Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a book that (in my experience) students dread to see on the required reading list. I, on the other hand, always felt a little guilty as a literature major for not having read it and recently decided to relieve my guilt. Within a few pages it became clear that this was not simply an exposé of the grotesque conditions of the Chicago meatpacking industry as many people have contextualized it.
Sinclair describes an ugly picture of the American dream after it has met with reality. Through the life of Jurgis Rudkus and his family, the author illustrates the corrupt and cruel nature of big business and its effect on the society that kept it running. Sinclair makes it clear throughout the beginning of the novel that Jurgis is not an educated man. Jurgis begins the narrative naive and hopeful and this is the happiest time of his life. As Jurgis learns of the cruelty of the world, as he grows more and more disenchanted, as his ignorance diminishes so then do his happiness and his hope. This is Sinclair’s point. He puts forth that large corporations, be they political, meatpacking, or any other, completely lose sight of the importance of the individual. They view human beings as “cogs in the great packing machine, and now it was time for the renovating of it, and the replacing of damaged parts” (Sinclair 82). They are pieces that are necessary to keep the whole moving. They are expendable and replaceable. In order to become more than this, Jurgis, like the company, must abandon all pretence of morality and integrity. He must lie and cheat and steal. He must decide that his life is more precious than the lives of those around him. Sinclair turns Jurgis into a metaphor of big business. He wishes to convey the negative effect that it has on a man’s soul. Jurgis arrived an impoverished, vital, hard-working man and was slowly reduced to a cynical, broken one.
At the height of his short-lived ‘success’ in the meatpacking industry, Jurgis became the image of the bosses he had long ago learned to despise. He became a man who dealt in corruption and lies in order to rise to a place of power and relative wealth. He was willing to cast aside loyalties, to accept bribes, and to live off of the backs of those men and women who worked past exhaustion to earn enough to feed their families. Here we see Sinclair’s primary point. The nature of big business twists and corrupts good men into uncaring, capitalistic monsters. Money necessarily becomes the primary concern in the lives of every person involved in the business. Regard for humanity is lost in this obsession.
Sinclair concludes the novel with Jurgis rediscovering his integrity through the influence of a political system he feels truly represents his and every man’s best interest. His true intention for the novel as push toward a socialist movement becomes unavoidably evident within the last three chapters. Sinclair did not intend to write a novel that would be remembered as a graphic disclosure of the many horrible secrets of the meatpacking industry. Rather, he attempts to illustrate, graphically, the cruelty of a world run by big businesses and a rich minority. The descriptions of the work areas and practices are hideous, yet unexaggerated, and they play a clear role in evidencing Sinclair’s socialist agenda.
The Jungle is far more than the harrowing exposure of turn of the century meatpacking practices and conditions. By focusing on the industry, we as readers completely lose sight of Sinclair’s purpose in writing the novel. It is, first and foremost, a political work. Sinclair provided his readers with a true-to-life example of the many horrors that come from losing sight of the value of the individual in the face of greed. He also provided his readers with his solution to this cruelty. To reduce the novel to a mere exposé of a single large industry is to lose the heart of the author’s work and dismiss an important and influential piece of socialist literature.