The Jungle is widely known as the book that turned the public’s gaze upon the meat industry. Months after the novel’s publication, the Food and Drug Act went into effect. The public was disturbed to find out that their chances of eating rotten and diseased food were quite good, as the condition of the slaughterhouses was revolting and what oversight existed at the time was a farce.
This was a positive reaction from the public, but Upton Sinclair did not mean to turn the people’s fervor toward the meat industry alone. Sinclair’s primary protestations regarded the labor conditions and complete lack of workers’ rights. Indeed, that is what struck me about the book. Sure, the descriptions of the making of sausage with scraps of meat and innards from the floor and the drains, and the tubercular cows passing right by the “screener”, are disturbing. But the human suffering detailed in the book is far more painful to endure. It lasts from shortly after the first chapter to the very last (357th) page.
The book’s main character is Jurgis Rudkus. You get the impression that the lion’s share of his life is lived out on these pages. What life Jurgis does have plays out like a train wreck. You see everything coming before he does. Blow after blow Jurgis is dealt with no means to protect himself or to save his family from abject poverty. My heart ached for Jurgis and every member of his family and for all those wasting away in Packingtown, the meat-packing area of Chicago.
I am thankful that workers’ rights are a thing now. No one spoke of them in The Jungle until the very last pages of the book, which is a screed in support of Socialism, one of Sinclair’s great causes.
The struggle of the working class is still very real. More than once I thought of fast-food workers, who are campaigning for greater pay because of the poverty they are forced into by trying to support a family on the current minimum wage, and I recognized that they are a group of people who would be at the heart of The Jungle if it were written today. Sinclair would be pleased to know that these workers don’t have to work 7-5:30 Monday thru Saturday just to keep their job, but many still work those hours because one job is not enough. A second is needed to scrape by.
The Jungle is a serious book with an intensely dark and sad narrative, but also a book with a surprising appeal to the reader to read just one more page. I found it enticing, even though with every new page Jurgis encountered his next setback or you could make out the train wreck on the horizon a little better. Out of the six classic books I have read this year, The Jungle has surprised me the most with its novel subject matter and its desperate plea for help from the immigrant masses who are still growing, tending, picking, and packing our food.