Welcome (Back) to “The Jungle”

Upton Sinclair The Jungle

Business regulation, food or otherwise is currently a hot topic, with literary origins. Often, when politicians talk about deregulation, they are referencing a time after the industrial revolution but, before current policies. Simultaneously, whenever people become aware of their consumption habits, questions about factory conditions. Within this history, the novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair holds a position of infamy.

The contrast between the intention of the author and the reaction of to his novel, inspired me to read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I had first heard of the tome during an American history lesson for its contribution to food safety regulations. During Sinclair’s time, critics dismissed the author as a sensationalist. However, public outcry after the novel’s publishing fueled food regulations shortly after the Great Depression in America.

Uncomfortable Questions

Upton Sinclair quote from The JungleInside the reader discovers squeamish sentences such as, “…and as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting,—sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!” The Happy Meal experiment pales  in comparison to these assertions.

“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Upton Sinclair said in an interview with Cosmopolitan Magazine about The Jungle, 1906. Although the conditions of the meat packing facility are secondary to the drama of the main character’s trials, they became the focus after the novel was published. In reality, the novel is a melodrama detailing the underbelly of European immigration to America around the turn of the century. All of the characters meet horrible fates, notably including:

  • Dying in childbirth
  • Working as prostitutes
  • Sleeping on the streets
  • Being eaten to death by rats


The story begins with the main character, Jurgis, arriving in America with his young wife and extended family. They are tired, unskilled, and hopeful. Soon, they fall prey to Chicago’s harsh meat-packing district. Corruption and greed controls the city. Jurgis naively fights against it for most of the tale. Eventually, he caves in to the corruption as his family falls apart. His morality must be sacrificed for the sake of survival. His trials include:

  • The meat-packing factory
  • Prison
  • Theft
  • Becoming a hobo
  • Joining the graft
  • Working for the union
  • Turning on the union
  • Working as a con artist
  • Begging
  • Day labor

It is in the socialist movement that Jurgis finds his passion for work and life again, although he still mourns his dead wife and children. At this point, the story concludes with a hopeful and determined protagonist.

Fear and Food Safety

These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Even though Jurgis does not spend the entire book working with meat, it remains the most jarring and referenced part of the story. The inhumanity of slaughtering animals, grinding up all their parts, and mixing toxic chemicals into the food of unsuspecting consumers is bleak. Also, food safety concerned privileged members of society. Even the elite need to eat. In an era of minimal oversight, pure capitalism devolved into nauseating greed.

“In 1904, Sinclair spent seven weeks in disguise, working undercover in Chicago’s meatpacking plants to research his political fiction exposé, The Jungle,” Wikipedia states. Contaminated food scandals are familiar to a modern reader. However, during the late 1800s, people assumed that their food was clean and safe, without added chemicals. In our generation, people can rightly assume that much of their food has been processed. Wikipedia notes that the novel, “…exposed conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry, causing a public uproar that contributed in part to the passage a few months later of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.”

Quality of Life

As the story progresses, many of the main characters perish. Interestingly, the family traded a simple, healthy existence for a competitive life.  Previously, they lived in a rural locale and worked with their hands. However, in coming to America, they found a situation that perpetuates poverty with a lower quality of life. At first, the family falls prey to ignorance, as big businesses and unscrupulous people take advantage of their naivety. Later, Jurgis understands that those same people act unethically for their own survival. As the story continues, the family finds that their simplicity and hardworking attitudes will not help them survive.

Other immigrants try to explain the phenomenon to the newcomers. Basically, the companies wear employees out. Then, hurt and unable to work, each employee succumbs to homelessness. Indeed, Jurgis’ family does fairly well until they start to one-by-one become injured by dangerous working conditions. The danger of living in America is contrasted by the situation in Lithuania.

Their children were not as well as they had been at home; but how could they know that there was no sewer to their house, and that the drainage of fifteen years was in a cesspool under it? How could they know that the pale-blue milk that they bought around the corner was watered, and doctored with formaldehyde besides? When the children were not well at home, Teta Elzbieta would gather herbs and cure them; now she was obliged to go to the drugstore and buy extracts—and how was she to know that they were all adulterated? How could they find out that their tea and coffee, their sugar and flour, had been doctored; that their canned peas had been colored with copper salts, and their fruit jams with aniline dyes? And even if they had known it, what good would it have done them, since there was no place within miles of them where any other sort was to be had?
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

The lack of social programs compounds the issue as workplace injuries result in debt, prison, or death.

Chaos and Calamity

Throughout the story, Jurgis finds himself unable to cope when he is hurt or abused. He is continually falling prey to dangerous and difficult circumstances. Occasionally, a employees would disappear and people would wonder about their fate.

It was said by the boss at Durham’s that he had gotten his week’s money and left there. That might not be true, of course, for sometimes they would say that when a man had been killed; it was the easiest way out of it for all concerned. When, for instance, a man had fallen into one of the rendering tanks and had been made into pure leaf lard and peerless fertilizer, there was no use letting the fact out and making his family unhappy.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

As the people are treated like animals, they begin to act like animals. Jurgis finds himself moving from a muscular, ethical family man to a scrawny creature that leaves his extended family to starve. The main woe of the book is that Jurgis is not unique. All of the meat workers behave like this, leading to larger social problems.

They lodged men and women on the same floor; and with the night there began a Saturnalia of debauchery—scenes such as never before had been witnessed in America. And as the women were the dregs from the brothels of Chicago, and the men were for the most part ignorant country Negroes, the nameless diseases of vice were soon rife; and this where food was being handled which was sent out to every corner of the civilized world.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Believing America’s establishment has failed them, the immigrants begin to favor the new socialist movement. Jurgis, seeing how he has been ruined by the New World, begins to dream of a different life. The story ends on a positive note, as Jurgis bonds with fellow socialists and tries to resist the injustice around him.

Deregulation and Class Systems Today

In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.” – Lisa Miller, WHAT FOOD SAYS ABOUT CLASS IN AMERICA, Newsweek

Today, food is still one of the biggest indicators of class divide in America. Those of better means are more likely to have access to, and knowledge about, better food. Conversely, food deserts separate low income communities from healthy options. Starting with Paltrow’s SNAP gaffe a few years ago, several journalists experimented with living on food stamps or trying to stick to small food budgets. While talking heads debate whether it is possible to eat healthy on a low income, we can all agree that it is difficult. Eating healthy takes energy, knowledge, money, and time.

Personally, I believe the ability to make changes in this area is one of the distinctions between being broke versus being poor. Broke people have a way out of food deserts. Poor people cannot leave. For example, I started my adult life as low income with entry level pay and student debt. However, I was college-educated, growing in in my ability to earn, and knew that I would eventually have better access to healthy options. Even while I was technically living on the poverty line, I  wasn’t systematically poor . This is why I have never classified myself poor even when I didn’t have much money.

From those experiences, I have started to understand that essential priorities often compete with other essential priorities. That strain, over a lifetime, becomes exhausting.

Below are food insecurity areas that need greater awareness for change:

  • Limited resources and lack of access to healthy, affordable foods
  • Cycles of Food Deprivation and Overeating
  • High Levels of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
  • Fewer Opportunities for Physical Activity
  • Greater Exposure to Marketing of Obesity-Promoting Products
  • Limited Access to Health Care

Because of our current climate of deregulation and recent push for smaller government, The Jungle maintains some relevance. Certainly, Sinclair’s style is alarmist. However, the story relates to modern discussion about food, work, and class in America. The emotions of Jurgis’ struggle mirror the emotions of modern low-income families, especially those trapped in a multi-generational cycle of poverty. The story still uncovers the same questions about our society and why it is structured to place barriers between our citizens and access to healthy food, safe working conditions, and fair wages.

Do you think The Jungle maintains any relevance today?