ISBN 1-884365-30-2, pp i

  • Young, James Harvey, "The Donkey That Fell into the Privy: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Meat Inspection Amendments of 1906," Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 59, 1985, 467-80.
  • Arthur, Anthony. Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair. New York: Random House, 2006.
  • In The Brass Check, Sinclair relates that the New York Herald commissioned a follow-up story, "Packingtown a Year Later." The reporters spent two months undercover and found conditions worse than ever; the Herald's publisher killed the story before publication.

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