When I think of a jungle, I imagine a happy place with abundant greenery, tigers roaming the underbrush and monkeys swinging through the massive trees on leafy vines. Obviously I’ve totally bought into the Disney jungle vision depicted in “Tarzan”.
I had thought all my imaginings of jungles to be far away from Chicago, thinking I would have to travel by land and sea before reaching one. Until, that is, I devoured Upton Sinclair’s groundbreaking novel The Jungle. I hate to even use the word “devour” when discussing this novel, since so much of it deals with contaminated meat, blue milk and inhumane conditions that completely quell any appetite.
The year is 1905, and immigrants scramble to Chicago to begin a new, better life with the promises of secure jobs and wealth within the Stockyards. Following Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis as he strives to support his new wife, son and her family, it is a true tale of survival that is hard to digest. From the gruesome work conditions to the utter squalor at home, this is a story based on a truth that was debilitating and deathly to many.
Jurgis begins as an optimistic young man, newly married and naive, yet physically and mentally strong. In the beginning he embraces his demanding life at the Stockyards, ignorant to the politics and corruption. As his awareness is raised, his life becomes harder. Through injury and circumstance, the family’s situation at home worsens, and food and heat are both harder to come by. While I’m not a fan of Chicago Winters (you should all know how desperately I’m waiting for spring!), I’ve never had to worry about freezing to death stuck in a snowdrift, literally having my ears break off from the cold (poor little Stansilova) or freezing in my sleep.
More than just a bleak story of one poor family, it is a political piece looking at work conditions and the quality of meat packaged for the United States. Sinclair actually went undercover in Packingtown as the Stockyards were called, so experienced the conditions of the workers and the meat first hand.
“It seemed that they must have agencies all over the country, to hunt out old and crippled and diseased cattle to be canned. (they would come in) Covered with boils. It was a nasty job killing these, for when you plunged the knife into them they would burst and splash foul-smelling stuff into your face… It was stuff such as this that made the ’embalmed beef’ that had killed several times as many United States soldiers as all the bullets of the Spaniards…”
In addition to the spoiled meat, Sinclair tells about workers falling into vats, and when they were discovered all that was left of the human is a pile of bones, since every other body part had gone out packaged as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard (as in, human parts consumed by other people). Minor injuries often meant death, directly or indirectly through blood disease or no money to buy food. Never have I appreciated health insurance so much.
As I read this book I questioned if I would have been strong enough to have survived in this time period. The life depicted is so tough I was depressed while reading it. It seemed to me the people had very little to live for. There was no end in sight to their squalor; they weren’t working to get ahead and have time to relax and enjoy their effort, they were working to stay alive. There as no real home life to speak of, as they were so exhausted from working so long with little nourishment people climbed right into bed upon walking in the door. As a parent, it’s hard to feel right about sending your child to work the streets or in the factories, knowing they don’t have a future but you need their meager contributions to keep the family alive. My mom says hope springs eternal, and throughout this book I’m inclined to agree.
I think everyone should read this book. I wouldn’t even say it’s inspirational exactly, but more a realistic view at how life could be, and how it has been for people in the past and how far we’ve come. It also may make you chuckle at how germaphobic a society we’ve become, since people survived (of course, many did not) on spoiled milk and infected meat. I made a point to eat my asparagus that fell off the side of my plate onto the coffee table today, telling myself it will only toughen me up!
My main complaint is the Socialist rally cry that takes up the last few chapters of this novel. I understand Sinclair considered himself a Socialist, but I thought the political propaganda could have been discarded and a very strong novel would have remained without any stated biases. Just be sure to not eat canned meat when reading! Good news though: this book inspired the Pure Food Act passed in 1906, shortly after the book became a success after it’s book publication in February of the same year.
- NovelWhore’s Grade: A-
- Title: The Jungle
- Author: Upton Sinclair
- Publisher: Doubleday in 1906, originally run as segments in “Appeal to Reason” magazine 1905