The Jungle

The Jungle

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The Jungle, due to the federal legislation it provoked, became one of the most
impressionistic books of the twentieth century. Americans were horrified to learn about
the terrible sanitation under which their meat products were packed. They were even more
horrified to learn that the labels listing the ingredients in canned meat products were
blatant fabrications. The revelation that rotten and diseased meat was sold without a single
consideration for public health infuriated American citizens. They consumed meat
containing the ground remains of poisoned rats and sometimes unfortunate workers who
fell into the machinery for grinding meat and producing lard. Within months of The
Jungle's publication, the sale of meat products dropped dramatically. The public outcry of
indignation led to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.
     However, Sinclair did not write The Jungle to incite the American government
into regulating the sanitation of the meat packing industry. The details regarding the
unsanitary and disgusting conditions in meat packing factories are background details of a
much larger picture. The Jungle was written in order to provoke outrage over the
miserable working conditions of industrial wage labor. He detailed the lack of sanitation in
the factories in order to provoke sympathy and outrage for the impoverished factory
workers. The germs and disease inside the meat packing establishments were indeed a
public health concern, but it was far more of a concern for the workers. He also portrays
the various sicknesses they suffer as a result of their working environments.
     The Jungle is also an appeal to Socialism. He follows Jurgis's Lithuanian
immigrant family into the disgusting tenements and meat packing factories of Chicago.
There, they suffer the loss of all their dreams of success and freedom in America. They
find themselves leashed to the grinding poverty and misery of the city slums despite all
their best efforts. Sinclair's purposes for writing the novel included displaying the evils of
capitalism as an economic system.                                
     Jurgis suffers misfortune after misfortune, and he joins the union only to see the
union fail to improve working conditions. His wife and child die in rapid succession. He
becomes a wandering tramp, the victim of the casual cruelty of those better off than he.
Finally, he joins the Chicago criminal underworld where money comes easily to him for the
first time since his arrival in America. However, that fails to save him as well. He returns
to the remnants of his family only to discover that Marija has become a prostitute. Another
member of the family, Stanislovas, is dead, having been eaten alive by a swarm of rats in

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an oil factory. This final degradation beats Jurgis down further. It is then that he happens
upon a Socialist political meeting. At this point, Jurgis truly is a beaten man; however,
when he listens to the political speaker, he finds that he expresses the essence of all his
pain and frustration. He takes Socialism to his heart, believing that it is the only political
philosophy that can save his kind. The characters inevitably slide towards their destinies,
regardless of their inner character or their efforts to do otherwise. They do not exercise
any control over the direction their lives take. Pre-existing social, political, and economic
forces beyond their control shape the inevitable course of their lives. This is the primary
element to The Jungle until Jurgis joins the Socialist party. It is through the devotion to
Socialism that the disenfranchised working person can regain control of the political,
economic, and social machines that currently drive them to their ruin and their deaths.
     The Jungle is definitely not an artistic masterpiece. Its shortcomings are many. It
sinks into greater and greater melodrama as the plot thickens, and it is difficult not to
wince at the painfully contrived language. Anyone who reads the novel for its literary
merit will be sorely disappointed; however, Sinclair's novel is political at heart, and so it is
best to study it through its political appeal. It contains a valuable insight to the life of the
immigrant working poor at the turn of the century; therefore it is enjoyable if one is
interested in history but a bore if one seeks literary genius.
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