The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is a powerful piece of classical literature. Indeed, it is arguably Sinclair’s most famous of all prior and latter works of art due to the simple fact it had such an impact on the meatpacking industry. Oddly enough, Sinclair didn’t achieve his underlying goal in stressing the importance of a socialistic society, but rather society focused on the atrocities of the how their food was being prepared in factories.
The Jungle is a fictional novel, set in the early 20th century in Chicago. Immigrants from Northern Europe looking to live the American dream make the bold move after hearing word of friends striking it rich. The family quickly finds work, with the men in the household eventually getting work from the local stockyard. The protagonist Jurgis is immediately overjoyed to have a job, denies to join a union because he is all but ecstatic with the poor working conditions, and believes he is making a good living for his family.
The Jungle couldn’t be a better title for this book, as the immigrant family is eaten alive by conmen, politicians, dirty employers, lawyers, and shoddy living conditions. Jurgis slowly but surely realizes America isn’t what he thought it was after being conned more often than not, and seeing his family suffer. Jurgis eventually educates himself on politics and English and tries to make change, but it comes too late and most of his family either dies or runs away. Grief stricken with the death of his wife, Jurgis himself becomes a bum, criminal, and ultimately a socialist conspirator.
One could say the end result of the novel is downright socialist propaganda disguised as a fictional heart breaking story of a crumbling family. The book’s storyline takes a radical change as Jurgis becomes more involved in politics as he tries to take down capitalism and resurrect socialism from the ashes.
Sinclair fails to see the errors in his own ideas while putting his political stance into The Jungle, this being one of the critical weaknesses of the novel. Socialism dampers creativity and productivity, since government interaction with the economy and its people is immense. Socialism also puts too much power into the hands of government as it is borderline communism- something American founders would certainly not have stood for. Sinclair’s bias, whether intentional or not, also allows him to show what is wrong with capitalism- especially for immigrants. While Sinclair makes great points in unfair labor laws and corruption in business, he failed to point out that his depiction of America was almost a purely capitalistic nation, which it surely isn’t and never has been.
Sinclair’s work on The Jungle wasn’t in vain; he displayed the strength literature has in creating reform. Theodore Roosevelt was thoroughly disgusted by the depictions of workers becoming caught in lard making machines, old meat caught in drains and dead rats shoveled into sausage processors, and diseased or sick cattle being butchered while inspectors had their backs turned. After Roosevelt’s henchmen came back with a report that the corruption was indeed true, Roosevelt immediately started putting the Food and Drug Administration into effect. This administration would set laws and boundaries as to how consumer products should be created and what standards should be observed.
The Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act were also passed to help stabilize meat sales that dropped as a result of the publishing of The Jungle. Sinclair stated “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Indeed, he is correct as the meatpacking industry saw a large decline in meat sales both inside the US and to foreign purchasers. Although it seems like a negative impact, this actually conveys another strength of the novel in the respect it achieved more benefit than it did harm.
Critical appeal of The Jungle varies from one professional to the next. Those who favor socialism and communism, for instance, view the book as a particularly great example of how capitalism exploits the working class. The novel was written from the naturalistic standpoint- a popular theme in literature that continues today, giving it global appeal. Less friendly critics state that the exaggeration is rampant in The Jungle, and that readers are being blindly led into believing the horrors of capitalism as outlined in the novel as true. Clearly, The Jungle is a very controversial piece of work that invokes many arguments and sensationalism.
Overall, I believe the book to be a worthwhile read. It tells a wonderfully depressing story of what the American dream was to most immigrants. Because the book inspired actual reform in the American economy, it is an important read for history, economic, and journalist students alike. It’s a great example of how one man can change an entire nation regardless of his stance, age, or social standing. I would highly recommend giving this book a read to anyone considering to broaden their perspectives, and certainly anyone interested in a tale of the all but famous American dream gone wrong.