Book Review of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle is an interesting, but very somber read. It is a story of a Lithuanian family who moves to Chicago in pursuit of the “American Dream.” Jurgis Rudkus, the male head of the family, and main character, convinces his family that America is the land of opportunity, alluding to the possibilities for the future prosperity of his entire family. A family consisting of Jurgis and his fiancée (Ona), Ona’s stepmother, Teta Elizabeta and her brother, and her husband, Dede Rudkus (Jurgis’ father), as well as her six children, and lastly, Ona’s cousin, Marija.

Not long after their arrival to America, Jurgis is able to secure employment in the meat-packing butchery and processing plant, in a place called ‘Packingtown.’ Here, they discover that life in America may not be as they’d dreamed, and they experience the plight of the majority, in Chicago’s meatpacking district. Once several of the family members are employed, they pool their money together and purchase a house, and Jurgis and Ona soon marry. They throw a lavish wedding ceremony, which propels them into serious debt; this, on top of the debt they’ve already accrued from furnishing their house on credit.

Jurgis asserts to his family that all is well, and that he’ll “just work extra hard,” to make up for the money spent, a phrase iterated by him many times throughout the novel. Maria also finds a job in the city, and other members of the family search desperately for work. Jurgis’ father experiences much difficulty in finding a job, as he is a bit older, but eventually lands a job where he consents to offering a cut of his salary to the employer just to be afforded the opportunity to work. Jurgis is quite content with his new work when he first begins, although, his spirits begin to wane, as he finds that life in America is not as he had imagined, and that getting ahead is no easy undertaking. Jurgis becomes privy to the shady working conditions in the city, thus, making him ponder if coming to America was wise.

After some time in their new home, a kind neighbor-lady imparts unto Jurgis, the reality of his housing contract, explaining that he will have to pay awfully high interest on his loan. Upon receipt of this information, he becomes disheartened, but again states that he will work hard. To contend with this new realization, Ona must now also get a job to help keep their heads above water, and Teta’s eldest son is forced to quit school and pursue a job, which he gets only after having been dishonest about his age. The family finds themselves confounded and very downtrodden about how things are panning out, and soon, one horrible event leads to another, which complicates their existences, seemingly exponentially.

Working conditions in the plant begin to deteriorate, many in the family begin to get sick, and Jurgis’ father suddenly falls ill, and dies. The following winter is a nasty one, in which many people in the city die from illness, disease and famine. More and more people begin finding themselves without work. Marija meets a man named Tamoszius Kuszleika, who is an adept violinist. The two of them desire to wed, but are unable to do so, as Marija loses her job when the factory shuts down, and money becomes too tight. Also, Jurgis’ hours at work get cut back, putting more strain on the family’s financial situation.

Jurgis manages to become a United States citizen and develops an interest in politics and a desire to better his English. He also becomes aware of the political corruption in Chicago. He finds out that Mike Scully, a wealthy and powerful politician, has been behind much of the corruption in the city, and has been exploiting the meat packers, and selling poisoned meat. All the while, the hard-working laborers are afflicted by terrible troubles, from lost fingers, to blood poisoning, to death.

At this point, a cascade of tumultuous events takes place, and things with Jurgis and his family really begin to unravel. Marija manages to get rehired at her previous place of employment, but is quickly fired as a result of her speaking out against a supervisor who is cheating her out of her pay. Ona is pregnant and is experiencing issues at her job, dealing with a problematic and spiteful supervisor. Not long after the birth of her son (Antanas), Ona returns to work. Ona and Jurgis have little time to spend nurturing their newborn (or with their family in general), as they are very much encumbered with the strife of life. Jurgis is working nonstop to earn as much as he is able, but this comes to a grinding halt when he gets injured, and is out of work. After months of recovery, Jurgis goes looking for work, and lands a job of low pay, at a fertilizer factory. Ona’s stepmother is now forced to work so the family doesn’t starve.

With the culmination of unforeseen events, and the difficulties of life, which seem all but to compound, Jurgis becomes depressed and begins drinking heavily, his only bit of reprieve from the doldrums of the life. On top of this, Ona is pregnant yet again, and her child Antanas is constantly ill. Beaten down and weary, Jurgis and his family are not only struggling to make ends meet, but to hold together as a family, as there surmounts a dis-ease amongst those in the family. Life is but a constant struggle to get to tomorrow.

After several nights of Ona not returning home, Jurgis confronts her and demands to know where she has been. She admits that she was raped by her boss (Phil Connor, a shyster with connections to the politically corrupt in the city) and forced by him to prostitute in a brother. Jurgis flies into a fit of rage, brutalizes Connor, and is subsequently arrested. The hopes for a bright future fade, and things with Jurgis and the family go dark. Jurgis can’t help but feel like a useless failure, and about losing all they own, as he’s not able to work, being locked up. Connor absolves himself of any wrongdoing in the preceding court hearing, of course, and Jurgis is sentenced to 30 days in jail and issued a fine.

Upon release from jail, Jurgis returns home to his family to find his house painted a different color and that it has been sold to another family. He finds Ona at Anieles’ house (the same kind and generous lady who had helped them when they had first come to Packingtown), and she explains that they were evicted from their house. Pregnant, going into labor, and unable to afford medical care, they decide to have the baby at Aniele’s boarding house. With whatever monies he is able to scrounge together, Jurgis frantically visits a known midwife, and begs her for help, which she finally offers, only after having been given a down payment and a promise of the rest of the money the following week. Seeking out the midwife was an act of futility, as, when they get to Ona, she and the baby have died from complications during labor. Meanwhile, the midwife insists on the receipt of the rest of her pay.

The death of Jurgen’s wife and unborn child hits him quite hard, and he spirals out of control, drinking heavily again. He is unable to find work, as he has been blacklisted by the corrupt company heads. Eventually, he is able to land a job in a machine shop which closes suddenly. A connection Jurgis has made aids him in getting a job at a steel factory, which he leaves, after finding out that his son, Antanas has drowned. Jurgis falls into despair and becomes a vagrant.

After some time, Jurgis finds employment, but is injured, and out of work once again. He ends up in jail again, and upon his release, meets a man named Duane, who is involved in a ring of violent crime in Chicago. Jurgis decides to join Duane’s cause. Doing rather well at this point, all things considered, Jurgis randomly encounters Connor, and this ends in a repeat of the last encounter he had with the man, which lands him in jail, yet again. Upon release, Jurgis leaves town, for fear of reprisal from Connor and his henchmen, with nothing, in utter despair. Jurgis attends a socialist gathering in the city, and becomes convinced of the righteousness of the socialist ways.

After the meeting, he meets a man named Ostrinksi, who explains to him the principles of socialism, which Jurgis identifies with very much. On a whim, Jurgis stops by a hotel one day to inquire about a job, and happenstantially, the owner, an avid advocate of socialism, gleefully employs him as a porter in the hotel. Consequently, Jurgis becomes more involved in the socialist movement. In the end, as the upcoming election approaches, the socialist party leaders become hopeful that their movement and influence will continue to grow, especially in Chicago. Jurgis’ relations with the rest of the family are in shambles, and the novel ends with a brief bit about his vigorous support of the socialist movement, and then abruptly shifts, and concludes with all that is going on with the current elections, and talk of much promise for a socialist future by many in the town.


This is undoubtedly, one of the saddest books I have ever read. One tumultuous setback, and dastardly deed, after another. Hope for a positive turning point was abandoned completely somewhere around the middle of the book. The family just cannot get a leg up, and make any headway, and illness, injury, job loss, and cutthroat cretins are constant obstacles for Jurgis and his family. Yet, the unsettling and disturbing plot was more than just a story. It was a pretty vivid and valid depiction of the strife of the people of the times, when Sinclair had written the book. Upon doing some research about the author, it is now plain to me, to see that his intention wasn’t just some good story telling, but also to expose the truth behind what drove the ills of society that afflicted the majority of the working class in the early 1900’s.

In desperation and despair, people will go to existential lengths to ensure that life takes precedence over programming. And sometimes those ‘lengths,’ while perhaps not of the highest moral character, are all that stand between existence and death, or sanity and madness. When good, hard working people feel that the only way to adequately support their families is by whoring themselves out (as did Marija, and Ona [Ona perhaps not so much by choice, initially]), by engaging in bribery, or having to quit school and lie about your age, as did Stanislovas, to get work, this is indicative of a fundamentally flawed system. When you’ve got people sitting on mounds of riches, living large like Scrooge, and at the other end of the spectrum, like the Rudkus family (or what was left of them) near the end of the novel, it’s clear that society is rife with people who’ve lost their humanity.

There are many parallels with regard to the strife and struggle of those in the book, and those in the working lower class of even modern-day America. Sinclair did an excellent job at really getting across this notion of the American Dream being a farce, by showing that simply working hard does not equate to even being able to keep food on the table, let alone, make a modest living and eventually afford some of the luxuries of life to fulfill that dream. He conveyed the points well, that a tilted capitalist system, which is set up to be advantageous only to a small minority, and leaves so many, who, no matter how hard or much they work, can never really seem to get ahead, is so detrimental. He exposes the plethora of obstacles there are for the working class such as poor education, a serious lack of influence and power in society, poor familiarity with official government and the legal system, and the effects of enduring long-term poverty.

Although leaps and bounds have been may in the way of progress on several fronts, including human rights, working conditions, pay equality, and equality in general, some of the issues facing people in the early 1900’s, afflict many, still to this day. No doubt we’ve come a long way, but a long way. Most people in American society today aren’t struggling to provide for their basic needs (though there are many), but there is still much progress to be made, to bring about true equality, across the board, for all people. It’s 2019, and we’ve got a president of the USA, who’s got some $5 billion dollars in the bank, doors in one of his many houses made of solid gold, and people living in extreme poverty, many without basic human needs.

What I wonder is, did Roosevelt really not know what was going on in the industrial slums in America before Sinclair’s novel was published? Or, did he not care, but had to act, when Sinclair’s book seemed to strike a nerve with the people, as the government was worried about an uprising? As far back in human history as I have been educated and know about, people have seemingly been very individualistic, and little concern for their ‘neighbors,’ so to speak. Really, what the reading of this book has done, has made me doubt, even further, the innate decency of humankind, and solidified my thoughts about the ego. What is it going to take for people to understand that the best way forward is to look out for, and take care of each other?

Cite this paper

Book Review of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. (2021, Dec 28). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/book-review-of-the-jungle-by-upton-sinclair/



How many pages is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair?
The book is only 281 pages long.
What is the message of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair?
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is a novel that tells the story of a family of immigrants who come to the United States in search of a better life. The novel highlights the struggles of the working class and the poor, and the exploitation they face.
What was the famous book The Jungle primarily about and expose?
The Jungle was a novel written by Upton Sinclair in 1906. The book was about the horrible working conditions in the meatpacking industry.
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