Jason Mills's Reviews > The Jungle

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Aug 24, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: classics, fiction, political
Recommended for: Human beings.
Read from July 13 to August 23, 2012 , read count: 1

Jurgis, a strong, simple man, brings his extended family from Lithuania to Chicago, in hope of a better life. Thrown into the giant system of the Chicago stockyards, our heroes are gradually ground down by its ruthless practices. Their expectation that honest hard work will sustain a modest, decent lifestyle is revealed as hopelessly naive, and the family eventually crumbles under the strain to just survive.

The novel opens with the wedding of Jurgis and Ona, a scene in which the passion, humour and humanity of the characters are at their height:
As [Marija] roars her song, in a voice of which it is enough to say that it leaves no portion of the room vacant, the three musicians follow her, laboriously and note by note, but averaging one note behind.

The opening is bursting with life and goodness. But from there it is downhill all the way, as the gears of the packing machine bite into their lives and every day is a desperate struggle to claw a few cents out of it:
Once she cried aloud, and woke Jurgis, who was tired and cross. After that she learned to weep silently - their moods so seldom came together now! It was as if their hopes were buried in separate graves.

The relentless parade of barbarous practices ought logically to pale in its impact, but in fact each new monstrosity is more appalling than the last:
It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were a nuisance, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread and meat would go into the hoppers together.

The comparison between the packers' merciless exploitation of livestock and of workers is explicit and unavoidable:
He was of no consequence - he was flung aside, like a bit of trash, the carcass of some animal.

In its portrayal of savage exploitation, The Jungle stands alongside classics like London Labour and the London Poor and The Grapes of Wrath. Sinclair's exposé of industry's systematic devouring of immigrant labour shouts its own case, but he helps it along too with bursts of impassioned rhetoric - such as when Jurgis is arrested:
Now and then he cried aloud for a drink of water, but there was no one to hear him. There were others in that same station house with split heads and a fever; there were hundreds of them in the great city, and tens of thousands of them in the great land, and there was no one to hear any of them.

And when he is starving on the streets:
...everywhere was the sight of plenty and the merciless hand of authority waving them away. 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.

All this is powerful, furious and bleak writing; but the trajectory of the tale is unfortunate. Jurgis' long travails bring him at length into the arms of socialism, clearly Sinclair's cure for these ills. The author's utopian presentation of a socialist future is understandable, laudable even, for a writer in 1906 who had not the dubious benefit of seeing the advent of communism and finding it quite as susceptible to corruption and brutalisation as capitalism. Indeed, the first of the speeches that Jurgis witnesses is an absolutely enthralling piece of oration. However, the closing passages of the book are entirely concerned with these hopeful politics, and Jurgis becomes no more than a cypher, a sort of roving webcam giving the reader access to the discussion. It's sad that in his enthusiasm to convert, Sinclair does to Jurgis what he has been at such pains to condemn: he crushes out the man's humanity in pursuit of an ideology. Plainly the author's motives are infinitely preferable to the greed of untrammelled industry, but this failing means that the novel lacks any human, felt resolution - a great shame after the pathos and tragedy that has captivated us throughout.

Nonetheless, it's a moving, eye-opening and unforgettable novel.

(PS. My (kindley) edition was not the 36-chapter 'unexpurgated' version.)
1 like · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Jungle.
Sign In »

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

Kristen Can't wait to read your review of this!

Jason Mills Hey, are you stalking me? Can't even pick up a book around here without somebody peering over my shoulder.

Kristen What? I'm not stalking you. I just happen to notice you reading it when I was hiding in the bushes outside your home peaking in your windows . . . nothing weird about that.

back to top