“The Jungle”, written by Upton Sinclair, is a novel which exploited immigrants lives that were affected while living and working in industrialized cities in Chicago during the early 1900’s. The novel is based around the lives of characters who each had their own experiences and struggles that they faced while being immigrants from Lithuania going into the Meat-Packing Industry, also known as Packingtown.
The main character that Sinclair made one of the more important and was considered to be a representation of what immigrant’s experience and struggle with is Jurgis Rudkus. Jurgis was a man who originally came from Lithuania, but decided to leave his country in the hopes of achieving the American Dream in the United States. He was described to be a hardworking and determined person who was strong as well. He is idealistic as well, which would describe why he had such high hopes for entering a new country and being hopeful for what was to come. Lithuania at the time becomes very corrupt, which is the reason why many decide to leave. Like many immigrants, he wanted to be able to provide a better life for not only himself, but for his fiancé, and eventually his wife Ona Lukoszaite. Packingtown, Chicago, Illinois became the area where Jurgis began his new life, but his dreams were quickly destroyed as the struggles of what immigrants must go through became more and more apparent to him. He struggled with the English language, which is something that had been seen as important to much of the immigrants who entered the United States in order to get by with working daily. Besides not being able to speak English, Jurgis and his wife Ona were both disorientated upon entering the United States because life here was different than their life back in Lithuania and the lifestyle became something difficult to get used to. Working in the stockyards became difficult for him and other immigrants who worked alongside him because they were being put through hard labor, long hours of work, and the same amount of little pay that they would receive for any amount of work done. While noticing all of what was going on, it became apparent to Jurgis that his own American Dream was destroyed, which changed his view point forever and eventually turned him into someone different than he was while living in Lithuania.
Ona Lukoszaite is another main character of the story and was the wife of Jurgis Rudkus. She was described to be fragile and helpless, yet optimistic and kind hearted. Ona faced her own struggles upon starting a completely different life in the United States because just as her husband, she too was forced to do hard labor in order to make ends meets. Because she was seen as a fragile character, her struggles involved being raped by her own boss and not being able to do anything about it in order to not have her and her family’s life destroyed. Ona faced the struggles of being a mother to a child named Antanas. She ends up dying during child birth, as well as her newborn. Ona represented guilt and pity in the story. Jurgis feels guilt from capitalism pressures he faced while being married to her. The readers feel pity after reading the pain and struggles she went through. Antanas was the child of Jurgis and Ona. He was one of the characters from the novel and was seen as a form of hope for the future by his parents because they felt he would have a better, different lifestyle then they did. Unfortunately, he died by drowning in a pothole when he is still a kid. Dede Antanas was Jurgis father who was one of the characters that supported the decision of his son Jurgis to go to Chicago and live a better life. While in Chicago, Dede figured out that not even the elderly were appreciated or respected. He ended up dying from a persistent cough. Phil Connor was Ona’s boss who is portrayed as an enemy for Jurgis by not only hurting Ona, but also a man who took advantage of his own privilege that he has in this country. Jack Duane was a character that was put into Jurgis life to introduce him to the reality, and more abrupt world of Chicago while being his cellmate. Mike Scully was characterized as the head of Packingtown. He was portrayed as a crooked man whom Jurgis first believes is his friend, but later discovers he is responsible for the death of Antanas and Ona. Teta Elzbieta was the stepmother of Ona, whom was a representation of what it is to not really live, but to survive in a world that is full of tragedy after tragedy. Tommy Hinds was Jurgis’ last boss and ran a hotel business where he helped immigrants’ guests and passed out literature that had to do with socialists. Tommy was considered to be a good man. Lastly, Stainslovas was the eldest son of Teta Elzbieta’s and was another worker that suffered working in hard labor. He died from being attacked and eaten by rats. All characters have been affected one way or another for where they are and what they face.
Working conditions described in the book are portrayed to be disgusting, unsafe, and exploitative. Disgusting conditions meant the industry was full of diseases, rotten foods, and contaminated meat. Men were able to sweep off handfuls of dried rat feces from the top of the meat. Unsafe conditions stemmed from food being mixed with more rat feces, in which had strong chemicals like borax. These strong odors filled the rooms and eventually caused people to get sick and die. Besides being affected by chemicals and odors, it was also in unsafe condition because many of the men had difficulty in being in work areas that were crowded and difficult to work in. An example of this would be when Jurgis sprained his ankle from work because of the amount of rotting corpse of cow meat. The working conditions were also exploitative because of who was in charge of much of these jobs whom made the workers feel unsafe in the environment they were around. An example of exploitative working conditions would be when Ona was raped by her boss Phil Connor, in order to save her job fand the jobs of her family members.
Women faced different exploitation in their own jobs, like Ona. Jurgis was aware of the struggle’s women faced, which meant he would have rather let Ona remain home instead of work. “Jurgis was determined that Teta Elzbieta should stay at home to keep house, and that Ona should help her.” (Chp.4) They would be prostituted and/or raped by their bosses and people who took advantage of their own position in work. Many of these women allowed themselves to be put through this kind of treatment because to them, it meant that they would still be allowed to continue working and not lose their job. Losing one’s job during this time was difficult to face because many of these immigrant women had no other choice but to continue working hard for their families. New women would be enslaved into working and if the women were to speak up about what they were going through, then they would unfortunately be fired. During this time, there was no sexual discrimination laws around the work environment. In some cases, it was difficult for women to find jobs in the first place. An example of this would be Teta Elzbieta who resorted to begging for money after not being able to work for jobs that “she was compelled to do.” (Chp.14)
Three examples of corruption that Jurgis experienced when he arrived with his family as an immigrant would be the corrupt bosses, interest on the house, and “professional swindlers”. Jurgis working for Mike Scully meant he needed to be around a crooked and corrupt millionaire who rigged any next municipal election. Interest on the house started to go up because of the real estate agent and lawyer lying to the family. Expenses for the house was unbelievable. Monthly price became much higher than they had realized. Their lawyer lied to the family by not letting them know about their own agreement, which lead to the eviction of family. Besides those two, Jurgis also met “professional swindlers”, people who have a home and families that begged for money when they did not need it.
Sinclair’s solution to society’s problems in Chicago and in other corrupt working environments was to exploit them and their poor working conditions that they had people of the lower class working. This novel sold to large numbers of people, making it well-known. However, his message was not effective at first because society was more angry at the fact that the food they were eating had diseases and were unsafe, rather than worrying about what the employees had to deal with. New federal food laws led to new inspections being placed across industries in order to stop “bad” meat from being sent out for the public to eat. Sinclair’s message was effective overall because it opened eyes across the globe and led to safe food conditions, rather then let these type of work environments continue to work with unsanitary foods and putting people through hard labor like in the novel.
Some of the decisions that Jurgis makes are confronting Ona’s boss who raped her, becoming an alcoholic when things became difficult, going to jail and finding out about the criminal world of Chicago, and forgetting about the importance of his family. Some of the events that were done by Jurgis are understandable. The working conditions defeated the real Jurgis, whom was strong, idealistic, and hopeful. He lost all hope after having nothing left from his family and the living situation that turned his whole life upside down. Everything that happened to Jurgis made him a more sympathetic person.
Although Upton Sinclair made this novel fictional, it showed many strengths and weaknesses that many immigrants faced coming and working in the United States. Some strengths they went through was working hard in these hard, corrupted jobs to maintain their families. This novel also showed readers how it is and was not easy being able to live during the rise of the industry in the 1900’s. Poor and unsafe working conditions made living the “American Dream” hard to even hope for. Sinclair’s novel was well organized and a helpful book for many to get a better understanding of what struggles immigrants faced in the past, as well as the similar struggles they may face today.
- “THE JUNGLE” The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, 4 November 1905, www.gutenberg.org/files/140/140-h.htm