111 pages 3 hours read

Upton Sinclair

The Jungle

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1905

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Summary and Study Guide


The Jungle, first published in serial form in 1905, is a realist novel by American writer Upton Sinclair. Although fictional, the work is often considered an example of “muckraking” journalism—turn-of-the-century investigative reporting that took aim at political corruption while advocating for progressive reform. As an exposé of this kind, The Jungle both exceeded and fell short of its author’s intentions. Sinclair’s graphic account of the unsanitary and corrupt practices of America’s big meatpacking companies horrified the public to such an extent that, by the end of 1906, Congress passed two acts aimed at regulating the industry: the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established what would become the FDA. Sinclair, however, hoped his work would inspire public sympathy for the plight of the working classes and generate support for the Socialist Party. In this, its legacy was more mixed; although the U.S. would gradually adopt various labor reform laws over the next several decades, the Socialist Party never achieved the kind of success the novel predicted.

This study guide refers to the 2006 Penguin Books edition of The Jungle.

Plot Summary

Set in turn-of-the-century Chicago, The Jungle opens with the wedding of Lithuanian immigrants Jurgis Rudkus and Ona Lukoszaite. The narrative then flashes back to the couple’s meeting in Lithuania and their decision to emigrate to the U.S. They settle in the meatpacking district of Chicago—”Packingtown”—accompanied by Jurgis’s father Antanas, Ona’s cousin Marija, Ona’s stepmother Elzbieta, and Elzbieta’s children and brother Jonas.

Initially, the United States is everything the family hoped it would be. They arrive in summer when the weather is warm, and Jurgis, Jonas, and Marija are all easily able to find good-paying jobs; the family even purchases a house and begins making plans for Jurgis and Ona’s wedding in autumn.

However, over the course of the next several months, the family becomes aware of abuses and corruption at the meatpacking companies. Worse yet, they learn that their monthly payments on the house will be much higher than anticipated. Consequently, by the time of the wedding, Ona, Antanas, and Elzbieta’s eldest son are forced to seek work. Antanas ultimately dies during the family’s first winter in America, largely as a result of unsafe working conditions. Meanwhile, the family’s financial struggles accumulate as they face reduced hours or outright closures.

In the spring, Ona gives birth to a son, also named Antanas, and the family’s fortunes improve somewhat. However, the following year proves even more difficult, as Jonas abandons the family to seek his own fortune, and Jurgis is forced to take a poorly-paying job in a fertilizer plant after a workplace injury sidelines him for several months.

By the family’s third winter in America, Ona is pregnant again. When she fails to return home from work one day, Jurgis learns that a foreman has been extorting sex from her. Jurgis attacks the man and is sent to prison for a month. By the time he is released, Ona has gone into premature labor; both she and the baby die within days of his return.

For the sake of his son, Jurgis suppresses his grief, finding work first at a harvesting company and, when that closes, at a steel works. One spring day, he returns home to find that his son is dead, having drowned in a flooded street. Speechless, Jurgis hitches a ride into the countryside and spends the next several months as a vagrant, taking odd jobs and foraging for food.

In the fall, Jurgis returns to Chicago and finds a job; that winter, however, he is injured again in a workplace accident and subsequently reduced to begging. He is arrested after getting into a fight over a hundred-dollar bill—a relic of Jurgis’s chance encounter with Freddie Jones, the wealthy son of one of the meatpacking barons.

While in jail, Jurgis reconnects with a petty criminal named Jack Duane. Through Duane, Jurgis meets several of the political fixers who help rig Chicago’s elections and becomes involved in the work himself that autumn. The following summer, he manages to rise to the rank of factory foreman during a strike. However, Jurgis loses everything overnight when he stumbles upon—and once again assaults—the well-connected foreman who raped Ona.

Once again destitute, Jurgis chances across an old Packingtown acquaintance who provides him with Marija’s address. Arriving there, Jurgis finds that it’s a brothel: Marija is now supporting the rest of the family through prostitution. As Jurgis debates whether to rejoin his estranged relations, he stumbles upon a socialist rally where he is deeply moved. He approaches the speaker afterwards and is put into contact with other members of Chicago’s Socialist Party.

Now excited and full of purpose, Jurgis reconnects with his remaining family and finds a position working for a socialist hotelier. He becomes more and more involved in the socialist movement and is elated when, the following fall, the Socialist Party enjoys unexpected success in the elections.

Related Titles

By Upton Sinclair