The Jungle

“The Jungle” is a novel published in 1906 by the American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair. Sinclair was a journalist whose main object was typical to expose corruption by government and businesses. In writing “The Jungle” he aimed to produce a novel that exposed the harsh working conditions of immigrants in Chicago during the early 20th century. He spent seven weeks working undercover in the meatpacking plants of the Chicago stockyards and published the book in serialized form in the socialist newspaper “Appeal To Reason”, releasing it as a full-length novel the next year.

The public reaction to the novel was not what he expected, as most of the people seemed to be more concerned with the unsanitary conditions and health violations in the meat packing industry that he wrote about. The public outcry contributed to many reforms in the meat industry including the Meat Inspection Act. However, many took notice of the depictions of working conditions as well and the famous writer Jack London once referred to the novel as “The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery”.

The novel’s protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus is a Lithuanian immigrant who moves to America with his soon-to-be wife and her family. The family assumes that they will be able to make better money working in America and move to the Chicago meat packing district. Unfortunately, once they move there they are scammed by a real estate agent selling them a rental house and discover that, as the area is swarmed with other immigrants looking for work, finding a job is not that easy. The book details many of the horrendous work practices of the businesses that ran the slaughterhouses and Rudkus’s eventual joining of a union and the socialist party.

Book Summary

In the early nineteen hundreds, two Lithuanian immigrants named Ono Lukoszaite and Jurgis Rudkus, having recently arrived in Chicago, are being married. The wedding feast is held in accordance with Lithuanian custom in the area of Chicago known as Packingtown because of it’s relation to the meat-packing industry. After dinner and dancing, Lithuanian custom dictates that the guests are to leave money to help pay for the cost of the reception but unfortunately none of the Lithuanian’s attending the ceremony have any money to give, being laborers in the factories. The ceremony or, ‘veselija’ can cost up to a year’s wages for the newlyweds. As she sees many people leaving without paying, Ona becomes worried about covering the cost of the ceremony. Jurgis reassures her that they will find a way to pay for it and says that he will have to work harder and earn more money.

In Packingtown, the men who are lucky enough to have jobs must get to work promptly on time every day. Men who are one minute late lose an hours pay and men who are twenty minutes late lose their job. Getting fired means waiting in doorways for weeks at a time to find another job.

In chapter two, the narrator tells the reader some backstory about Jurgis and Ona. Jurgis moved to Chicago from the sparsely populated countryside of Lithuania. He had met Ona at a horse fair and fell in love with her immediately. When he went to bargain with her family for her hand in marriage, Jurgis discovered that her father was not willing to part with her. Disappointed, Jurgis briefly gave up hope.

However, Ona’s father died young and left her family deeply in debt. Ona got an idea to travel to America where the money was better and the wages higher but did not want to leave her family behind. Ona’s stepmother, Teta Elzbieta’s brother knew of a man who traveled to American and became rich. This inspired the family to begin saving what money they could to pay for the cost of the voyage. Jurgis helped add to the fund and decided to go with them to America. Jurgis’ father, Dede also decided to join them and Ona’s cousin, Marija came along as well. Marija, being a powerfully built woman, assumed that she would be able to find jobs easily in America.

By the time the group reached Chicago their fund had run out. By complete chance, Teta’s brother Jonas finds the delicatessen of the man that he knew who had made a fortune in America. The man, Jokubas, is not rich, however. Although he owns a delicatessen, he is deeply in debt. He tells them of a place where they may live that turns out to be a crowded boardinghouse run by a poor widow.

The packing district where they live smells of animal waste and the air is filled with smoke. Children pick through the garbage dump for food. When Jurgis first sees the slaughterhouses he is disgusted but also filled with wonder at the flurry of activity by the workers. He begins work by sweeping the spilled entrails of slaughtered cattle through trap doors in the floor. Doing this he earns around two dollars an hour for twelve-hour workdays and is pleased that he is making so much.

Elsewhere in the family, Marija gets a job painting labels on cans. But Dede has no luck finding work because of his old age. The only people not working are Ona, Teta, and the small children, whom Jurgis refuses to allow to work. Jurgis wants the children to go to school especially Stanislovas, the thirteen-year-old brother of Ona.

The family discovers a newspaper ad touting the sale of four-bedroom homes for fifteen hundred dollars. As the monthly payment is only twelve dollars, they decide to talk to the real estate agent. An agent is a well-dressed man who speaks Lithuanian who impresses them. Ona figures their budget and discovers that they can make the payments. However, when the family visits the house they discover that it is smaller than they expected and not as new. None of the other houses being rented appear to be occupied. Despite Jokubas informing them that the deal is probably a scam put together to prey on immigrants, they family close the deal without Jurgis.

When Jurgis returns he takes the deed to a lawyer who tells him that the home is only a rental as this makes it easier for the bank to evict people who do not make their monthly payments. This eases Jurgis’ worry somewhat and the family happily settles into their new home. Jurgis enjoys the fast pace of his work at the slaughterhouse and is surprised to hear that most of the other workers there do not like their jobs. He assumes that they are just lazy and refuses to join the union that is forming in the place.

Dede meets a man who promises him a job in return for a third of his wages and he agrees to take it. His job is to pack tainted meat for human consumption. Jonas learns that he only obtained his job after his predecessor died from unsafe working conditions. Jurgis realizes that unsafe meat, such as calf fetuses and diseased animals are butchered and packed every day to be sold in the slaughterhouse.

An old immigrant woman in Packingtown named Grandmother Majauszkiene tells the family that she came to the town when the workforce was mostly made up of German immigrants. After them, the Irish took their place and now the Slovaks have taken theirs. The packing companies grind down successive generations of immigrants. Four other families have tried to buy the home that the family now live in only to fail to make the payments because of the loss of a key wage earner in their family.

One manages to get a job sewing covers on hams in a cellar by paying ten dollars to the manager and Stanislovas lies about his age to get a job working a lard-canning machine. Ona and Jurgis’ wedding put them over a hundred dollars in debt to the man who runs the bar that they held the ‘veselija’ at. That winter is tough on the workers in Packingtown as the companies do not want to pay to heat the factories and a wave of disease spreads because of unsanitary working conditions. Dede dies as a result of a lung infection.

A musician named Tamoszius begins to court Marija and the family finds him enjoyable and his fiddle-playing merry. One day, Tamoszius proposes to Marija and she accepts. They plan to finish the attic in the house that the family owns and use it as their living space. However, Marija soon loses her job when the canning factory that she works for shuts down.

Jurgis’ hours also get cut back and he decides to join the union out of anger. He begins trying to recruit other workers to join the union and gets frustrated by their indifference. Their views remind him of how naive he was when he first arrived in America. Jurgis also learns that hidden expenses lie among the bills that he pays to own the house. The rental agent tells him that he pays for taxes, insurance, and a fee for the water. He also says that if the city decides to put in a sewer and a sidewalk that they would be expected to pay taxes for them as well.

The following summer, the factories become boiling hot and fill with legions of flies. Marija obtains another job but loses it a short time later after protesting from being cheated out of a portion of her earnings. Ona discovers that she is expecting a child and the loss of Marija’s wages devastates the family. Marija manages to find another job as a beef trimmer where the boss is happy to hire her because, while she has the same strength as a man, she legally has to work for half of a man’s pay.

One discovers that her supervisor, Miss Henderson runs a brothel and that many of the women that she works with are prostitutes. The girls make Ona miserable as they dislike that she is a married, respectable woman. Soon, Ona gives birth to a baby boy and names him Antanas. Jurgis suddenly feels his need to provide for the family grow even more serious. Ona is forced to return to work only a week after giving birth and her health begins to suffer for it.

One day, Jurgis sprains his ankle and is told that he cannot work. He must stay out of work for almost three months. His fear and frustration devour him in that time and the only thing that can make him smile is his infant son.

Stanislovas contracts frostbite on his hands and his joints become permanently damaged. Jonas abandons the family and two more of the small children, ten and eleven-year-old Nikalojus and Vilimas must leave school and go to work as newspaper sellers to fill the gap that he left in the income of the house. Teta’s youngest child, Kristoforas soon dies after eating tainted meat. Although Teta is overwhelmed with grief the rest of the family is quietly relieved as Kristoforas was crippled by a birth-defect and complained constantly, wearing on the family’s nerves. Marija must loan money to Teta to pay for a funeral for the boy.

Jurgis must look for work again in the spring but he is so worn down that he struggles to attract a boss who will trust him to work. He ends up settling for work in a fertilizer plant and the chemicals that he works with seep into his skin and make him smell foul. Teta obtains a job in a sausage factory and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Kotrina begins taking care of the baby, Antanas and her other crippled brother, Juozapas.

The family begins to succumb to the misery and slavish work conditions that they live in and fall into silent frustration. Jurgis and Ona begin to grow apart and Jurgis begins drinking heavily. He manages to quit drinking from sheer force of will but the desire stays with him. Antanas suffers many childhood illnesses and becomes malnourished and weak. Ona becomes pregnant again and develops a bad cough.

Ona does not return home from work one night and informs Jurgis that the weather kept her overnight at the factory. Jurgis does not believe her, however, and after some interrogation, Ona reveals that her boss Phil Conner raped her after everyone had gone home and threatened to have everyone in her family fired and blacklisted if she told anyone. Jurgis is furious and rushes to Ona’s workplace where he strangles Phil Conner on sight. Some of the other workers pull him off of the man and bring him to the police station.

Jurgis is arrested and put in jail where he lingers in a cell with many other male offenders of all ages. While he is in prison, Jurgis hears bells ringing outside and remembers that it is Christmas Eve. He begins crying as he realizes that his family will have to spend Christmas with him in prison.

Jurgis makes friends with a safe-breaker named Jack Duane in jail and before Jurgis’ trial, Jack gives him the address of his mistress and tells him to look for him there if he ever needs help.

Jurgis’ trial begins and Phil Conner testifies that he fired Ona for fair reasons and that Jurgis attacked him afterward. Jurgis is forced to use an interpreter for the trial and the Judge unsympathetically sentences him to thirty days in prison. Jurgis begs for a lesser charge, knowing that his family will starve if he is not there to earn money for them but the Judge is not moved. Jurgis is sent to Bridewell prison where he is made to break stone every day. Stanislovas visits shortly after his arrival to tell him that Ona, Teta, Marija and he have all lost their jobs and cannot buy food. They are too sick and weak to work and Conner has now blacklisted them from many factories.

Marija cut her hand at work and is suffering from blood poisoning. The family must resort to begging in the streets for food.

Jurgis has to stay in prison for longer than he was supposed to because he lacks the money to pay for his trial. When he is finally released he walks back to his home and is surprised to find it empty. He discovers that his family was kicked out of the house and have moved back into the boarding house that they stayed in when they first came to Packingtown.

When he arrives at the boarding house, he hears Ona screaming and runs to find her. Marija stops him and tells him that Ona is giving birth prematurely. Jurgis scrounges some money from the women in the boarding house to get help for Ona and runs to the apartment of a midwife named Madame Haupt, begging her to come back with him. She tells him that her fee is twenty-five dollars but after some begging, Madame Haupt agrees to go for the money that Jurgis does have. At four in the morning, Jurgis sees Madame Haupt coming down the stairs covered in blood. She tells him that the baby is dead and that his wife is dying. Jurgis rushes to her side just as she dies.

Jurgis leaves the boarding house and goes to a bar to get drunk. The next day, Teta begs him to go to work and to remember that he still has a son to care for. Jurgis goes to look for work but soon finds that he has been blacklisted by Phil Connor. However, after two weeks of looking for work, Jurgis bumps into an old friend who manages to get him a job at his workplace making harvesting machines. The factory is better than anywhere that Jurgis has worked but the workers are still expected to keep up an unreasonable speed. Jurgis begins to get a renewed sense of hope until one day upon arriving for work he discovers that his department is closing until further notice.

One of the small children is scavenging in the dump when he is seen by a rich woman who asks him about his life. He takes her back to the boardinghouse and she is so upset by what she sees that she resolves to write to her rich husband to find Jurgis a job. Jurgis is then given a job in a mill and he is only able to come home on the weekends.

Jurgis spends his time off with his son whom he loves with a passion. However, one day on returning home from the mill Jurgis discovers that Antanas has died in a freak accident, drowning in the mud in the street.

After his son’s death Jurgis has a mental break which leads him to take a random train and get off wherever it stops. When he gets off he bathes in a stream and a farmer is kind enough to give him a meal. Jurgis begins a journey where he works odd jobs and forages for food. He begins spending all of his money on alcohol and women and feels like he has hit a new low.

In the fall, when the jobs on farms run out, Jurgis returns to Chicago and finds a job digging tunnels. Unfortunately, while shoveling he has an accident and breaks his arm. He spends the next two weeks in the hospital and realizes when he is released that he has nowhere to go. He begins living as a homeless person on the streets and competing with other homeless people for warm places to spend the night.

One night while he is begging, Jurgis befriends a very drunk but well-dressed man named Freddie Jones. Jones invites him back to his house for a meal and gives Jurgis a hundred dollar bill. Jones lives in a mansion, which astounds Jurgis and he soon learns that Jones is the son of the man who owns the first factory that Jurgis worked in. Jones’ butler, Hamilton, obviously disapproves of Jurgis being in the house and waits till Jones drunkenly falls asleep to throw him out.

Jurgis still has the one hundred dollar bill that Jones gave him and goes into a bar to get change for it. The bartender tells him that he has to buy a drink first and Jurgis buys a five cent beer. The bartender then gives him ninety-five cents back in change. Jurgis realizes that he has been cheated and attacks the bartender. He has got arrested again and brought back to jail where he is sentenced to another ten days.

Jurgis sees Jack Duane again in prison and agrees to meet up when they both get out. He decides that he wants to be criminal as it is the best way to survive. After getting out of jail Jack takes Jurgis to mug someone and they attack a well-dressed man, stealing his money and jewelry. Jurgis’ take is fifty-five dollars but he reads in the paper that the victim was badly hurt. However, he stops feeling bad about the victims as he continues mugging people.

Jurgis becomes well acquainted with Chicago’s criminal side until one day, Jack is thrown under a bus by his criminal cohorts and must flee the city. Jurgis soon gets another job in a hog-trimming factory where a strike breaks out. Jurgis decides to use the strike to his advantage and ask for more money while he is one of the few still working. He argues for three dollars an hour wage which his desperate bosses give him. He also becomes the boss of the killing-beds where pigs are slaughtered. Jurgis once again comes face to face with Phil Connor and attacks him. He is sent to jail again and after getting let out Jurgis travels to the other end of Chicago.

Jurgis returns to begging on the streets and meets an old friend who tells him where Marija and Teta are living now. He goes to see them, and he realizes that it is a brothel as the police are raiding it. Marija tells him that she and Teta could not support the children with legitimate jobs and they had to resort to prostitution. Stanislovas has died at his job as well. She tells him that the family does not blame him for running away and that they know that he was upset.

The next day the prostitutes are freed from jail and Marija confesses to Jurgis that she has become addicted to morphine. Jurgis decides to go back to Teta and Marija but knows that he must find work first. He happens to stumble upon a political meeting and goes inside to have somewhere to rest. Jurgis realizes that it is a socialist meeting and the man speaking about the sad state of workers in Packingtown touches him deeply. After the speech ends Jurgis asks the speaker for more information and is directed to a man who speaks Lithuanian. Ostrinksi is the man’s name and he shares a meal with Jurgis and tells him about the party.

Jurgis goes back to Teta and tells her about socialism. She is happy that he is back and wishes to help support the family and is willing to attend socialist meetings with him. Jurgis begins working in a hotel for a man that is a state organizer for the socialist party. Jurgis begins speaking of his experiences in the meat-packing industry to socialists who come to the hotel to see his boss and takes up the cause of the party wholeheartedly.

Meanwhile, Marija tells Jurgis that she cannot leave prostitution because of her addiction. She tells him she plans to stay a prostitute for the rest of her life. Jurgis attends a meeting with a magazine editor who tells him more about the basic goal of socialism and the revolution that they are trying to bring about. That year, the socialist party achieves victories in the elections and a speaker at the rally declares “Chicago will be ours!”.

Characters Analysis 

Jurgis Rudkus – the main character of the novel. Jurgis is a Lithuanian immigrant who comes to America with his fiancee’s family to try for a better life. Unfortunately, when he gets to America, Jurgis quickly finds that jobs are hard to find and when he does find them he makes a little money and works very hard in unsafe conditions.

Jurgis is an instrument that Sinclair uses to present an average immigrant worker working in the meat packing industry of Chicago and thus he elicits mostly pity from the reader. At the beginning of the novel, Jurgis believes in the American dream– that hard work can get you to the top of your industry and that anyone can make it– and throughout the novel this idealism is slowly ground down by the work that he must do and the poverty that he and his family live in.

All of this suffering greatly changes Jurgis as a character. He goes from an idealistic, optimistic, strong young man to a depressed, alcoholic whose health has suffered from malnutrition and workplace accidents. However, after joining the socialist party, Jurgis is once again given a new outlook on life and seems, at the end of the novel to be looking forward to a brighter future.

Ona Lukoszaite – Jurgis’ wife. Ona is a feminine character who contrasts well with Jurgis strong masculinity. Ona is more fragile and worrisome than Jurgis and he wishes, at first to let her stay home so that she does not have to work. Ona trusts Jurgis implicitly and trusts that her family will always find a way to make more money, despite her worrying nature.

She stands behind her husband and defends him even after he is sent to jail. Ona’s first glimmer of relation to the plot is brought in when she is raped by her boss, Phil Connors and chooses to lie to protect her family instead of going to the police or telling Jurgis.

However, in general, Ona is portrayed as a wife and mother first who adds to the family ideal that Sinclair was wishing to portray in direct opposition to capitalism. Ona’s death takes places only a little over halfway through the novel and in a way, is portrayed as another sacrifice that Jurgis makes to capitalism.

Teta Elzbieta Lukoszaite – Ona’s stepmother. Teta was married to Ona’s father who died and left the family deeply in debt. Teta is the mother of six children at the start of the novel, two of whom are handicapped. Teta represents the strength of family and traditions throughout the novel and begins to slowly emerge as one of the strongest and most important characters. Teta endures much after coming to America and remains strong and eventually becomes the head of her family. She works just as hard as the others although her transition into the workforce represents one of the most powerful blows to Jurgis’ male ego in the novel.

Whether out of love or practicality, Teta accepts Jurgis back into the family as soon as he returns and begins attending socialist meetings with him.

Marija Berczynskas – Ona’s cousin who agrees to come to America with the family because she does not like the place that she works for in Lithuania.

Marija is a powerfully built, strong woman who manages to get at least a few jobs based on her size and strength. However, after Jurgis abandons the family, Marija is forced to become a prostitute to survive and becomes addicted to opium. At the end of the novel, she reveals that she does not want to stop being a prostitute as she knows that as long as she stays in the brothel she will have access to opium.

Upton Sinclair Biography 

Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr. was born on September 20th, 1878 in Baltimore, Maryland. The son of an alcoholic liquor salesman and a strict Episcopalian, Sinclair had a difficult childhood.

Sinclair struggled against his mother’s strict rules and stopped speaking to her when he was 16 years old. The Sinclairs were a well-respected family in the south but the Civil War ruined their wealth and they became poor in the years after. After this, Sinclair’s family moved often so that his father could obtain new jobs. When he was 14 he entered the City College of New York and began writing jokes and articles in boy’s magazines to pay for his schooling.

In 1897, he graduated and began attending Columbia University to major in law. He continued to support himself by writing for magazines. Through the usage of stenographers, he wrote up to 8,000 words of pulp fiction per day and began publishing novels when he left Columbia.

In 1900 he married a childhood friend named Meta Fuller and the two had a child the following year. In 1901, he published his first novel “King Midas” which was quickly followed by, “Prince Hagen” (1902), “The Journal of Arthur Stirling” (1903) and, “Manassas” (1904).

In 1904, after spending several weeks undercover in Chicago’s meatpacking plants he wrote his best-known novel, “The Jungle” which received critical success and acclaim. With the income from the book, Sinclair formed an experimental community in upstate New York where “authors, artists, and musicians, editors and teachers and professional men’ would live together and produce their own food and wares”.

The community was started in October of 1906 and but the building burned down in March of the next year and the colony disbanded. After which Sinclair ran as a socialist candidate for Congress, losing the election. Throughout this time, Sinclair published much more articles and novels, both fiction and non-fiction.

In 1913, Sinclair married again to Mary Craig Kimbrough and the two remained married until her death in 1961.

Sinclair had an active political career with the socialist party and suffered much opposition from those opposed to the party including former president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Sinclair ran for many offices within the government and came closest to being governor of California although he never won an election.

In 1961, he married again to Mary Elizabeth Willis and was married to her almost until his death in a nursing home on November 25th, 1968 at the age of 90. He is buried next to his third wife in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C.