Book Notes: The Jungle


by Upton Sinclair

What it’s about

The Jungle is a classic, and Upton Sinclair is one of the most well known, not to mention prolific American writers of the century. I owe it to myself to read at least one of his works. The Jungle appeals to me because it seems a little subversive, like the images and ideas in it are a little controversial. And in fact they were– poverty, class warfare, and public health concerns make for a juicy read.

Why I read it

The Jungle a muckraking novel about the American meatpacking industry in the early 20th century. Themes include: the unsanitary and morally questionable treatment of the animals and the workers alike at massive stockyards and processing plants, socialism, the misfortunes and frustrations of an immigrant family who moves to America in search of the American Dream, class immobility, and corruption.My impressions:

What I thought

The descriptions of the slaughterhouse/slum Packingtown are what the book is known for, and there’s a good reason. Sinclair’s writing is like a relentless stream of facts, dense but remarkably interesting page after page. I think a lot of the emotional power of the book comes from the way he is able to sustain these grusomely detailed recounts of theworking and home lives of the main characters in such a mechanical, journalistic way. In spite of their all their discomfort and suffering, the crisp and detailed prose marches on with indifference, mirroring the unfogiving industrialism of the stockyards themselves.

The descriptions of the jobs that some characters hold in the slaighterhouses made my stomach turn. The work conditions were truly appaling, for young and old alike. I can’t imagine going to work every day and being tasked with shoveling cow intestines into a waste chute, as Jurgis did, day after day, both when the blood would freeze to your clothes in winter, and when the stench would permeate your whole being in the summer. It makes me grateful for my office job, to say the least.

Sinclair wastes no time with sentimentalism, which I like for this book. But at the same time, I got the impression that the characters were less people in charge of their own fates and more of helpless victims stuck in the massive economic system of America. It was hard to sympathize with characters who seem to have no free will, and no self-ownership at all. They all feel like puppets, who exist soley to prove the author’s point about the unfairness of capitalism. In fact, it got tiring to read about misfortune after contrived misfortune, over and over. I get it, I wanted to say– their lives sucked.

The first 3/4 is much better than then ending. The first part is full of deep, brilliant descriptions and heartbreaking tragedy. Unfortunately, the last few chapters are marred by this ridiculous plot where the protagonist Jurgis becomes a socialist. It’s not exactly subtle what Sinclair was trying to tell us, and in my opinion it weakens the book dramatically.

In short, this is a great book to read for its imagery and its ability to whisk you away to a time and a place that we don’t often think about. Don’t get too invested in the plot, because it sort of sucks and that’s not really the point anyway. Just read it and soak in the dark beauty of this industrial, gloomy atmosphere.

Further Questions:

  • What are Sinclair’s other books like? Are they all so influenced by his political agenda?
  • Interesting to see such an early condemnation of the fabled “American Dream.” Was the the first criticism of it and of industrialism?

Quotes:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

“Jurgis too had…this sense of pride. Had he not just gotten a job, and become a sharer in all this activity, a cog in this marvelous machine?”

“They use everything about the hog except the squeal.”

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