The Jungle

views updated

The Jungle
Upton Sinclair

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


Since its first publication in 1906, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle has stirred generations of readers to outrage. It is the story of an economic system that destroys Jurgis Rudkus and his family, treating them no better than the cattle that are slaughtered and vivisected in the book's most horrific and memorable scenes. The novel is not only taught in English classes, as a powerful example of early-twentieth century naturalism, but it is also a perennial favorite of sociology teachers, who use it to convey just how terrible conditions for workers were a hundred years ago and how dangerous the threat of food contamination really was before corporate greed was put in check by government regulation. The Jungle is a rare example of a work of fiction that is so true to its source and so powerfully written that it changed the course of government regulation: it is generally credited with getting the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act passed. The story starts with a family of Lithuanian immigrants moving into the Packingtown district of Chicago, hoping to find a decent place to live and to find jobs to support themselves. They are foiled at these basic requirements: everything costs more than it should, especially since real estate agents and merchants take advantage of their ignorance, and work, when it is available, is brutal and degrading. The book's first half is packed with the gruesome descriptions that have become its legacy, with details of diseased meat shoveled off dirty floors into sausage grinders and sick or injured people preparing meat. In the second half, Jurgis Rudkus, hav-ing lost his house and family, strikes out on his own, nearly starving on the streets, unable to find work. Stepping into a meeting-hall to get warm, he is enlightened to the Socialist Party's philosophy, and he goes on to read more and attend more meetings, confident that socialism is the solution to society's problems. By the end, the character of Jurgis is just barely significant, as his function is limited to just occasional agreement with the speeches that the author presents for the readers.

Author Biography

Upton Sinclair is best known today as the author of The Jungle, which is probably a legacy he would accept, since it is true that this novel did indeed affect society in the way he wanted all of his books to do. He was a prolific writer throughout his long life, and everything he wrote was written with the intent of changing society. Sinclair was born in 1878 with a volatile social background: his mother came from a wealthy and respected Baltimore family, and his father, a salesman, struggled without much success to give her the lifestyle she had been accustomed to. One of the reasons his father was unsuccessful at business was that he was an alcoholic, which is why Sinclair, when he grew up, supported laws that prohibited the sale and use of alcohol (this cause was popular enough to be passed into federal law from 1920 to 1933, a period referred to as "Prohibition"). The first stories and books Sinclair published were not political in nature. When he was eighteen, he started selling stories to Street and Smith, a well-known publisher that printed popular fiction which was inspirational and usually poorly written. His first novels, published when he was in his early twenties, were romances, with titles like Springtime Harvest and Prince Hagen. Sinclair's writing took a sharp turn toward social realism in 1904, with the publication of Manassas: in researching the history of slavery for this novel about a plantation owner's son, he grew more and more outraged with the unfairness of American social structure, and his anger showed in his work.

After reading Manassas, Fred Warren, the publisher of the radical newspaper Appeal to Reason, issued a challenge to Sinclair to write a novel about current social problems: as a result, Sinclair went to Chicago in the autumn of 1904 to research the meat packing industry, and his research produced The Jungle. The book became a best-seller, and its graphic descriptions of the horrible sanitary conditions in the industry led to calls for government action. The huge companies that were obviously the models for the book, such as Swift, Armour, and Nelson Morris, claimed that Sinclair made up the horrors he described, but independent investigations confirmed conditions to be just as bad as he said, if not worse. In the end, government standards for the handling of all food products became tougher because of The Jungle.

Sinclair went on to support changes in all aspects of American life. He arranged a communal living experiment in New Jersey, which lasted from 1906 until it burned down in 1914. In 1914 he used the same method that had worked for The Jungle when he went to Colorado to investigate a violent coal miners' strike and the oppressive conditions that caused it, resulting in the novel King Cole. Also written in this same way was his most successful novel, Oil!, published in 1927 and credited with weakening John D. Rockefeller's monopoly in the petroleum industry. In the 1920s Sinclair was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union, which to this day provides support to people whose Constitutional rights are violated. In 1934 he was the candidate for Governor of California on the Democratic ticket: although he did not win, his strong showing brought national at-tention to his Socialist views. He continued writing throughout all of his social activity, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1943 for Dragon's Teeth, a novel about Germany under the Nazis' control that was part of his eleven-book series about wealthy secret agent Lanny Budd. He died in 1968, having written ninety books of fiction, political history, social criticism and autobiography throughout his ninety-year life.

Plot Summary

Life in Packingtown

The novel's first seventeen chapters, roughly half of its length, examine the struggles and compromises faced by one extended family from the eastern European country of Lithuania. They attempt to settle into a comfortable life in America, only to find themselves destroyed by the economic system. The book starts with hope, with the marriage of Jurgis Rudkus to Ona Lukoszaite. At the wedding, the key people in their lives are introduced—his father, her cousin, her stepmother who has six children, and so on. The wedding scene also introduces a sense of how strict their budget is and how greatly they fear unemployment. The narrative then slips backward by a year to explain their situation by presenting their courtship in the Imperial Forest in Lithuania, the financial disaster that occurred when her father died, and the decision to move to America. It soon becomes clear that this is Jurgis Rudkus' story, since most of the details related are about him. On first immigrating, Jurgis is ecstatic and confident, and by the time of his marriage he still feels able to fend for his family, although responsibilities make his life difficult. A major financial burden is the house that the family buys: although they take much caution before signing for it, the real estate agent takes advantage of their poor grasp of English and the monthly payments turn out to be considerably more than the sum that they had to struggle to meet. To meet expenses, Ona goes to work sewing casings on hams, Jurgis' father Antanas takes a lowly job sweeping floors, Cousin Maria paints cans, and Ona's stepmother has to leave her children unsupervised to work in a sausage factory. With all of them working at different jobs in the meatpacking industry, the book is able to present the horrible details that are the book's main claim to fame: the methods of disguising tainted meat with brine, or putting it in sausage; the rats and vermin that crawl across the meat and are packaged with it; the bribes to inspectors. The family's financial situation continues to worsen, and their fear of losing their home increases. Jurgis twists his ankle and has to be bedridden, forcing him to later take a job in the toxic fertilizer plant. Cousin Marija loses her position for complaining that she has been cheated on her pay, and takes a job trimming rancid meat. Ona develops "womb trouble" from going back to work too soon after their son's birth. When Ona is pregnant with a second child, she fails to come home one snowy night, and Jurgis finds out that the foreman where she works has forced her to work in a house of prostitution downtown, threatening the jobs of all of her family if she refused. Jurgis rushes to the plant, finds the man, and beats him bloody, for which Jurgis is sent away to jail for a month.

Travelling Alone

Jurgis has trouble finding his family upon his release from jail, because they have been evicted and the house has been sold to new owners. After asking around, he finds them living in an unheated attic, where, the very night he arrives, Ona is giving birth. Without money they cannot get adequate medical help, and Ona and the baby die. Because the man he assaulted was influential, Jurgis' name is blacklisted by meatpackers throughout the country. With considerable trouble he finds a job at a harvester plant, but it shuts down nine days after his hiring. A social worker gets him a job at a steel mill near the Indiana border. When he finds out that his young son has drowned while playing in a flooded street, Jurgis feels no more bond to city life, and he leaves town on a freight train, travelling the countryside in the fresh air and sleeping in fields and barns. This life reminds him of his home country, and he is happy with it, but when winter comes he returns to Chicago. Working briefly at digging tunnels under the city for the subway system, his arm is broken in an accident, leaving him in danger of freezing in the streets. He runs into a rich drunk man who takes him home to supper: this man gives Jurgis a hundred-dollar bill to pay the cab driver and then, forgetting, has his butler pay the cab. After dinner, when the rich man falls asleep at the table, the butler throws Jurgis out, and when he tries to cash the hundred-dollar bill at a saloon, the bartender will only give him change for a dollar, denying that he brought in anything more. Jurgis assaults the man and ends up in jail again.

Life of Crime

In jail Jurgis renews his acquaintance with Jack Duane, whom he met during his last jail term; this time, however, he agrees to become Duane's partner in crime. When they are released they perform a simple, vicious street mugging, cracking a man's skull and taking his wallet and leaving him to freeze. Jurgis' life of crime progresses quickly, from street crimes to gambling to political graft. The political boss of the Packingtown district enlists Jurgis to assure that a weak politician of the opposing political party will defeat the Socialist candidate that their own party has nominated, and so he arranges a job for Jurgis at the same packinghouse that he used to work at, because party regulars cannot campaign for the opposition. With the election won, Jurgis stays on, and when the workers go out on strike the political bosses offer him the chance to become a foreman by staying and working with the scab laborers that they bring in. Jurgis is richer than ever, thanks to his life of crime. It all falls apart when he runs into the man who raped his wife and forced her into prostitution: he assaults the man again, losing his job and political connections, and it costs him the three hundred dollars he has saved to stay out of jail.


Alone and on the street again, Jurgis runs into an old friend who tells him where to find Cousin Marija, giving him an address that turns out to be a house of prostitution. Marija explains that she is taking care of what is left of the family with her wages as a prostitute, and that she would not quit her job, even if Jurgis could support them all financially, because she is addicted to opium. One day, Jurgis goes into a meeting hall to warm up, not caring about the meeting being held, but a beautiful woman behind him notices him dozing and suggests that he might be interested if he paid attention. He listens, and he becomes enthralled with socialist philosophy. After the speech he goes to talk with the meeting chairman and is assigned to a party member who tutors him, giving him readings and explaining them to him. When he finally lands a job as a porter at a hotel, his surprised mentor explains that the hotel owner is one of the state's leading socialists. Jurgis is then able to sit in on conversations when famous socialists pass through town. The book ends with Jurgis and his socialist friends gathering in a hall on election night, exuberant about the huge increase in votes that Socialist candidates are gathering all across America in the 1904 elections.


Marija Berczynskas

Ona's cousin, an orphan, Marija decided to join the family in coming to America just before they left on their journey. She is a big, strong, loud woman who just starts to find happiness in her courtship with Tamoszius Kuszkeika when the canning factory that she works in shuts down after the holidays, when the demand is slow. When she attends a union meeting, Marija is not too shy to stand up and complain about the way she has been treated, even though the meeting is conducted in English and she only speaks Lithuanian. When the cannery starts up again, Marija is fired almost immediately: she says that it is for belonging to the union, although others know that she has also been arguing with her boss. The only place she can find work is in trimming the meat of diseased cattle, at half the pay she was making before. While Jurgis is in jail, it is reported to him that Marija has gangrene from a cut she received at work, and that the company doctor says she might have to lose her hand. She survives that injury, though. Near the end of the novel, Jurgis runs into a friend who tells him where to find Marija, whom he has not seen in over a year. She is living and working in a house of prostitution and supporting Teta Elzbieta with the money that she makes. Jurgis offers to make enough money to allow her to move out, but Marija explains that she really does not mind the life of a prostitute and that she is bitter about the way that people are taken advantage of in legal jobs. The main reason that she wants to stay at the house is that she is hooked on morphine, which she started taking when she came to the house, and she would not make enough money to support her habit anywhere else.

Phil Connor

Connor is the boss of the ham packaging department that Ona works in. When Ona is pregnant with her second child, Connor tries seducing her, and then rapes her one night when everyone else is gone. Then, with a combination of threats and promises, he convinces her to work as a prostitute at the house run by her forelady, Miss Henderson. When Jurgis finds out, he goes to the plant, beats Connor, and is sent to jail. Later, after finding success in politics, Jurgis runs into Connor again and again attacks him, only to find that his political connections cannot help him out of trouble because Connor's political connections are stronger.

Dede Antanas

See Antanas Rudkus

Jack Duane

Jurgis meets Duane when he is in jail for beating Connor up. Duane takes a liking to Jurgis, and offers to help him make money, but Jurgis is not interested in illegal activity. Later, after Jurgis runs into Duane the second time he is in jail, he is eager to earn money, no matter what it takes. He finds Duane when he is released, and together they mug a man and leave him with a concussion, freezing on the street. He introduces Jurgis to a high-moneyed life of crime, and to other criminal connections.

Tommy Hinds

Tommy Hinds is a hotel owner, and, although Jurgis does not know it when he applies for a job as the hotel's porter, he is also one of the state's most prominent Socialists. He hires Jurgis to replace the old porter, who was a Socialist but drank too much, and is delighted to find that Jurgis is studying Socialism: "'By Jove!' he cried, 'that lets me out. I didn't sleep at all last night because I had discharged a good Socialist!'" Hinds' hotel is staffed by other Socialists, and he takes Jurgis around to party meetings and teaches him about the Socialist philosophy.

Alena Jasaityte

During the wedding scene at the beginning of the novel, Alena is young and good-looking, but pompous: "she would really be beautiful if she were not so proud," the narrator says. She is engaged to a well-paid delivery-truck driver and spends a half-week salary on her dress. Much later, Jurgis runs into her on the street when he is desperate for food and shelter. Alena is well-dressed, but cannot give him anything because, she says, she left her purse at home. She is the one who tells him to find Marija at the house of prostitution.

Freddie Jones

One of the most colorful characters in the novel, Freddie's dialogue is written in drunken half-words and incoherent statements. He is a son of a wealthy family who meets Jurgis begging on the street one night and takes a liking to him. Because he is drunk, Freddie is full of self-pity, and when Jurgis explains that he has no money, Freddie says that he does not have much either, because his parents have sailed to Europe and he has almost spent what they left him and they have not responded to his telegram asking for more. He gives Jurgis a hundred-dollar bill to pay a cab to take them to his house, but he forgets it and has the butler pay the cab when they arrive. When Freddie falls asleep at the dinner table, the butler throws Jurgis out.

Tamoszius Kuszleika

The fiddler at Jurgis and Ona's wedding, he is a popular figure in Packingtown, invited to parties by people too poor to hire a musician because they know that he will not be able to resist playing for free while he is celebrating. After a while, a courtship develops between Tamoszius and Marija, but the economic troubles of the family continually distract them: first, when Marija loses her job, and then when Jurgis goes to jail and the house is lost. When Jurgis runs into Marija near the end of the novel, she says that Tamoszius had contracted blood poisoning and lost a finger, so he could not play his violin any more. He "went away," and she had not seen him in over a year.

Elzbieta Lukoszaite

Ona's step-mother, who brought her six young children to America with her. At first, she stays home to keep house while the other adults work. Soon financial troubles become so bad that the family relies on the money that her boys make by selling newspapers on street corners. They are spending time with rough characters and prostitutes, and the only way they can quit working and go back to school is if Elzbieta goes to work, so she obtains a job in the sausage plant.

Jonas Lukoszaite

Jonas is the brother of Ona's step-mother Elzbieta, the one who has the idea to come to America in the first place because he knows of a man who moved to Chicago and became rich. After living with the family for a few years and contributing to the household expenses, Jonas disappears one spring day—there is speculation that, since he was single and unattached, he might have gone to find a better life. It is also suggested that if he had died in the meat-processing plant the company might just have disposed of his body, rather than paying death benefits: "When, for instance, a man had fallen into one of the rendering tanks and had been made into pure leaf lard and peerless fertilizer, there was no use letting the fact out and making his family unhappy."

Media Adaptations

  • An audio recording of The Jungle was made by Blackstone Audio Books in 1994, read by Robert Morris.
  • An unabridged recording of The Jungle, narrated by George Guidall, was released by Recorded Books, Inc. in 1998.
  • Audio Book Contractors released an audio version entitled Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in 1998.

Stanislovas Lukoszaite

The oldest of Teta Elzbieta's six children, Stanislovas goes to work at age fourteen in the lard-canning department at Durham's, where he puts cans on the conveyor belt for ten hours a day. In the winter, he becomes lost in a snowstorm on his way home from work, and his fingers freeze at the first joint. After that, he is terrified of going out in the snow, and has to be threatened and beaten to go to work on snowy days. Jurgis finds out near the end of the book how Stanislovas died: fetching beer for workers in an oil factory, he drank some and fell asleep, and when he was locked inside of the factory overnight, rats killed him and ate his flesh.

Antanas Rudkus

Jurgis' old father ("Dede" means "Grandfather" in Lithuanian) had one other son in Lithuania, but he went into the army ten years before the novel began and was never heard from again. After they move to America, Jurgis does not want his father to work, but Antanas is still in the habit of working hard for many years, and he would not feel good about being idle while the rest of the family is struggling so hard to pay the bills. He has trouble finding a job because no one wants to hire an old man who is incapable of much physical labor, but, by agreeing to pay one-third of his salary to a man with business connections, he is hired as a "squeedgie man" at the Durham factory. There it is his job to push around brine on the floor of the room where beef is pickled. The pickling solution leaks through his boots and infects a sore on his foot, but Antanas stays at his work until one day he collapses on the floor, and two fellow workers have to carry him home. As he lies in bed, sick, Jurgis hires a worker to come to the house and tell him that Durham's is holding his job until he is well enough to return, although it is not true. Antanas dies a few days later.

Jurgis Rudkus

Jurgis is the protagonist, or main character, of this story: after the extended wedding scene which introduces all of the characters, the narrative stops on Jurgis and stays with his experiences throughout the book. In the beginning, he is a tall, strong young man, although by the novel's end a few years later his health is ruined by his experiences. Jurgis comes from Brelovicz, "The Imperial Forest," in Lithuania, which is where he met Ona and fell in love with her. In America, he initially feels that his salary, along with the rent paid by relatives in his house, should cover the family's expenses, so that his elderly father and petite bride will not have to go to work. When expenses mount, Jurgis' first reaction is, "I shall have to work harder." He soon finds that circumstances will always rise to keep him from addressing problems with hard work alone. When the demand for beef slackens, Jurgis' hours are cut, and when he injures his leg at work, he has to stay home and let it heal, or he will be crippled forever. When his leg heals, the only job Jurgis can find is in the fertilizer plant, where the smell of chemicals and animal remains permeates his skin so badly that the stench is on him for months after he leaves. After assaulting the man who raped Ona and forced her into prostitution, Jurgis goes to jail: while he is there, the bank forecloses on his house, and the day he is released Ona dies during childbirth. With the help of a social worker, Jurgis lands a clean, well-paying job at a steel mill in South Chicago, but he breaks his shoulder at work and is left unemployed. When his little son dies, drowned in a flooded street, Jurgis leaves Chicago and takes off on the road, stopping to work on farms only when he really needs money and sleeping out under the open sky. This is the only section of the novel that shows Jurgis as content, even happy. When winter comes, he returns to the city, but still cannot find a job. A rich person gives him a hundred-dollar bill, but when he tries to change it a bartender cheats him: the commotion Jurgis raises lands him in jail again. This time he is disillusioned with the world, and cultivates his connections with criminals. Upon his release he makes a good wage in crime, rising from mugging to politics. In order to move from political work to steady work he becomes a strike breaker in a meat plant, doing the jobs of his former coworkers, who are out on strike, but he loses his job and his political connections when he once again assaults the man who raped his wife. In the last section of the book, Jurgis stumbles across Socialism and realizes that it is the one true way, the answer to all of the questions he ever had. He attends lectures and reads Socialist literature at every opportunity. He lands a job at a hotel that is, coincidentally, owned by one of the state organizers of the party. This man takes Jurgis to meetings with other socialists from all walks of life, so that they can learn what the working life is like from someone who has suffered economic oppression.

Ona Rudkus

Ona is very small and young when she comes to America. Although the book opens with her wedding to Jurgis, the next chapter tells the reader what happened before the wedding: they were actually not married until more than a year after arriving. Jurgis waits before marrying her because he wants to own the house Ona will live in and have a job so he can provide for her. She does not have a very striking role in the story, but Ona's function in the novel is important: she is an emblem of decency, and she provides Jurgis with a reason to struggle against the corruptive elements of poverty while she is alive (a function that is carried over after her death by little Antanas, their child). His love for her is so strong and pure, and she is so small and frail, that when the snow is high he carries her to work at the factory in his arms. After the birth of little Antanas, Ona develops "womb-trouble," and she is ill all of the time, although she is unwilling to admit this to Jurgis. Ona works in the cellar at Brown's, sewing casings on hams. When she is carrying their second child, Ona begins having fits of hysteria, coming home at night crying and shuddering. One snowy night she does not come home at all, explaining that she stayed with a friend, and when it happens again Jurgis confronts her and finds out the truth. The boss of her department, Connor, forced her to have sex with him, she explains, and then he forced her to work downtown as a prostitute by threatening not just her job, but Jurgis' and Marija's too. Jurgis goes to jail for assaulting Connor, and he returns to the family to find Ona in labor in an unheated attic. She dies during childbirth.

Mike Scully

Scully is the legendary political boss who runs the Packingtown district on behalf of the owners of the big packing houses. Scully has the power to give out political favors to the rich and jobs to the poor through an organization he started called the "War-Whoop League." At the end of his spree as a criminal, Jurgis works for Scully to elect a weak member of the opposing party, but when he is sent to jail Scully refuses to help him.

Teta Elzbieta

See Elzbieta Lukoszaite


American Dream

The novel explains that after the death of Ona's father in Lithuania his farm was sold, and the family paid two-thirds of their inheritance to a local magistrate in order to avoid losing all of it. That was when Ona's brother Jonas suggested that they all move to America. He had heard about a friend who went to America and became rich (the friend later turns out to actually be making just a modest living with his delicatessen in Chicago). In calculating the money he could earn in America, Jurgis Rudkus does not account for the fact that, while the pay rate is higher, the cost of living is greater too. But the promise of wealth is not even as important in their decision-making as the promise of social equality. The book explains their thinking: "In (America), rich or poor, a man was free, it was said; he did not have to go into the army, he did not have to pay out his money to public officials,—he might do as he pleased, and count himself as good as any other men. So America was a place of which lovers and young people dreamed." The central theme of this book focuses on this particular group finding the American Dream of wealth and freedom to be an illusion. They are not free to do as they wish, but instead spend all of their time and energy trying to meet their financial needs, destroying themselves physically and morally in the process. The clearest example of this is the fact that Ona has to work as a prostitute in order to assure that her family members can keep their dangerous, mind-numbing jobs at the packing house. One of the greatest lures of the American Dream has always been the promise of land ownership, which is related to freedom, but that is denied the Rudkus family too, when they lose their house and all they have put into it after missing a few payments. In the end, Jurgis finds that socialism offers him more prosperity and freedom than the competitive American system, because it focuses its attention on the good of all, rather than making the rich and poor opponents.

Class Conflict

Most of the problems faced by Jurgis' family are caused by the fact that they have nothing, and that those who do have things actively strive to keep them from benefiting from their own hard work. Not only do the packinghouse owners benefit from the workers' labor, but they also benefit from promoting hostility among the workers, because resentment toward each other keeps them from organizing into unions. The plant managers are forced by the people above them to eke more and more work out of the low-level employees. European laborers look down on black workers from the south, whom they see as lazy and wild. After the deaths of his wife and child, and after he has been out from the bottom of the social ladder and experienced the freedom of the countryside, Jurgis becomes determined to be a winner in his struggle in society, even if it means taking advantage of his fellow men. The mugging that starts his life of crime bothers his conscience, but his partner helps him rationalize it as fair because the victim probably deserved it: Jurgis points out that the man had never done them any harm and his friend explains, "He was doing it to someone as hard as he could, you can be sure of that." His subsequent descent into the criminal world leads him to gambling and crooked politics, crimes that are more and more abstract, taking advantage of those at the bottom of society (where Jurgis so recently was) while keeping him blind to the cost they are paying for his luxury. The final irony is when he becomes a strike breaker, creating the same near-impossible conditions that destroyed his family when he was in the lower class. Abuse of the social order is captured most keenly when Jurgis and two policemen, trying to suppress striking workers, go into a tavern, and the policemen empty the cash register, with no moral justification, simply because they have the power to do it. After that, the book turns its attention to socialism's philosophy of classlessness, espousing a system where merit is given to people for working hard and helping society, not for taking advantage or for holding tight to the privileges of their social class.


From the start, Jurgis' response to financial difficulty is, "Leave it to me; leave it to me. I will earn more money—I will work harder." He is young and strong, and, as the novel explains, "he could not even imagine what it would feel like to be beaten." This attitude also shows in his old, ailing father, Dede Antanis, who is so determined to fend for himself that he pays a substantial part of his salary back to the man who arranges his brutal job, which eventually sends him to his grave. The novel shows all of these immigrants to be mistaken in their belief that they are in control of their fates, but it is just as harsh toward those who refuse to take individual responsibility. There are numerous examples of characters who feel that living within a corrupt system permits an individual to loosen his or her morals, and their individual corruption serves to make society harsher, which leads to even more corruption, and so forth. Even when someone in the novel tries to help another person for selfless reasons, such as the social worker in Chapter 21 who arranges for her fiancé at the steel works to hire Jurgis, the gesture is never powerful enough to overcome the heartless competitiveness of society at large. The only time Jurgis is able to celebrate his own individuality is when he is roaming through the countryside, but that is not necessarily a good thing, since his freedom is due to the fact that those closest to him are dead. The message conveyed by the book's socialist ending is that individualism does not have to mean isolation, as it does in a competitive capitalist system: it can mean individual progress put to use for the common good. Unlike other collectivist philosophies which have sought to ignore or even crush individual thought, the type of socialism advocated in The Jungle supports a combination of individualism with voluntary cooperation.

Topics for Further Study

  • Many of the incidents included in The Jungle are based on actual events. Research the 1904 beef strike in Chicago and other cities, the International Harvester Trust created in 1902, the settlement house movement, or the Socialist movement in the early years of the twentieth century, and report on the background of Sinclair's fictionalized events.
  • What steps are taken by the government to assure that meat sold today is sanitary and safe to eat? Examine the inspection process and explain it visually with a chart that shows the steps of the process.
  • Music often helps people to understand the mood of a different time or culture. Find some songs that would have been popular in Chicago in 1905, and explain how their lyrics and melodies reflect the way of life described in The Jungle.



Most of this book is told from Jurgis Rudkus' point of view, giving readers information that Jurgis would have experienced or heard about and providing access to his feelings and opinions. The book's first chapter provides the most obvious exception to its overall narrative structure. Chapter 1 has an omniscient narrator who is not identified with any particular character, shifting attention from one wedding participant to the next, like a movie camera panning a crowd scene. A reader who was only familiar with the first chapter would not be able to tell that this is a book about Jurgis: the characters who receive the most attention in that part of the book are Ona's cousin Marija Berczynskas and the fiddler Tamoszius Kuszleika, who in fact only receives passing mention throughout the rest of the tale. Once the narration settles on Jurgis, from Chapter 2 on, its hold is loose, slipping every so often into the point of view of another character. For example, in the course of describing the work situations of other characters, such as Ona or Elzbieta, the narration will say what these characters thought, which is actually a violation of the pattern established in the rest of the book, which only gives access to Jurgis' mind.


The Jungle was written the way that was most common in the nineteenth century, the way that Charles Dickens and Mark Twain produced novels: as a continuing serial for a newspaper, with new installments in each edition. As a result, the plot of the book is choppy and uneven, with less care taken in connecting one chapter to the next than is taken to ensure that each individual chapter is solid within itself. The impression that readers retain about Jurgis' life is not necessarily about his growth from bright-eyed innocent to dedicated socialist, but of the individual situations that he passes through in moving from the beginning to the end. While it is true that the turmoil of each step, such as going to jail, being injured, or becoming a political operative, might be important in molding Jurgis into the man he eventually becomes, each episode is important because it is an interesting story in itself, apart from the rest of the work. The individual pieces work well separately, each with a structure that makes it satisfying. The connection between the book's parts is so weak that, as Sinclair himself explained, the preachy, long-winded speeches in the final chapters are not the fulfillment of some overall design: they were written hastily simply to finish the book by his publisher's deadline.


The Jungle is most often examined as a book about the Chicago stockyards, in spite of the fact that the main character quits being a part of stockyard life before the book is half over. The vivid details of the packinghouse scenes had much to do with the book's overall social significance. In 1906, when it was published, this book delivered the news of just what conditions were like, performing a function that is now expected from the news media. The packinghouse scenes are still powerful today, even though the conditions described in the book no longer exist in the United States. Modern readers can relate to the dehumanizing effects of boring, repetitive assembly-line labor and of employers who put profits before the health of their workers. Even though these packinghouses and their particular methods are gone, the drive to get employees to do more work for less money still exists, as does the practice of handling merchandise, whether it is meat or information, as expediently as the law allows. By symbolically linking the fates of the immigrants with the treatment of the butchered food products, the book establishes a nearly perfect link between setting and theme, which, even more than the sheer mass of gruesome details, accounts for the impact of the stockyard setting upon the minds of readers throughout the decades.


This book is a classic example of the Naturalist movement in literature, which developed in the nineteenth century with the writings of French novelist Emile Zola. Naturalist theories do not separate man from nature, as many ways of thought do, but they explain man's behavior as being a result of environment, and thus they explore the social environment for the weaknesses that cause bad behavior. Because it looks at the world in terms of external causes and effects and does not account for the effect that free will can have on a person's situation, Naturalist literature is often considered depressing and hopeless. Writers like Upton Sinclair, who intend their works to produce social change, have traditionally used Naturalist techniques to shock their readers about what is happening in the world. The problem with combining social dedication with impartial description is that, with the number of incidents required to make a novel, writers tend to strain credibility in their attempt to make the world look as harsh as possible. Independently, the brutal and oppressing events that happen to Jurgis Rudkus in this book might serve to stir readers to outrage, but collectively they raise the question of whether the "nature" presented in the story is not manipulated to give Jurgis more bad luck than any one person would normally have.

Historical Context


The Jungle was written specifically to draw attention to the working conditions faced by laborers in America, specifically the immigrants who came, mostly from Europe, and had no choice but to work long hours for whatever meager pay they could get. Throughout the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, their situation became increasingly difficult. One reason was that a great number of unskilled laborers came to America at the time, so that employers could offer low wages for miserable jobs and always find someone willing to do the work. The United States population more than doubled, for instance, between 1850 and 1880, growing from 23 million to 50 million people; twenty years later, it was up by fifty percent more, to 76 million. Some of this was due to the country's expansion and acquisition of new western territories, but much of it was due to the fact that Europeans left hard conditions at home for the abundance of the new land. For example, the Irish potato famine of 1845–1847 caused millions of Irish people to leave their land in search of a new life. Th first wave of immigrants came from western Europe. As word about America's strong economy spread deeper into the continent and travel became easier (by locomotives across land and steamships across oceans), people came from more distant countries, including Lithuania, where the Rudkus family of the novel came from. As the number of unskilled workers grew, urban areas bulged with their increased populations, and industries developed machines that simplified and standardized tasks so that workers could handle them without much skill or training or grasp of the language. In the early part of the twentieth century, the United States government passed new laws that severely limited immigration, which had been growing every year, reaching a high in 1910, when fifteen percent of the population was foreign-born.

Organization of Labor

It was in the early part of the twentieth century that unions began their rise to power, eventually reaching a level of influence in national politics that many people in the second half of the century took for granted. Because of the violent uphill struggles faced by unionization, such as the one described in The Jungle, it sometimes seems as if unions are a twentieth-century development. Actually, the impulse for workers to band together in fighting for rights, and for employers to try to isolate and manipulate the workers, is as old as the country itself, practically required by the American system of capitalism. The concept extends back to the twelfth century in Europe, where workers in specific trades banded together with one another to form guilds: these organizations kept wages secure by limiting the number of people who could work at the trade, and they assured the quality of goods by assuring that the guild members were properly trained. Through the centuries the formal organization of the guild declined, although the concept of people in one profession banding together for the common good has lived on. In the early 1800s, there were unions among shoemakers, printers, and other crafts persons. In 1827, a collection of these smaller unions banded together in Philadelphia to form the Mechanics Union of Trade Associations; though it was only in existence for a few years, it provided a basic design for unions of the future, enabling its members to use the power of several professions in one location, rather than calling out a strike of one profession spread out across the country. At the same time, workers in the country's coal mines found their conditions so perilous and their chances of surviving without the mines so hopeless that they brought unionization to rural settings. Early union activity almost always led to violence if it was not called off quickly: the government generally sided with employers, denied the unions' right to exist, and provided police or armed militia squads to break up demonstrations. Notable events in the struggle for unionization are the Hay-market Massacre in Chicago in 1886, during which police fired into a crowd of striking workers, setting off a chain reaction of violence, and the Homestead strike of 1892 that resulted when a Pittsburgh steel works cut wages and fired workers and sent 300 armed thugs to prevent a strike. The brutality of the company owners and the cooperation of the government against its citizens in cases like these swayed public opinion toward unionization.


With its emphasis on the rights of the workers and on the sins of the property owners, it is only natural that many activists in the labor movement, like Upton Sinclair, would be supporters of socialist philosophies. Early on, the goals of socialism and communism were closely linked, because both

Compare & Contrast

  • 1906: The Pure Food and Drug bill introduced, in part, as a result of revelations made in The Jungle, was opposed by conservative politicians. Republican Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, 64, asked, "Is there anything in the existing condition that makes it the duty of Congress to put the liberty of the United States in jeopardy?… Are we going to take up the question as to what a man shall eat and what a man shall drink, and put him under severe penalties if he is eating or drinking something different from what the chemists of the Agricultural Department think desirable?"

    Today: The debate still continues about whether government safety standards are an infringement of manufacturers' freedom.
  • 1906: The worst earthquake to hit an American city shook San Francisco, registering 8.3 on the Richter scale. The resulting fire lasted three days. In the end, 2,500 died, 250,000 were left homeless, and damages were estimated at over $400 million.

    1989: An earthquake crippled San Francisco, measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale (which means that its impact was one-tenth of the 1906 quake). The quake killed 90 people and caused $6 billion in property damage, mostly due to the collapse of the double-deck Nimitz Highway and the buckling of the Bay Bridge.

    Today: A growing number of scientists are convinced that a major tremor, greater than any on record, is due to shake California's San Andreas Fault within the next fifty years.
  • 1906: Investigation of an outbreak of typhoid fever in a private kitchen lead researchers to the discovery that similar outbreaks occurred in places where Mary Mallon had previously worked. "Typhoid Mary," as she came to be called, was put into virtual solitary confinement from1906–1910 because of her ability to infect others.

    1981: Scientists started noticing symptoms of abnormalities in the immune systems of gay American men, mirroring the symptoms of Kaposi's sarcoma, a form of cancer found often in Africa but rare in the rest of the world. Their findings eventually came to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.

    1985: The first blood test for the HIV virus, which causes AIDS, was approved for use in the United States. Unsafe sharing of needles among intravenous drug users is recognized as a significant cause in spreading the virus.

    Today: The spread of AIDS has been so prevalent that it is no longer dismissed as the problem of just a few social groups. Inhibitors have been developed that can prolong the lives of AIDS victims, but it is still considered a terminal disease.
  • 1906: On Christmas Eve, radio operators on ships off of the Atlantic seaboard heard the first broadcast of a human voice. Inventor Reginald Fessenden read the Christmas story from the gospel of St. Luke over the airwaves that had only been used up to that time to broadcast Morse code. Previous radio transmissions had been to specific receivers.

    1920: The world's first radio station, KDKA in East Pittsburgh, began transmission. Only about 5000 Americans had radio receivers. The following year 75,000 sets were sold.

    1948: The technology boom that followed the end of World War II led to the growth of television: in 1945 there were only 5000 television sets in America, but by 1948 there were over a million.

    Today: Information media are increasingly carried over wires, as in the cases of the Internet and cable television, while personal communication devices like telephones and pagers send signals through the air.

supported the equal distribution of wealth and the breaking down of the social class system. Since the United States' chief rival throughout much of the twentieth century was the communist Soviet Union, many Americans have tended to block out the ideas of socialism as a threat. When Sinclair was writing, however, the Russian Revolution was still ten years in the future, and the cause of socialism was supported by Americans of all backgrounds, although its support was chiefly within the labor movement. In 1877 the Socialist Labor Party was formed in the United States, and in 1901 the Socialist Party was formed by one of the key historical figures of the century, Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president five times, once while in prison on a charge of "pacifism." In 1904, while Sinclair was in Chicago researching The Jungle, labor leader "Big Bill" Haywood called workers and socialists from around the world to Chicago for what he called a "Continental Congress of the working class." Out of that convention came an Industrial Workers Manifesto and the seeds of a new socialist labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World. The I.W.W. was more driven by political beliefs than other unions, and it reached a peak membership of 100,000 before America joined World War I in 1917. Its membership shrank considerably when the government arrested socialists during the war, on charges of treason. Though the I.W.W. never regained the height of its political power, it still exists today.

Critical Overview

Critics have never shown much agreement about the depth of Upton Sinclair's talent as a writer. Some feel that he was, at best, a weak storyteller, who hid his inability to create believable characters behind his sincere effort for political reform, while others have suggested that it was his political agenda that made it hard to see just how talented he really was. Most critics admit that he was fairly talented, though not exceptionally so, and almost all grant that he was scrupulously faithful to the details he wrote about. Sinclair's friend George Bernard Shaw, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright, suggested to people who asked what had happened in his lifetime that they should not look to newspapers but rather should read Upton Sinclair's novels. Bernard Dekle, who repeated the Shaw story in a 1969 article called "Upton Sinclair: The Power of a Courageous Pen," considered the author a "superb journalist": though that opinion says nothing of his ability as a novelist, Dekle goes on to quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes), calling Sinclair, "one of the greatest novelists in the world." Important literary critic Walter B. Rideout described the books of Upton Sinclair as comprising "one of the great information centers in American literature." Another much-admired critic, Granville Hicks, centered in on the quality that gave Sinclair the ability to be such a detailed and credible recorder of the world around him: "Sinclair," Hicks wrote, "has always had the ability to withdraw himself from the struggle and to write with an astonishing degree of objectivity."

But even those critics who praised his ability to capture events in words still acknowledge what Rideout referred to as his "artistic limitations." Rideout pointed out a discrepancy between Sinclair's fictional structure and his social message, explaining that they were separated from one another, instead of complimenting each other the way they should in a good work of art. Hicks, after marveling at his objectivity, recognized that Sinclair's writing, "if seldom downright bad … is not very distinguished." Even though he wrote his review during Sinclair's lifetime, he considered the author's works to be "historical fiction" because of the way they were meant to leave a record of the times. That, in Hicks' view, was the source of the problem: as he explained, "flatness of character is, I think, an inherent defect in the genre in which Sinclair is writing." In other words, even a really great writer would have trouble creating well-rounded characters if limited by the facts of history, and Sinclair was even more limited by his undistinguished talent.

One last area of contention comes from those who have disagreed about the level of objectivity in Sinclair's writing, and about how well it served the causes he supported. Few writers have openly criticized Sinclair for his support of the workers against people of privilege, and many have been willing to overlook the problems with his writing because they have considered him to be an overall positive influence. One critic who refused to give him any consideration for good intentions, however, was Van Wyck Brooks. Brooks rejected the claim that Sinclair's books recorded objective reality, pointing out that complete objectivity is impossible: "Mr. Sinclair, like the rest of us, has seen what he wanted to see and studied what he wanted to study." Since the world Sinclair presented to his reader could not be exactly the same as the real world, Brooks tried to describe what Sinclair's world was really like, characterizing it as one where "all the workers wear halos of pure golden sunlight and all the capitalists have horns and tails." Sinclair's supporters might still claim that it was his right to present reality as he saw it, but Brooks went even further, explaining that Sinclair's greatest failure was in not doing what he himself had set out to do: instead of showing workers to be proud and independent, Brooks claimed, Sinclair's over-simplifications made them look helpless and naive, like infants. The implication of Brooks' critique is that he personally supported the working class as much as Sinclair did, but that he did not think it did any good to overstate their problems or to understate their abilities to cope.


James Woodress

In the following essay, Woodress explores Sinclair's motivation and methods in writing The Jungle, and notes of this novel, which provoked action from a figure no less influential than President Theodore Roosevelt, "No book ever published in the United States produced such an immediate response."

The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's one claim to a place in literary history, was not so much a novel as it was a tract for the times. Sinclair intended it not as a work of art but as an instrument for changing people's minds. He thought of it as an expendable round of ammunition in the battle for social justice. The novel is better judged as propaganda than as literature, but it has compelling power and interests readers today long after the circumstances under which it was written passed into history. Sinclair's considerable ability as a storyteller, coupled with the fierce indignation of a born reformer, made The Jungle perhaps the most memorable document of the muckraking movement. He was incensed by the appalling conditions he observed among the workers in the Chicago stockyards and was determined to do something to improve them.

What Do I Read Next?

  • In 1962, a few years before his death, Sinclair published his view of his long life and many accomplishments in The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (Harcourt, Brace). While The Jungle and the social changes that resulted from it are clearly the most notable accomplishments in his life, his life was filled with other publications and deeds that make it notable, including the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union and breaking the Rockefeller oil trust with his novel Oil!.
  • Leon Harris' biography Upton Sinclair: American Rebel, published in 1975 by Thomas Y. Crowell Company, is a thorough picture of the author's life. It paints a generally positive picture of the author's life, a picture that his critics might find a little too rosy.
  • Theodore Dreiser's book Sister Carrie was published a few years earlier than The Jungle, in 1900. It shocked readers of the day with its grim realism and frank sexuality, presenting what might be the best example of the realistic style that Sinclair used to make his social message powerful. Dreiser's later and more famous book, An American Tragedy (1925), about a famous murder in Chicago, also reflects Sinclair's style and social concerns.
  • James R. Barrett's book Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago's Packinghouse Workers, 1894–1922 is an explanation of the social situation that Sinclair wrote about. Published in 1987, this book makes an excellent companion piece to The Jungle, and was published along with the authoritative 1988 version of the novel (for which Barrett wrote the notes) by the University of Illinois Press.
  • Emile Zola is considered the father of the Realist movement, and was certainly one of the most dedicated social critics to ever write novels. Much of Sinclair's style can be seen in the work of Zola. Almost all of his books are considered classics and are read today, but in particular The Dram Shop from 1877, concerning alcoholism, might interest Sinclair readers, since it is a theme that is visited frequently in The Jungle.
  • Another follower in the Realistic vein was James T. Farrell, who wrote a trilogy of books about an Irish-Catholic boy growing up in Chicago. The books were published throughout the 1930s, and then collected together in 1938, in a volume called Studs Lonigan, with a new introduction by the author.

Sinclair recalled the novel's provenance in 1946 when he wrote an introduction for a new edition. He remembered being sent in 1904 by the Appeal to Reason, a socialist magazine, to investigate conditions in the meat-packing industry. This was at a time when American business answered to no one for safety, sanitary conditions, product reliability, or working conditions. Unions were weak or non-existent, and business squeezed as much profit as it could from low wages. A good many magazines, chief of which was McClure's, were then busily publishing exposes of corruption and malpractice in both industry and government. After the scandal of lethal "embalmed beef" sold to the army during the Spanish-American War, the meatpacking industry seemed a prime subject for investigative reporting.

Sinclair spent seven weeks in Chicago living among and interviewing the stockyard workers and studying conditions in the packing plants. He found that he could go anywhere in the stockyards provided he wore old clothes and carried a lunch pail. One day outside the slaughter-houses he chanced upon a Lithuanian wedding supper and dance, spent the afternoon and evening watching and talking to the newly married couple and their relations, and realized that this immigrant group could provide his point of view for his propaganda novel. He invented Jurgis Rudkus and his family and depicted their lives in and about the stockyards. The story, which begins with the happy wedding scene, moves from joy to ever-increasing misery, as the Lithuanians are exploited inside the packing plant and cheated outside of it. The novel is never dull, at least the early chapters that involve the slaughterhouse and life behind the stockyards are not. Here the novel has all the melodrama of a soap opera, and Jurgis suffers more disasters than the early Christian martyrs. Later Sinclair couldn't resist writing a polemic for the Socialist Party, and the novel even ends with a speech that Sinclair had delivered himself at a mass meeting in Chicago on behalf of Eugene V. Debs, the perennial socialist candidate for President in that era.

The Jungle was written in a one-room cabin outside Princeton, New Jersey. He offered the book to Macmillan, publisher of the romances he had written earlier, but that firm would not publish it unless some of the more lurid details about the packing industry were deleted. Meantime, it had been appearing in the Appeal to Reason where it was creating a sensation. Sinclair published the book himself with aid from Jack London and others, following which Doubleday Page took it over. Sinclair's purpose in writing the book was to improve the lot of the packinghouse workers, but his account of the lack of proper sanitation, the processing of spoiled and diseased meat, particularly the report of men who fell into the lard vats and were rendered into lard, shocked the public. Sinclair said of his book: "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident hit it in the stomach."

No book ever published in the United States produced such an immediate response. Sinclair remembered being summoned to the White House by Theodore Roosevelt to tell his story, after which the President ordered an investigation of the Chicago slaughterhouses. Consumers shuddering over what they might be eating bombarded their senators and representatives with demands for action. Before the year was out Congress passed its first law to regulate the meat, food, and drug industries. No politician could ignore the outcry for reform produced by The Jungle.

The contemporary reader finds the socialist propaganda ladled generously into the novel hard to get through, and even the most dramatic chapters are written in a pedestrian style. The organization of the story, moreover, is loose and rambling. But despite its faults the novel has the air of truth and conveys a sense of terrible urgency. This, of course, is the result of its being true. Sinclair was writing a kind of work that might be called the reportorial novel or the novel of social protest, of which there have been many more recent examples. There is relatively little work of the creative imagination in The Jungle, for the bulk of it consists of closely observed detail and innumerable facts. Today the same material probably would be cast in the form of non-fiction, the sort of multi-part documentary that often appears in the New Yorker. Any student of American history and cultures owes it to himself to read The Jungle in order to understand more clearly the impulse behind the labor movement, the drive for regulatory agencies, and the need for social conscience on the part of all citizens.

Source: James Woodress, The Jungle, in Reference Guide to American Literature, third edition, St. James Press, 1994, pp. 995-96.

Lewis Carroll Wade

In the following excerpt, Wade examines the fallacies upon which Sinclair based his disturbing novel The Jungle.

There is no doubt that The Jungle helped shape American political history. Sinclair wrote it to call attention to the plight of Chicago packinghouse workers who had just lost a strike against the Beef Trust. The novel appeared in February 1906, was shrewdly promoted by both author and publisher, and quickly became a best seller. Its socialist message, however, was lost in the uproar over the rel-atively brief but nauseatingly graphic descriptions of packinghouse "crimes" and "swindles." The public's visceral reaction led Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana to call for more extensive federal regulation of meat packing and forced Congress to pay attention to pending legislation that would set government standards for food and beverages. President Theodore Roosevelt sent two sets of investigators to Chicago and played a major role in securing congressional approval of Beveridge's measure. When the President signed this Meat Inspection Act and also the Food and Drugs Act in June, he graciously acknowledged Beveridge's help but said nothing about the famous novel or its author.

Teachers of American history and American studies have been much kinder to Sinclair. Most consider him a muckraker because the public responded so decisively to his accounts of rats scurrying over the meat and going into the hoppers or workers falling into vats and becoming part of Durham's lard. Many embrace The Jungle as a reasonably trustworthy source of information on urban immigrant industrial life at the turn of the century. Few raise questions about Sinclair's credentials as either a journalist or historical novelist. If doubts arise, they are quickly dismissed….

Drawing on old records and new scholarship, this article looks first at Sinclair's motives for writing the novel, then compares what he says about packers, packinghouse products, immigrant workers and their community with the historical evidence. In concludes that contrary to the author's 1906 claim that it was "so true that students may go to it, as they would a work of reference," The Jungle often strays quite far from the truth. As a result, the book misinforms readers about life in what Sinclair called "Packingtown" but which residents and reporters knew as "Back of the Yards."…

Capitalist packers were the most fearsome monsters in Sinclair's jungle. They were "the incarnation of blind and insensate Greed … devouring with a thousand mouths, trampling with a thousand hoofs." They could live in the lap of luxury because they cheated cattle raisers, set high market prices on their meat products, bribed federal inspectors to pass diseased animals, and chiseled on workers' wages. To them [as Sinclair records in his Autobiography] "a hundred human lives did not balance a penny of profit." Their plants were "honeycombed with rottenness": "bosses grafted off the men" who in turn were "pitted against each other." As a result, Packingtown "was simply a seething cauldron of jealousies and hatreds; there was no loyalty or decency anywhere." Female employees, "mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation," were at the mercy of foremen "every bit at brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers." Things "quite unspeakable" went on in the packinghouses and "were taken for granted by everybody; only they did not show … because there was no difference in color between master and slave."…

Those in the path of the Chicago packers fought a noisy rear guard action. Dairy farmers called margarine a "cheap, nasty grease" capable of transmitting tuberculosis and trichinosis. Congress placed a modest tax on it in 1886, but the Department of Agriculture's Division of Chemistry pronounced it safe and nutritious. As Chicago chilled beef invaded eastern markets, local slaughterers and butchers dubbed it "stale" or "dead" meat, implying that it absorbed ammonia from cooling machinery or was chemically "embalmed" to prolong its life. Customers liked its superior taste and lower price and thus ignored the warnings. Opponents then accused Chicago packers of using diseased animals and said only local inspection in their own states at the time of slaughter could safeguard consumers. Several states banned Chicago beef, but the Supreme Court overturned these laws in 1890. Meantime, European countries banned American pork products until the federal government certified that they were free of trichinae. Congress in 1890–91 authorized the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Animal Industry to inspect livestock before and after slaughter and, at the request of packers or foreign governments, conduct microscopic examinations of pork before certifying it. The large packers quickly availed themselves of this service, and by 1900 federal meat inspectors, graduates of veterinary colleges and protected by civil service, were working in 149 packinghouses in 46 cities.

Criticism of Chicago meat products surfaced again during the Spanish-American War. General Nelson A. Miles, still smarting from the packinghouse workers' insolence to his soldiers during the Pullman strike, blamed the sickness of American troops in Cuba and Puerto Rico on the canned meat and chilled beef prepared in Chicago. He told [as noted by Louise Carroll Wade in "Hell Hath No Fury Like a General Scorned," in The Illinois Historical Journal, Autum, 1986] the War Investigating Commission that the former was defective, the latter what "you might call embalmed beef." Major General Leonard Wood, trained at Harvard Medical School, testified that the chilled beef was nutritious and wholesome, while academic and government chemists (including Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, chief of the Division [later Bureau] of Chemistry from 1883 to 1912) gave clean bills of health to samples of the canned beef. After visits to the packinghouses and voluminous testimony, the Commission declared that the canned beef was "generally of good quality" and that "no refrigerated beef … was subjected to or treated with any chemicals." Undaunted, General Miles asked for a military court of inquiry into his beef charges. It ruled that Miles had no justification for "alleging" that the beef was "embalmed" or "unfit for issue." These two investigations revealed that careless handling of the refrigerated beef and the practice of eating canned meat opened days before contributed to intestinal illnesses, but drinking contaminated water was the major factor. Medical doctors and researchers soon tracked typhoid to poor sanitation and pinned malaria and yellow fever on mosquitos. Despite exoneration of Chicago meat and scientific explanations for the illnesses, historian Graham A. Cosmas [in his book An Army for Empire, 1971] concedes that the "sensational charges, not the sober refutations, stuck in the minds of thousands of ordinary citizens."

Foes of the packers kept the rotten beef charges alive, and, as Floyd Dell noted, this "more or less prepared" the public for The Jungle. Simons rejoiced that "the world knows now the story of the infamous part played … by the packers of Chicago." Charles Edward Russell asked "How did they manage to emerge unharmed from the terrible 'embalmed-beef' revelations of the Spanish War? How did they escape prosecution when more American soldiers fell before their deadly beef than were hit by all the Spanish guns?" The Jungle claimed "the 'embalmed beef'… killed several times as many United States soldiers as all the bullets of the Spaniards." And in May 1906 Sinclair issued a press release stating that Philip Armour's 1901 death was due—not to pneumonia—but to "worry incidental" to hushing up the company's responsibility for those deaths….

Another aspect of food safety was the question of whether meat and milk from tubercular cattle could infect people. When Dr. Robert Koch discovered the bacillus in 1882, he thought it caused the same disease in man and beast. No one knew how tuberculosis was transmitted, but veterinarians advocated stringent livestock inspection as a public health measure. While doctors did not rule out infection through meat or milk, they thought cooking meat and boiling milk could eliminate the risk. Since they suspected the White Plague spread through lung discharges of sick individuals, they emphasized disinfection of premises and careful disposal of sputum so it could not dry out, pulverize and travel through the air. Disagreement sharpened after Koch declared in 1901 that bovine and human tuberculosis were caused by different bacilli and conjectured that people seldom if ever contracted tuberculosis from cattle. American doctors generally supported Koch, and some even suggested that money spent on livestock inspection be used to identify and treat patients. Most veterinarians and many British doctors disputed Koch, and insisted, as did Dr. Daniel E. Salmon, head of the Bureau of Animal Industry from 1884 until 1905, that "No slaughter-houses should be allowed to operate without inspection." Ironically, there was widespread agreement that thorough cooking rendered all meat safe, even pork, and the Bureau of Animal Industry began phasing out microscopic examination for trichinae in 1902, abandoning it completely by 1907.

Meantime, those seeking environmental factors in the transmission of tuberculosis decided that it was endemic in dark, crowded slums and workplaces and spread from there. Explained Robert Hunter, the germs "live for months in darkness or in places artificially lighted" and eventually become "pulverized dust which is blown about through tenements, theatres, street cars, railway trains, offices, and factories." Dr. Alice Hamilton of Hull House also fingered "germ-laden dust … whirled in the air by gusts of wind." Back of the Yards physician Dr. Caroline Hedger insisted that in the interior packinghouse rooms with electric lights "germs could live almost indefinitely unless removed." She found it "revolting to think of the chances for infection of food in a situation like this." Adolphe Smith believed that the "sharp angles, nooks, and corners" of the packinghouses harbored "sputum of tuberculous workers … for weeks, months, and years" and that the disease was "especially prevalent" among packinghouse workers. There was a distinct possibility, therefore, that the packers were exporting "the bacilli in the provisions … sent from Chicago all over the world."

The Jungle effectively heightened fears about contamination and adulteration of packinghouse products. In the novel men and women labor in "dark holes, by electric light." Many cough incessantly, spit at random, and stack meat in sputum on the floor. The packers are said to prefer tubercular cattle because they "fatten more quickly." They hire "regular alchemists" to concoct meat products out of knuckle joints, gullets, skins, moldy scrap ends and those poisoned rats, appropriately spiced, colored and preserved. Other illustrations were excised by Doubleday. One involved an unmarried worker who gave birth in a "dark passage" and dropped the baby "into one of the carts full of beef, that was all ready for the cooking-vats." Black strike-breakers (with "woolly heads" and "savages" for ancestors) spread "diseases of vice" in the canned meat, "loathsome" afflictions which caused fingers and parts of the faces "to rot away and drop off." In The Brass Check, Sinclair professed "bitterness" when he finally realized that he "had been made into a 'celebrity'… simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef." But in September 1905, when he was trying to persuade Macmillan to publish the manuscript, he assured them that "with the spoiled meat sensations that are in it … you can count upon making the book a success."

President Roosevelt, supplied with advance copies of The Jungle by Marcosson and Sinclair, was concerned about the accusations against federal inspectors and the implications for public health. He asked the Department of Agriculture to investigate, and early in March a committee visited eighteen Chicago plants that used federal inspection and three that did not. Its report provided detailed information about the inspection service and the physical conditions within the plants. The investigators found good, fair and bad conditions, often within the same plant and sometimes in the same room. In one establishment, for example, there were dirty windows and unpainted walls in the hog-killing area but clean workbenches and a clean vitrified brick floor. The cattle-killing area had "good light and ventilation," tiled side walls, but dirty overhead beams. The beef-canning section was "well whitewashed, lighted, and ventilated, and was clean," although the cooking room had dirty meat receptacles and no fans to carry off the steam. There were dressing rooms, lockers and wash basins for some but not all employees. Some toilets were "clean, well flushed, painted, and whitewashed," others "dark and insanitary." The plants not using federal inspection were generally unsanitary throughout [as recorded in "Report of the Department Committee on the Federal Meat-Inspection Service at Chicago," by the Bureau of Animal Industry, in Annual Report, 1906].

Annoyed by the report's detail and refusal to generalize about sanitary conditions, the President felt that it did not give him "clear, definite answers." So he asked the same men to address specific criticisms in Smith's Lancet articles, Sinclair's novel and Hedger's forthcoming article. The committee tried again to explain to Roosevelt that sanitary conditions were uneven. Hedger's charge of excessive dirt fit "certain rooms of certain establishments, but it is absolutely unfair as a generalization." Sinclair "selected the worst possible condition which could be found in any establishment" and "willfully closed his eyes to establishments where excellent conditions prevail." The novelist's assertion that poisoned rats went into the meat hoppers was a "deliberate misrepresentation of fact [according to the "Supplemental Report on Certain Publications Reflecting on the Meat Inspection," Bureau of Animal Industry, Annual Report, 1906]." They also took this opportunity to call attention to Adolphe Smith's statement: "When a carcass, or a portion of a carcass, is condemned, in spite of stockyard gossip and scandal, I believe that it is conscientiously destroyed." Smith also had "some difficulty in believing" stories about the use of bruised hams and defective meat.

The President sequestered both of these April reports, for he had dispatched Commissioner of Labor Charles P. Neill and James B. Reynolds to make yet another investigation. Interestingly, both men had toured the stockyard and packinghouses on previous occasions without registering any complaints about procedure. Neill and Reynolds spent several weeks in Packingtown but delayed writing their report until commanded to do so the first weekend in June. In [the U.S. Congress, House Documents, No. 873 "Conditions in the Chicago Stock Yards"] the authors say they verified everything by "personal examination." They did find dirty windows, floors, workbenches and meat receptacles, some toilets improperly located and unsanitary, and many rooms that were poorly ventilated. They were critical of the use of electric lights: "Most of the rooms are so dark as to make artificial light necessary at all times." They did not mention rats. But they departed from their own guidelines to hypothesize that aged meat "might be treated with chemicals" and to say that unidentified physicians thought tuberculosis "disproportionately prevalent" among packinghouse workers.

Briefly and grudgingly they acknowledged seeing clean brick and cement floors, model cooling and meat storage facilities, and eating rooms for the women in the packinghouses. Federal agents conducted the post-mortem inspections "carefully and conscientiously" and examined hog flesh under microscopes with "great care." In a section of the report headed "Uncleanliness in handling products" they buried their approval of the entire chilled-meat operation:

After killing, carcasses are well washed, and up to the time they reach the cooling room are handled in a fairly sanitary and cleanly manner. The parts that leave the cooling room for treatment in bulk are also handled with regard to cleanliness.

When called before the House Agriculture Committee, both Neill and Reynolds said their criticisms applied only to the canning and preservation of meat. Packinghouse workers were "a strong, sturdy class of foreigners," not tubercular wrecks, and they saw clean rooms and sanitary metal carts, tubs and cutting tables "in quite a number of places." Asked about their relationship to Sinclair, Reynolds replied, "We had letters from Mr. Sinclair, and he sent parties to us to give evidence." We "made an attempt to verify certain statements, but found it impossible to do so."

During the last week of May, Sinclair fed his scary version of what would be in the Neill-Reynolds [May 26, 27, and 28, 1906] report to the New York Times—plants "overrun with rats," lard made from hogs that had died of cholera, food prepared by "ignorant foreigners or negroes" who had "no knowledge" of sanitation. Roosevelt's June 4 letter accompanying the actual report stressed the negative and ignored the positive observations because "legislation is needed … to prevent the possibility of all abuses in the future." The House Agriculture Committee finally forced the President to release the two Department of Agriculture reports, but the newspapers gave them short shrift. Nor did anyone ask why Dr. Wiley had found "so little to criticize and so much to commend" in Packingtown, or why so many visitors and journalists trooped through the plants without mentioning unsanitary conditions, or how millions could consume Chicago meat without ill effects. Said the Outlook [on June 9, 1906], "the suspicion that poisoned, diseased, and putrid meat is packed and distributed for the use of the American people has … spread widely—not to say wildly. Even if this suspicion is unfounded, nothing but Federal legislation can allay it." And so Congress bowed to public opinion and the President's wishes and endorsed the essence of the Beveridge bill extending federal inspection to all parts of the packinghouses.

If The Jungle misrepresents packers and packinghouse products, it is even more misleading about the workers and their community. In order to prove that they exist in an "inferno of exploitation," Sinclair lets bosses, realtors, merchants, politicians, priests, saloon keepers and the midwife cheat the Rudkus clan. Jurgis is "helpless as a wounded animal, the target of unseen enemies," his wife too child-like to cope, and stolid Elzbieta, the linchpin of the group, reminds him of "the angleworm, which goes on living though cut in half … she asked no questions about the justice of it, nor the worthwhileness of life in which destruction and death ran riot." Little wonder the journal published by the packinghouse workers' union called the novel "greatly overdrawn" and objected to a plot in which the immigrants experience "only slavery, injustice and death" [as reported in "Amalgated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, Official Journal, May, 1906].

Sinclair wanted readers to believe that packinghouse workers were "rats in a trap," that prostitutes fared better than "decent" girls, and that "if you met a man who was rising … you met a knave." John R. Commons of the University of Wisconsin studied the Chicago packinghouse workers in 1904 and described the great variety of jobs commanding wages from 15 cents an hour for new unskilled hands to 50 cents an hour for the highly skilled "butcher aristocracy." He found [as noted in his article "Labor Conditions in Meat Packing and the Recent Strike," Quarterly Journal of Economics, November, 1904] that Irish and German newcomers in the 1880s had moved up, "accumulated money," and were fanning out into other jobs. Bohemians dominated the skilled ranks, while newly-arrived Slovaks and Lithuanians filled the lower positions. He did meet one Slovak who had been in Packingtown for ten years and "worked himself up to a 50-cent job." Another academic investigator, Carl William Thompson, studied the district in 1906 and came to similar conclusions. Even laborers were able to save part of their earnings, and "Slovak and Lithuanian girls working … at the low wage of five dollars a week also save a considerable fraction of their income." A recent study of Chicago's low-wage women workers who chose to live apart from family and relatives found that most managed to do so. Ernest Poole's protagonist [in Antanas Kaztauskis's autobiography dictated to Ernest Poole from "Lithuania to the Chicago Stockyards," advanced from five dollars per week in his first job to eleven dollars per week and said that was "very common. There are thousands of immigrants like me."…

The novel's impact upon readers in 1906 assures its placein American history. As John Braeman so aptly said, "During the excitement aroused by Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the federal government stepped forward as the defender of the public well-being." But is the book "journalistic novel writing," as Sinclair claimed? Mark Sullivan rejected it as muckracking journalism and referred to the author as a "propagandist." Stockyards area resident Ralph Chaplin considered it "very inaccurate." And Mary McDowell, more familiar with the packinghouses and neighborhood than either Sullivan or Chaplin, said the novel "was filled with half-truths." In a review [published in the New Republic on September 28, 1932] of Sinclair's first autobiography, Edmund Wilson ventured the opinion that he chose sides "before he knew what it was all about" and the resulting "vision of good and evil at grips in all the affairs of the world … would always have prevented Sinclair from being a first-rate newspaper man."

Does The Jungle have value as historical fiction? While novelists have the right to give free rein to their imaginations, the historical novelist needs what Cushing Strout calls a "veracious imagination." Sinclair does not meet Stout's criteria[as found in his book The Veracious Imagination, 1981]—respect for "both the documentable and the imaginative without sacrificing either to the other." Turn of the century evidence buttressed by recent scholarship exposes the many ways in which Sinclair loaded the dice to convince readers that packinghouse workers led heart-breaking lives in a capitalist jungle. In the process he distorted the truth about the packers and their product and about immigrant workers and their community….

Source: Lewis Carroll Wade, "The Problem with Classroom Use of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle," in American Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 79-101.

Walter B. Rideout

In his essay, Rideout explains how Jurgis's conversion to Socialism by the end of The Jungle is believable, despite scholarly discussion of the system being out of place in the gritty novel.

Lincoln Steffens tells in his Autobiography of receiving a call during the early years of muckraking from an earnest and as yet little-known young writer.

One day Upton Sinclair called on me at the office of McClure's and remonstrated.

"What you report," he said, "is enough to make a complete picture of the system, but you seem not to see it. Don't you see it? Don't you see what you are showing?"

Having just been converted to Socialism, Sinclair was sure he "saw it," and in the late autumn of 1905 his friend Jack London was writing to the Socialist weekly The Appeal to Reason in praise of a new book which it was serializing.

Here it is at last! The book we have been waiting for these many years! The Uncle Tom's Cabin of wage slavery! Comrade Sinclair's book, The Jungle! and what Uncle Tom's Cabin did for black slaves, The Jungle has a large chance to do for the wage-slaves of today….

The Jungle is dedicated "To the Workingmen of America." Into it had gone Sinclair's heartsick discovery of the filth, disease, degradation, and helplessness of the packing workers' lives. But any muckraker could have put this much into a book; the fire of the novel came from Sinclair's whole passionate, rebellious past, from the insight into the pattern of capitalist oppression shown him by Socialist theory, and from the immediate extension into the characters' lives of his own and his wife's struggle against hunger, illness, and fear. It was the summation of his life and experience into a manifesto. The title of the book itself represented a feat of imaginative compression, for the world in which the Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis and his family find themselves is an Africa of unintelligibility, of suffering and terror, where the strong beasts devour the weak, who are dignified, if at all, only by their agony.

After their pathetically happy marriage, the descent of Jurgis and Ona into the social pit is steady. They are spiritually and, in the case of Ona, physically slaughtered, more slowly but quite as surely as the cattle in the packing plant. Disease spread by filthy working and living conditions attacks them, they endure cold in winter and clouds of flies in summer, bad food weakens their bodies, and seasonal layoffs leave them always facing starvation. When illness destroys Jurgis's great strength, he realizes that he has become a physical cast-off, one of the waste products of the plant, and must take the vilest job of all in the packing company's fertilizer plant. The forced seduction of his wife by her boss leads him to an assault on the man and thirty days in jail. Released without money, he returns to his family evicted from their home and Ona dying in childbirth. After being laid off from a dangerous job in a steel plant, Jurgis becomes successively a tramp, the henchman of a crooked politician, a strikebreaker in the packing plant strike of 1904, and finally a bum. Having reached the bottom of the social pit, he wanders into a political meeting to keep warm and hears for the first time, though at first unaware that he is listening to a Socialist, an explanation of the capitalist jungle in which he has been hunted. The sudden realization of truth is as overwhelming to Jurgis as it had been to Jurgis's creator. He at once undertakes to learn more about Socialism, is given a job in a hotel owned by a Socialist, and is eventually taken to a meeting of radical intellectuals where he hears all the arguments for the Industrial Republic which Sinclair wants his readers to know. Jurgis throws himself into the political campaign of 1904, the one in which the Party actually made such astonishing gains, and the book concludes exultantly with a speech first given by Sinclair himself, proclaiming the coming victory of the Socialists, at which time Chicago will belong to the people.

The "conversion" pattern of The Jungle has been attacked as permitting too easy a dramatic solution; however, aside from the recognized fact that many conversions have occurred before and since Paul saw the light on the road to Damascus, it should be noted that in The Jungle Sinclair carefully prepares such an outcome by conducting Jurgis through all the circles of the workers' inferno and by attempting to show that no other savior except Socialism exists. Perhaps a more valid objection to the book is Sinclair's failure to realize his characters as "living" persons, a charge which, incidentally, may be brought against many nonconversion novels. Jurgis is admittedly a composite figure who was given a heaping share of the troubles of some twenty or thirty packing workers with whom Sinclair had talked, and the author's psychology of character is indeed a simple one. Although in the introductory wedding scene Jurgis and the other major characters are sharply sketched as they had appeared to the writer at an actual wedding feast in Packingtown, during the remainder of the book they gradually lose their individuality, becoming instead any group of immigrants destroyed by the Beef Trust. Yet paradoxically, the force and passion of the book are such that this group of lay figures with Jurgis at their head, these mere capacities for infinite suffering, finally do come to stand for the masses themselves, for all the faceless ones to whom things are done. Hardly individuals, they nevertheless collectively achieve symbolic status.

Sinclair's success in creating this jungle world emphasizes by contrast what is actually the book's key defect. Jurgis's conversion is probable enough, the Socialist explanation might well flash upon him with the blinding illumination of a religious experience; but practically from that point onward to the conclusion of his novel Sinclair turns from fiction to another kind of statement. Where the capitalist damnation, the destruction of the immigrants, has been proved almost upon the reader's pulses, the Socialist salvation, after its initial impact, is intellectualized. The reader cannot exist imaginatively in Jurgis's converted state even if willing, for Jurgis hardly exists himself. What it means to be a Socialist is given, not through the rich disorder of felt experience, but in such arbitrarily codified forms as political speeches, an essay on Party personalities, or the long conversation in monologues about the Cooperative Commonwealth which comprises most of the book's final chapter. The Jungle begins and lives as fiction; it ends as a political miscellany.

The fact that Jurgis's militant acceptance of Socialism is far less creatively realized than his previous victimization is indicative of how Sinclair's outraged moral idealism is attracted more to the pathos than the power of the poor, and suggests his real affinity for the mid-Victorian English reform novelists. More specifically, The Jungle is reminiscent of the work of the humanitarian Dickens, whose social protest had "thrilled" the young rebel. There are frequent resemblances between the two writers in narrative method, in presentation of character, in the tendency of both to intrude themselves with bubbling delight or horrified indignation into the scene described. Whole paragraphs on the wedding feast of Jurgis Rudkus and Ona recall, except for the Lithuanian, the manner of Dickens with the Cratchits' Christmas dinner, and Madame Haupt, fat, drunken, and filthy, might have been a midwife in Oliver Twist's London. Finally, the temper of Sinclair's protest is curiously like that of Dickens. Where the latter urges only the literal practice of Christianity as a remedy for the cruelties he describes, Sinclair, to be sure, demands the complete transformation of the existing order of things by the Socialist revolution; yet the revolution that the orator so apocalyptically envisages at the conclusion to The Jungle is to be accomplished by the ballot and not by the bullet. Sinclair's spirit is not one of blood and barricades, but of humanitarianism and brotherly love.

Source: Walter B. Rideout, "Realism and Revolution," in his The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900–1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society, Harvard University Press, 1956 pp. 19-46.


Van Wyck Brooks, "Upton Sinclair and His Novels," Sketches in Criticism, Dutton, 1932, pp. 291-98.

Bernard Dekle, "Upton Sinclair: The Power of a Courageous Pen," Profiles of American Authors, Tuttle, 1969, pp. 70-74.

Melvyn Dubofsky, 'Big Bill' Haywood, St. Martin's Press, 1987.

James R. Green, The World of the Worker: Labor in Twentieth-Century America, Hill and Wang, 1980.

Granville Hicks, "The Survival of Upton Sinclair," College English, Vol. 4, no. 4, January, 1943, pp. 213-220.

Daniel Nelson, Shifting Fortunes: The Rise and Decline of American Labor, from 1920 to the Present, Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1997.

Walter B. Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900–1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society, Harvard University Press, 1956.

Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair, Harcourt Brace World, 1962.

Jon A. Yoder, Upton Sinclair, Frederick Ungar, 1975.

For Further Study

William A. Bloodworth Jr., Upton Sinclair, Twayne, 1977.

A brief, comprehensive, scholarly look at the author's career and how his political activities intertwined with his social goals.

Floyd Dell, Upton Sinclair: A Study in Social Protest, Do-ran, 1927.

Dell was a prominent writer and social activist in Sinclair's time, and his critical study tends to view Sinclair and his achievements favorably.

Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, Quadrangle Books, 1969.

Over five hundred pages is given to examination of the politicized union that few readers know about today, but that influenced labor relations throughout the twentieth century.

Thomas J. Jablonsky, Pride in the Jungle: Community and Everyday Life in Back of the Yards Chicago, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

A full-spectrum look at the area, keeping readers current with the changes that have taken place in the stockyard neighborhood since Sinclair's book was published, and as a result of it.

Harvey Swados, "The World of Upton Sinclair," in The Atlantic Monthly, December, 1961, pp. 96-102.

A look at Sinclair as a social force, apart from his literary worth, from a poet and short story writer who, though not a household name, was himself important in the literature of his day.

Louise Carroll Wade, Chicago's Pride: the Stockyards, Packingtown, and the Environs of the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois Press. 1987.

Wade offers a heavily-annotated, scientific look at the neighborhood described in The Jungle during its formative years, before the events in the novel take place.