Kater Cheek's Reviews > The Jungle

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
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Jul 08, 2012

it was ok
Read in July, 2012

I have a tendency to be easily swayed by arguments, so I asked a well-read friend for an antidote to Ayn Rand's ATLAS SHRUGGED. She suggested this book. If I ever get that wish where you get to resurrect people and have them at a dinner party, I'm going to have Ayn Rand and Upton Sinclair there together. That would be an awesome cage-fight between the philosophers.

This book has an actual story with actual sympathetic characters. Well, they start out being sympathetic. Jurgis and Ona are a young couple in love, recently immigrated from Lithuania. They've come to Chicago to make their forturne, only to find that life in the packing houses is not much better than slavery. No matter how hard they work, they are only one brief breath away from starvation.

At first, I was rooting for them, hoping to get to the point where their luck turned and they finally started to make good. Alas, at some point, it became apparent that this wasn't Sinclair's plan. Bad luck plagues them. Pretty soon, children and innocent women are dropping like flies, and I had to disengage because I didn't really want to identify with people who were doomed to die a horrible, horrible death.

There's not a lot of subtlety in this book, and as a reader I felt myself looking for the path that Sinclair was trying to lead us on. I knew the history of this novel, what he had intended (to have labor reform) and what he got (food safety reform). But I couldn't help but wonder if the moral was "life will get better once you rid yourself of your family."

The novel is plotted poorly. It lacks a narrative arc that culminates in a satisfactory ending. One expects a plot to have a certain path. Things get worse, and worse, and worse, then there's a climax, then there's a resolution, then there's a denoument. I don't notice as a reader how much I rely on this until something like this comes along where its absence jars me. Jurgis' life and his family get worse and worse, and worse, and worse, then they get better, then they get worse,then they get better, then they get kind of worse, but not as bad as they were at the beginning, and then a bunch of unrelated things happen, and then he meets the socialists and everything is sunshine and roses.

The reader is supposed to be blown away by the triumphant rational truth of the socialist proselytizer, just as Jurgis is. But because I've actually read history, I read it instead with a kind of amused pity, like when a tone-deaf ugly kid says "I'm going to be a famous singer someday!" Oh honey, you think socialism will fix everything. Bless your heart, you're so cute.

Sinclair correctly points out that wage slavery creates a huge burgeoning underclass, that it's both unjust and inhuman when those with money buy power so they can exploit people so they can gain even more power. While his proposed solution would solve the ills of early 20th century Chicago about as well as mercury sulfide cures toothaches, these are valid points. They make me grateful for OSHA regulations and minimum wage laws.

The most amusing part of this novel is that when this book came out, no one really cared that much about the poor people. All they cared about was that their meat was disgusting. Apparently 20th century Americans don't care if poor immigrants die, they just don't want to have to eat the corpses. It reminds me of that scene in "The Simpsons" where Bart goes to France and is held prisoner and mistreated by his "host" family. When he escapes to the police and recites a litany of his travails, the only fact the gendarme fixes on is "they put antifreeze in the wine?"

The other amusing part of this novel was that I read it so soon after reading ATLAS SHRUGGED. I don't think Rand ever read this novel, though she could have. I wonder what she would have thought of it? Because ATLAS SHRUGGED is basically a diatribe with cardboard characters that espouses how Socialism (Communism) is horrible, and the only solution to a happy nation is unbridled capitalism. THE JUNGLE is basically a diatribe with cardboard characters that espouses how unbridled capitalism is horrible, and how the only solution to a happy nation is Socialism (Communism). He didn't really live long enough to see the full extent of that little experiment. What would he have thought about it? I'll grant Sinclair a little more leeway for his naivite, since he was born too early to see Soviet Communist handiwork.

Like ATLAS SHRUGGED, THE JUNGLE is an important book, a monumental book, in terms of its influence, but it's not really a well-written book. I recommend it to people who like to learn about early twentieth-century America.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Dianna I just started this book and I could see the comparison between the two books: Atlas Shrugged and The Jungle. I hope it's not a horrible as Atlas Shrugged but I got it at the Mid Continent Public Library and I've found that they don't carry much classic literature worth reading, sadly.


Stephanie After weeks of chewing my way through this, I've finally finished and agree with your review nearly word for word. Thanks for sharing!
Also, I volunteer to act as waitress/servant to your dinner with Ayn and Upton, should we enter a dimension where such is possible.


Beau "THE JUNGLE is basically a diatribe with cardboard characters that espouses how unbridled capitalism is horrible"
But the book, which has been proven factual in many of its details, doesn't just discuss the evils of unbridled capitalism in the abstract, it _proves_ that such capitalism was horrible in that particular place and time. Of course, we are supposed to extrapolate, and the book gives us some fuel to do so. Of course, perhaps every attempt (capitalistic or not) at conducting society may be doomed to failure (due to the shortcomings of human nature).


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