In 1906, when Upton Sinclair was writing The Jungle, around 35,000 workers died every year in industry-related incidents in the US. It was in this context that Sinclair wrote this tale about the conditions of workers in the stockyards and meat packing plants of Chicago. Many will associate this novel with its shocking exposé of the unsanitary conditions in the meat packing plants, which contributed to the passing of the 1906 Meat Inspection Act. The description of meat being mixed with bone, blood, hair and flies, all in sweltering hot, bloody rooms, caused public outcry.
However, the lessons from The Jungle go far deeper than working conditions. Its depth lies in the descriptions of the destructive conditions of wage labour and the racism experienced by Eastern European immigrants. It paints a shattering portrait of the life of a Lithuanian immigrant to America, Jurgis Rudkus, and his family. Jurgis is a happy young man having found new life in Chicago and in marriage to his sweetheart, Ona. Naive to the viciousness of land owners, the Rudkus family become subject to the corruption of a landlord who takes advantage of their poor English skills. They sign up for a predatory lending scheme that sends them deep into debt.
Jurgis and Ona optimistically set out to work but find themselves trapped in the mind numbing and body-destroying conditions of the Chicago meat packing plants. Jurgis works in gruelling conditions: 14-hour days among faeces and in burning hot conditions, eating his lunch amidst the flies.
The author Jack London described The Jungle as the "Uncle Tom's Cabin of wage slavery". Sinclair follows the Rudkus family through the freezing Chicago winter, barely making enough money to eat. When Ona becomes victim to repeated sexual assault from her boss, Jurgis goes mad with rage and attacks him.
Without trial, he is thrown into prison. The ensuing years follow Jurgis from jail to imprisonment in wage labour and back to jail again. For his family these years involve a series of heart-wrenching catastrophes. Sinclair combines beautiful prose with characters you really care for. Jurgis is caught between the lust for a life free from the shackles of work, the love and devotion he feels for his family and the bitter disappointment of the reality of life in America. Nearly dead from starvation and exhaustion, Jurgis seeks refuge in a church in Chicago.
Slumped in a pew, he hears the voice of someone talking about workers taking over the stockyards and the meat plants for themselves, about a world where work and wealth are divided equally and the bosses are put behind bars. He thinks he is dreaming; the words sound like a foreign language. He is at a meeting of a local socialist group. One of the most haunting things about The Jungle is that the racism and poverty which it describes would probably ring true to immigrant workers today in America. However, there is also something undeniably optimistic about Upton Sinclair's book - in that within the darkness of the Chicago work houses lies boiling away the collective muscle of the working class.
The Jungle was first published in 1906