The Jungle Summary

Upton Sinclair

The Jungle

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The Jungle Summary

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The Jungle is a classic historical novel by Upton Sinclair. First published in 1906, the novel, originally released in serial form, explores the horrible conditions endured by immigrants working in the meatpacking industries in industrialized cities. Contemporary readers were shocked by the unsanitary practices, and the book eventually led to the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. Sinclair’s aim was to expose crimes against the working classes and spark a rise in socialism. The Jungle was his debut novel, and he spent many weeks working undercover in a meatpacking plant to write it. He later penned over one hundred books.

The protagonist is Jurgis Rudkus. He’s a Lithuanian man who recently moved to America to pursue new fortunes. He’s just married Ona Lukoszaite, and they’re holding their wedding feast in Packingtown, Chicago. Relatives describe Jurgis as a physical contrast to Ona, as he’s tall and broad with thick black hair, while she’s dainty and fair-haired. It’s unclear what they see in each other, but it’s obvious they’re very much in love.

The novel opens with the wedding reception. In Lithuania, guests leave money behind to cover wedding reception costs, but no one can afford to do that in Chicago. They’re all struggling to find work, and any money they do have goes toward food. Although Jurgis only hires out a cheap local bar, he can’t pay the bill at the end of the night. He doesn’t feel he can ask the guests to donate money because they’re obviously struggling to make ends meet. This isn’t an ideal start to Jurgis’s American Dream.

Ona tries not to worry, but she knows Jurgis must find a job quickly to repay their debt. Once the wedding’s over, Jurgis shifts his focus to finding employment. He looks everywhere but the best he can find is a job at a local slaughterhouse. The pay is abysmal but it’s enough to let him start paying his debts. Ona’s cousin, Marija, finds work in a cannery, but not everyone in the family is lucky enough to find employment.

Jurgis knows he needs to find a home for his family, and fast. He and his father, Dede, sign an agreement for a house without understanding the terms. They only care about having a roof over their head. However, it’s a terrible lease with exploitative conditions, and they can’t pay the rent or utilities. Dede feels like a burden on the family.

Dede tries to find a job, but he’s turned down for being too old. Desperate, he turns to someone who promises to get him employment in a meatpacking place, but only in exchange for a finder’s fee. Each time Dede’s paid, he gives up a portion of his wages as a finder’s fee. Eventually, the hours and excessive labor are too much for him, and he passes away.

Jurgis is devastated and blames himself for Dede’s death. He thinks that if he’d found a better job, he could’ve protected his father. Ona, now pregnant, thinks she needs to find a job to relieve the burden on Jurgis. Jurgis is horrified at the thought, but he’s also a realist who knows they need the money.

Meanwhile, winter arrives, and some of the factories close due to lack of work. Marija’s cannery factory shuts down, but she’s later rehired. However, she doesn’t get paid and she’s fired again. She’s very distressed and hates feeling so powerless. Jurgis doesn’t want her worrying, but when he sprains his ankle and can’t work for a few months, there’s immense pressure on them all.

When Jurgis is fit to return to work, they don’t take him back. Now he must find a new job. In the meantime, he turns to alcohol, which makes him ill-tempered. He doesn’t see much of Ona. Eventually, he gets a job in a fertilizer plant that makes his clothes and body smell of toxic fumes. He and his family get sick, but they can’t afford to stop working.

To make matters worse, Ona starts lying about her job and why she’s often late home from work. It turns out that her boss makes her sleep with him if she wants to get paid. Jurgis attacks him and he’s consequently imprisoned. The family can’t pay their bills anymore, and they’re evicted from their home.

Meanwhile, Jurgis tries to learn English. He wants to understand politics and why the US government treats people this way. He believes that the corrupt few who run the plants have too much power. When he gets out of prison, he plans on joining a political movement, but his plans are derailed when Ona dies. Jurgis loses interest in everything except his son, Antanas. However, when Antanas dies, Jurgis turns to crime.

In prison, Jurgis made dangerous friends. They help him make a living on the streets, and he eventually befriends a corrupt politician who keeps him employed. When he angers this politician by beating up his friend—Ona’s old boss—he ends up destitute again. It’s at this point he decides to join a socialist rally and campaign for change.

One day, he stumbles upon Marija. She’s a heroin addict and a prostitute, and Jurgis is heartbroken. He feels personally responsible for everyone’s fate. However, he convinces Marija to stay with him, and they join socialist groups. The novel ends on a hopeful note.