The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is a fictional novel that was written to portray the real conditions of workers in the city. Sinclair shows how poorly the people are treated and how much they suffer because of it, and hoped that in turn people would rally to improve the working conditions for those employed at such facilities. Yet, it is the revolting nature of how the food is handled in the meat packing plants that truly captures the reader’s attention. For while the upsetting situations of the workers may be something we can sympathize with from a distance, all readers eat and fear what might be hidden in the food they’ve bought. About such Sinclair is famously quoted, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”(Whitt 170) I must concur that it was indeed my stomach that was most affected by this book.
Though I did feel for the characters, it was easier to be drawn in by the disgusting nature of the industry mainly because the characters weren’t ones that were easy to relate too. While they would have their brief moments that drew my attention, as when Jurgis wished to do better in life because of his love for Ona; these moments were fleeting and soon overshadowed by descriptions of men wading through two inches of blood, and having skin torn away by frozen knives. Even Sinclair recognized his own failure in fully developing his characters, and had actually wished to rewrite the second half of the novel in order to “elaborate the incidents and make the characters more definite.”(Boylan 166) However that is not the story that we get in The Jungle, and so we are left instead with a dark and dreary look at the manufacturing and working environment in Packingtown that are just barely held up by the characters. It is no surprise then that we are less affected by the people than by the meat they handled. When thinking back on all that I read, I just feel my stomach heaving rather than any sense of tragedy for the loss and devastation that Jurgis’ family went through.
The problem is that the characters are so generalized as to be any family that had come here on the promise of gold and finding only poverty instead. Though that is a sad story, the fact that I never felt close to any of the characters kept them from ever truly becoming real people, but Sinclair made sure to give every detail of the factories they visited. The visitors are mentioned as simply those watching, and Jurgis is no more than another face in the crowd held in awe of the sight, but we see and feel for every step the pigs must take to their doom as pages go by to tell all about their final resting place. “And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs; they were so innocent, they came so trustingly; and they were so very human in their protests—and so perfectly within their rights!”(Sinclair 27) In one sentence Sinclair draws the reader closer to the pigs than he does throughout a whole novel for the family that is struggling to work in the world requiring them to kill the pigs.
For all the hardships that the book attempts to portray for Jurgis and his family, it’s hard to think of them as a separate person from the work that they do for the majority of the book shows them either working or looking for work, but rarely doing anything that would truly make them a human with a life rather than just another worker. Having only the briefest glimpse into any sort of life outside the job, they end up being depicted as merely cogs in the vast machine that is Packingtown. Even as members of the family and other workers die, the picture that is painted is simply pieces in a machine. “All year round they had been serving as cogs in the great packing machine; and now was the time for the renovating of it, and the replacing of damaged parts.”(Sinclair 58) Through the story they are all trapped in an endless cycle of woe and their moments are so quickly passed over and so combined that the family at times seem to be nothing more than one giant entity with no unique personalities to make you think of them as individuals to be acknowledged. The story is just that of someone telling a tale about a stranger that had some hard times, and, while parts of the political life and other areas are slowly drawn in, it all inevitably goes back to how the meat is handled and how that process needs to be done with greater care to produce a better product.
Ultimately, The Jungle revolves entirely around the food industry and characters within were just side notes that are easily discarded. I can understand that Sinclair’s intention had been to focus on the people, but his main focus appeared to really always been on the industry the people worked for. It always came back to how that building was kept up, and how the inspectors lack of attention could let unhealthy pigs and cows go by, or how when the workers did get hurt it might be contaminating the food we all eat. Ultimately the story isn’t heart wrenching, for the characters appear as simply the tools to move the story along and a reason to explain the world around them, but gut wrenching for all the unsuspecting consumers who might buy such food that is obviously unhealthy. I’m thankful this book was one of the things that were a big factor in creating and passing the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which insured that the industry is better inspected and that every step of the way the food is handled correctly. (Abrahamson 164) Which in turn would improve the lives of the workers, but I do believe Sinclair missed the mark in bringing the reader to sympathize for the people in this book.
Abrahamson, David. “An Inconvenient Legacy.” Journalism History 34.3 (2008): 163. MasterFILE Complete. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.
Boylan, James. “The Long And The Short Of The Jungle.” Journalism History 34.3 (2008): 165. MasterFILE Complete. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.
Whitt, Jan. “From The Jungle To Food Lion.” Journalism History 34.3 (2008): 170. MasterFILE Complete.Web. 24 Oct. 2014.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Amazon Digital Services, Inc, 2012. Kindle file.