Home > Book, classic, Genre, Review, Uncategorized > Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Black and white smoke-stack.Summary:
In the early 1900s Jurgis and his soon-to-be family by marriage decide to immigrate to the US from Lithuania.  Having heard from an old friend that Chicago’s Packingtown is where a working man can easily make his way in the world, this is where they head.  Soon the family find themselves deep in the horror that is the regulated in name only meat packing plants.  Dominated by a society that circulates entirely around greed and wealth for the few at the expense of the many, the family and individuals within it slowly fall apart.  But is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Review:
My high school English teacher strongly recommended to me that I read this book, claiming that I would love it, and I only just now got around to it.  I’m glad that her recommendation stuck in my head, though, because this book  is flat-out amazing.  It may be the best piece of social justice writing I have ever come across.

Of course that wouldn’t be the case if Sinclair’s abilities to craft a piece of fiction with enthralling characters were not up to par.  Fortunately, they are.  Jurgis and his family are well-rounded.  Scenes are set vividly, and time passes at just the right rate.  I would be amiss not to mention that Sinclair suffers from some of the racism rampant during his time-period.  African-Americans are presented in a very racist light, as are most Irish-Americans.  It surprises me that someone so passionate about social justice could simultaneously be racist, but I suppose we are all have our faults.  Fortunately the racism makes up a very small portion of the book that is relatively easy to skim over if that sort of thing in historical classics bothers you.

The primary issues Sinclair addresses in the book are: meat eating, the plight of the working class, greed, and socialism.

Although when it was first published The Jungle created an outcry for better regulation of meat production, in fact the book is strongly against the eating of animals at all.

And then again, it has been proven that meat is unnecessary as a food; and meat is obviously more difficult to produce than vegetable food, less pleasant to prepare and handle, and more likely to be unclean. (Locations 5353-5355)

This strongly vegetarian viewpoint is strengthened by a lengthy scene early in the book in which Jurgis and his family take a tour of a packing plant for the first time and witness the slaughter.  The family, and indeed everyone on the tour, are distraught and emotional witnessing the taking of so many lives and hearing the pigs squeal in pain and fear.  It is here that Sinclair makes a point about what impact slaughterhouses have on the humanity of the workers, for while the visitors are distraught at the scene, it is soon seen that for the workers

Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats.(Locations 536-540)

Thus it can be seen that not only is meat eating cruel, inefficient, and unhealthy, but it also dehumanizes those who must participate in the process.

Of course a much more prevalent theme in the book is the plight of the working class of which Jurgis and his family are a part.  This can be a difficult book to read at times for it shows how solidly these people are trounced upon by society and greed, no matter how hard they try.  First Sinclair establishes how the constant worry over money and survival affects the working class:

Such were the cruel terms upon which their life was possible, that they might never have nor expect a single instant’s respite from worry, a single instant in which they were not haunted by the thought of money. (Locations 1585-1586)

Then Sinclair demonstrates how this rough and tumble, cog in the machine existence slowly wears away the humanity of those fated to suffer from it:

She was part of the machine she tended, and every faculty that was not needed for the machine was doomed to be crushed out of existence. (Page 79)

Society, with all its powers, had declared itself his foe. And every hour his soul grew blacker, every hour he dreamed new dreams of vengeance, of defiance, of raging, frenzied hate. (Page 94)

Sinclair then shows how these dehumanized people are essentially in a prison and are slaves to the greed of others:

There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside. (Page 164)

I find that all the fair and noble impulses of humanity, the dreams of poets and the agonies of martyrs, are shackled and bound in the service of organized and predatory Greed! (Page 176)

Now that Sinclair has shown through one family how the current system enslaves and dehumanizes the workers, he has a solid stage to argue against the collection of wealth in the hands of the few, in other words, to argue for socialism.

The power of concentrated wealth could never be controlled, but could only be destroyed. (Page 186)

In America every one had laughed at the mere idea of Socialism then—in America all men were free. As if political liberty made wage slavery any the more tolerable! (Page 183)

By putting faces via the characters of Jurgis and family to the plight of the workers suffering at the hands of greed and the imbalance of wealth, Sinclair sets the stage for the most eloquent argument in favor of socialism I have ever read.

This book profoundly demonstrates how fiction can work for a cause and humanize, familiarize, and bring to home the faces and reality behind the issues of the day.  I highly recommend this powerful work to all.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

Buy It 

About these ads
  1. June 30, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    I read it as a teen, although it wasn’t a high school assignment. I didn’t get the impression that it was strongly anti-meat-eating but then I probably wasn’t as astute a reader back then. I’m curious to read it again and see what I think of it this time; what stuck most in my mind was the horrors of the slaughterhouses, inhumane treatment of workers and how unsanitary it all was.

    • July 1, 2011 at 9:08 am

      It’s interesting, because Sinclair wrote it to call attention to the plight of the workers, but the reading public’s reaction was largely focused on sanitizing the industry, not on the workers. Kind of sad when you think about it.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 867 other followers

%d bloggers like this: