Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Not the actual cover of the edition I read.
That one is just too disturbing.
Warning:  Do not read The Jungle, if you are like me and typically read books while while eating.  Period.  End of story.  It will put you off your lunch, seriously.  Possibly for a long time.

That is not to say that The Jungle is not worth reading.  It's one of those books that I've had on the TBR shelf for more than three years now, since I received the Big Box of Penguins from the nice people at Penguin Classics.   It is one of those books, also, that I didn't want to read so much as I wanted to have read it, if that makes any sense.

Anyway, this is the story of Jurgis Rudkis, a Lithiuanian immigrant who lives in Chicago in the early 1900s.  The book begins at his wedding to Ona.  It starts out with a big party, and basically, their lives go downhill from there.  Not only do they go into debt for this big wedding, they're barely eking out an existence working in the famous Chicago stockyards, in a neighborhood known as Packingtown, which is one of the nastiest, filthiest places in literature.  This book was written as an indictment of the terrible conditions in which poor people lived and worked at the time, especially immigrants, who came to America thinking they'd have all these great opportunities.  In fact, conditions were probably worse for them than back in the old country.  I've read a lot of immigrant stories, but this is probably the first one I can remember in which the immigrants should have stayed home.

Jurgis came to America with his father, his future bride, her stepmother Elzbieta, and various extended family members and children, including Marija, Ona's cousin.  Thing start out badly when they arrive  in the slums of Chicago's Packingtown, and get worse when they're tricked into spending their savings a terrible house.  They're working hard under horrible working conditions, but illnesses, layoffs, and bad weather create a situation that goes from bad to worse.  And I do mean seriously worse.  Have you read Germinal or The Grapes of Wrath?  Those books are cheerful compared to The Jungle, which has my vote for Most Depressing Book of All Time.

And Sinclair does not shy away from the messy details.  He goes into great detail about the horrible sanitation of the stockyards, the disease and filth and disgusting working conditions.  It's amazing to believe that anyone survived eating food that came out of there -- and even scarier to think of how it must have been to work there.  There was so much corruption, and so few rights for the workers, it's just shocking.

But this book isn't just about how bad the sanitation and working conditions of the stockyards; it's also about how few rights workers had, how companies took advantage of immigrants, and about the shocking corruption, both with the big corporations and in Chicago politics.  Having lived in Chicago for ten years, this sheds new light for me.  (I will never think of the name for the Chicago Bulls basketball team in quite the same way again). 

The edition that I actually read.  It's a really nice edition, except for the cover artwork.

It was an interesting book, yet horrifying.  I can't say I'd recommend it for the writing or character development; even the plot is not that great.  I'm quite sure this book is considered important for its impact than for its literary merit.  In a way, the terrible lives of these people in Packingtown are so over-the-top, it's unbelievable.  They were less human to me, more caricatures --  it's like Sinclair thought to himself while writing, how can get this get worse?  It really lacked the great writing of Steinbeck and the riveting characters of Zola; if you haven't read anything by Zola, he is the absolute master of creating people whose lives are on incredible downward spirals.  Also, the ending of the book is really unresolved -- it just ends with this big rant about Socialism, and we never find out what happens to Jurgis and the rest of the family.

So.  I'm very proud to have finally finished it -- that's five books off my TBR Pile Challenge for this year.  My goal was one book every month, so I'm a little behind, but not terribly.  I've already started reading The Sisters, a biography of the Mitfords, which I already know will be a really fun read.  I know I'm supposed to be starting Moby-Dick, but I really need a break to before starting another book I've been dreading.  How's everyone else doing on their TBR Pile Challenge?  Are they books you love, or just books you really wanted to have crossed off your list?  And are there any books even more depressing than The Jungle


  1. Go you! I read it so long ago that I'm no longer sure how hard the misery hit me, though I do remember some of the details so it must have hit pretty hard. I did always find it kind of ...funny? ironic, maybe? that Sinclair meant to convert Americans to Socialism, and instead everyone ignored the last couple chapters and demanded the FDA.

    1. Yeah, Sinclair kind of lost my interest for the last 20 pages or so -- we never hear anything more about Jurgis, he's at a Socialist meeting and these brand-new characters just start ranting. Meh.

  2. I got halfway through and stopped. I rarely drop a book...I usually force myself to finish. But, this was was too depressing.

    1. It was very depressing. It took me about 10 days to read it, which is pretty long for a 400 page book -- I can normally get through about 100 pages a day if I have time. This was so depressing I could only read a chapter or two at a time.

  3. I agree that it is depressing, but I am glad to have read it. What troubled me almost more than the disturbing working conditions was the business about the house. It was a good example of white-collar crime against the immigrants.

    Theodore Dreiser is very good on the corruption of Chicago, and he is a much better writer with more interesting characters.