Roy Lotz's Reviews > The Jungle

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
14046996
Every day in New York they slaughter
four million ducks
five million pigs
and two thousand doves for the pleasure of the dying,
a million cows
a million lambs
and two million roosters,
that leave the sky in splinters.


—Federico García Lorca

I expected to dislike this book, because it is a book aimed at provoking outrage. Outrage is a species of anger, and, like all species of anger, it can feel oddly pleasurable. True, anger always contains dissatisfaction of some kind; but anger can also be an enormously enlivening feeling—the feeling that we are infinitely right and our opponents infinitely wrong. Outrage joins with this moral superiority a certain smugness, since we feel outrage on behalf of others, about things that do not affect us personally, and so we can feel satisfied that we would never do something so egregious. Judging from how ephemeral public outrage tends to be, and how infrequently it leads to action, outrage can be, and often is, engaged in for its own sake—as a periodic reminder to ourselves that we are not villains, since villains couldn’t feel so angry at injustice inflicted on so distant a party.

In a way, the history of this book justifies my suspicion. Upton Sinclair spent seven weeks working in the meatpacking industry in Chicago, and wrote a muckraking novel about the experience. An avowed and proud socialist, his aim was to raise public awareness of the terrible conditions of the working poor—to write the "Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery,” as Jack London called the book. The book did cause a lot of outrage, but not for the intended reasons. The public interpreted the book as an exposé on the unsanitary conditions in the meat factories; and the legislation that resulted was purely to remedy this problem. As Sinclair himself said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” This is one of those ironies of history that make you want to laugh or cry: a book aimed to publicize the plight of the working poor made an impact solely in the way that working conditions affected the middle class.

About halfway through, I had decided that this was a brilliant piece of journalism and a mediocre novel. But the second half made me revise my opinion: it is a surprisingly decent novel, too. This is impressive, since fiction is not Sinclair’s strength. His characters are, for the most part, one-dimensional and static; in this book they serve as mere loci of pity. Furthermore, they never really come alive, since Sinclair writes almost no dialogue. In the first half, when the protagonists are at work in the yards, the plot is drearily predicable: things go from bad to worse; and, as Shakespeare reminds us, every time you tell yourself “This is the worst,” there is worse yet still to come. But after Jurgis, our hero, finally leaves the meat factories, the novel really comes alive. Things still go from bad to worse, for the most part, but there are some surprising reversals and exciting adventures.

In any case, this book is primarily a work of journalism, and on that level it is absolutely successful. Sinclair is an expert writer. He deploys language with extreme precision; his descriptions are vivid and exact. And what he describes is unforgettable. His portrayal of grinding poverty, and the desperation and despair it drives people to, is almost Dostoyevskyan in its gruesomeness. And unlike that Russian author, Sinclair is very clear that the problem is systematic and social—how decent and hardworking people can fall into an economic trap with no options and no escape. He shows how and why the working poor are free only in theory, how and why the oppressed and exploited are virtually owned by their bosses. And it must be said that his descriptions of factory processes are viscerally disgusting—so disgusting that they do distract a little from Sinclair’s message. The meat factory is the book’s central metaphor: a giant slaughterhouse where hapless animals are herded and butchered. As becomes painfully clear by the end of the book, the working poor are hardly in a better situation than the pigs.

By the end, Sinclair succeeds in producing that rare sensation: reasoned outrage. For there are, of course, situations in which outrage is the only logical response—monstrous injustice and inhuman cruelty—and the working and living conditions in the meatpacking district was one of them. Sinclair succeeds in this by relating facts instead of preaching. (Well, he does some preaching at the end, but it is forgivable.) He does not sentimentalize his characters or exaggerate their nobility; they are ordinary and flawed people. He does not use mawkish or cloying language; his narrative voice is pitiless and cold, like the world he describes. This book is a testament to the positive potential of outrage. The world needs more muckrakers.
59 likes · flag

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

Reading Progress

July 18, 2013 – Shelved
July 18, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
Started Reading
August 11, 2017 – Finished Reading
August 12, 2017 – Shelved as: americana
August 12, 2017 – Shelved as: novels-novellas-short-stories
August 12, 2017 – Shelved as: should-have-read-in-high-school
August 13, 2017 – Shelved as: art-of-compromise

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Travelin (new)

Travelin There are entire books about how corrupt Chicago politics has been. I wonder if that factors in this book. Interesting aside, but the book "It Can't Happen Here" contains multiple slighting comments about Upton Sinclair. Since the author writing it is Sinclair Lewis, I thought at first that he was slighting himself, Vonnegut style.


message 2: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz Travelin wrote: "There are entire books about how corrupt Chicago politics has been. I wonder if that factors in this book. Interesting aside, but the book "It Can't Happen Here" contains multiple slighting comment..."

Sinclair doesn't go into details about corrupt politics, but it is there in the book. I'm curious to read the Sinclair Lewis book.


message 3: by Glenn (last edited Aug 13, 2017 05:40AM) (new)

Glenn Russell Really outstanding review, Roy! Congrats. I recall back in high school being told how in one scene a kid has frostbitten ears. An adult rubs his ears and the ears come off. Was this actually in the book? I read when I was 30 but I don't recall. But what I do recall is how the factory workers were paid by the full hour and how they were not paid for their first 50 minutes or their last 50 minutes of work since they were not full hours. Also, how facing starvation, the upstanding Eastern European sister took to prostitution. What a harrowing experience reading this novel. And you are right - more books should be written like this one. Fortunately a few are: Nickel and Dimed and Savage Inequalites are a couple that come to mind.


message 4: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz Glenn wrote: "Really outstanding review, Roy! Congrats. I recall back in high school being told how in one scene a kid has frostbitten ears. An adult rubs his ears and the ears come off. Was this actually in the..."

Thanks very much! Yes, the episode with the frostbitten ears is in the book. It is so horrific that it permanently traumatizes one of the characters who witnessed it, giving him a morbid fear of snow. And you're right that it is a harrowing experience. I want to read Nickel and Dimes, and also Fast Food Nation, which is often compared to this book.


message 5: by Mike (new)

Mike Travelin wrote: "There are entire books about how corrupt Chicago politics has been. I wonder if that factors in this book. Interesting aside, but the book "It Can't Happen Here" contains multiple slighting comment..."

Apparently Lewis saw Sinclair as someone who might go along with a fascist movement, provided it started on the left. Don't know if that's justified or not, but I believe they also knew each other personally.


message 6: by Wastrel (new) - added it

Wastrel Lewis was a huge Sinclair fan, and the year after The Jungle came out he joined Sinclair's commune/cult/utopia - they let him stay and write, he did the manual labour. Whatever happened didn't instantly break the two apart, since they were still communicating a decade later, but I think it rather disillusioned Lewis. He remained a left-wing agitator, but got skeptical of actual left-wing politicians, and only briefly flirted with the formal Socialist Party. The mentions in ICHH are apparently based on Sinclair's gubernatorial campaign, when he joined the Democratic Party - I suspect Lewis would have seen this as both selling out and dangerous demagoguery, even if he sympathised with the aims. [In Babbitt, he's pretty sympathetic to the socialists, if not enchanted by them]

Incidentally, linking this to the comment about a lack of dialogue: in 1915, Sinclair wrote to Lewis explaining why Lewis wasn't a good writer yet (adding "Don't be cross"). One specific reason he gives is:
You will write pages and pages of interesting stuff, and then you will write a lot of conversation which is just absolute waste, without any point or worth-whileness at all.

Sinclair seems to see conversation as superfluous, or at best of interest only insofar as it directly conveys some point about the injustice of the capitalist system; whereas Lewis is (sometimes unduly) fascinated by conversation even - especially! - when it's pointless.


message 7: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz Interesting comment! That's quite a revealing thing about Sinclair's writing.


David Sarkies Great review.


message 9: by Aaron (new)

Aaron Good review. I was hoping this was non-fiction as my great grandfather and great granduncles worked in the slaughterhouses at the Chicago Union Stock Yards.


message 10: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz Aaron wrote: "Good review. I was hoping this was non-fiction as my great grandfather and great granduncles worked in the slaughterhouses at the Chicago Union Stock Yards."

Wow, I hope it wasn't as bad for them as it was for the characters in this book!


message 11: by Carol (new)

Carol A fine review. The context you provide is everything, as usual.


message 12: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz Thanks very much!


message 13: by Aaron (last edited Aug 13, 2017 09:17PM) (new)

Aaron Roy wrote: "Wow, I hope it wasn't as bad for them as it was for the characters in this book!"

Roy, I have a paragraph attributed to my great grandfather's thoughts on the Yards, and I can sum them up by this one line "the most sordid and beastly place known to man"


back to top