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Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Urban Geography The Jungle, an impactful novel by Upton Sinclair, details the

struggles of urban life in the early twentieth century. Sinclair, a self-proclaimed socialist, aimed to bolster awareness of the plight of poor and middle-class workers. However, the reaction to this 1906 novel was a great concern with the sanitation and safety of the American meatpacking industry. Because the novel mostly takes place in Chicago, the urban form and its causes play an important role in this work. The story follows the life of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian man that immigrated to Chicago with members of his family, his fiancé, and his fiancé’s family. After finding a job and buying a home for everyone to live in Jurgis decides to finally marry his fiancé, Ona. Though they have not been in the country for long at this point they are already in a very poor financial situation. They are in a lot of debt from the wedding because those that attended did not follow the Lithuanian tradition of leaving money to pay for it. Also, despite the poor condition of their house, they are forced to pay high interest costs or face eviction. They were not able to determine that it was a poor deal because they could not understand English very well. At this point the large family must live off of the salaries of only Jurgis, and Ona who births a baby boy. Jurgis, the main source of income for the family, is injured on the job and he cannot work or bring in any money for months. Several of the children are forced to work to help support the family. Everyone in the family plays a part in maintaining the whole, either working or maintaining the house. Ona becomes pregnant once again. Jurgis is forced to work at a fertilizer company that has very poor health standards. His health deteriorates and he begins to struggle with alcoholism. One night it is revealed that Ona’s boss has been raping her so Jurgis heads off

to hurt him, resulting in jail time. While he is in jail his family begins to starve because everyone is losing their jobs and Ona is unable to work. Ona dies during the birth of her child and the child dies as well because they could not afford a doctor. Jurgis’ only son dies by drowning in a mud puddle in the streets. Jurgis loses all hope and eventually leaves Chicago to find that it is hard to get a good job anywhere. He turns to a life of crime with an old friend from prison. He finally begins making money by working for a corrupt politician but it is all taken away when he is sent to jail for attacking his previous enemy again. He finally ends up getting involved in socialist politics which promises equality and an economic system owned by the workers. His political connections get him a job in a hotel. Though his family troubles are not solved and he has undergone extreme suffering, he finds a new hope in life in supporting the cause of socialism. Sinclair makes a very strong case for socialism. He creates a strong disdain for the capitalist system by outlining injustices and negligence due to greed. Jurgis and his family immigrated to the United States to start a new and better life but everything that happened from the very beginning made the experience the opposite of their expectations. They were expecting freedom and the ability to find success in hard work and ingenuity. But the employers’ lack of concern for the workers forced the family into a system of wage slavery. Corruption of power is another prominent force that convinces readers to support socialism. The Republican and Democratic parties would buy and trade elections and their only threat was the growing socialist movement. At one point Jurgis works for a political machine to convince workers to vote for a specific candidate. His involvement in the corruption did not allow for union support so he had to go against his own ideologies to make money that he eventually lost

anyway. In the last chapter the socialist leaders present explicit and logical pro-socialist arguments that seem effective in convincing the reader to adopt their beliefs. Common concerns about socialism are brought up and discussed. It is argued that unsafe work will disappear because workers will have a choice in where they work and the work would have to be safe to attract workers. And it is emphasized that workers would have the power in a socialist society. This is a particularly convincing idea after reading about intense suffering and blatant injustices in an industrially centralized, capitalist city. The setting of The Jungle, early twentieth century Chicago, is one of the most important factors in the novel. Because Homer Hoyt’s sector model was based on Chicago’s urban social structure, we can examine that Jurgis and his family most likely lived in the low-income sector near the industrial part of the city. The people living in these areas generally could not afford public transportation so they had to live close to their work. These areas were characterized by poor infrastructure, dense populations, and limited services. It may have also been that they were segregated into an immigrant district. Their neighbor at the beginning of the book was also from Lithuania. Sinclair made sure to emphasize the great struggles of many immigrants in American cities. Most of the depictions about low-income urban life and work in the meatpacking industry are accurate. Upton Sinclair spent two months working in the stockyards in order to see what things were really like within the industry. He talked to many workers and experienced the city firsthand. The injustice and harsh conditions that he witnessed inspired the novel. He was hoping that the novel would start a pro-socialist social movement. Although he was able to convert some readers to socialism, people focused on the lack of sanitation and standards in the meatpacking industry. He detailed great numbers of rats, diseases, and even

people falling into the machinery and being processed into the meats. In reaction, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Sinclair was disappointed by the overall reaction, saying, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Although Upton Sinclair’s novel did not result in greater urban equality and socialism it did bring about positive change. This was a period in American history in which many industries were not regulated and corruption was very common. Sinclair helped to inspire a new wave of “muckraker” journalism that worked to reveal and fix many problems across the United States. Other issues such as child labor, unemployment benefits, workers compensation, workplace safety, and predatory lending practices were also brought to light in The Jungle. The novel is a valuable read for anyone despite the specific political agenda that is prominent. It delivers an intimate look at life in an early twentieth century slum and the everyday challenges that the poor faced. Many of the shocking challenges that the poor faced in this novel still exist today, especially in less developed countries. When there is little to no regulation or enforcement, some companies will underpay workers and make great profits at their expense. This has a great impact on the urban form. Cities can be consumed by slums and industry. Then they are viewed as an unfavorable place to live which can possibly cause “white flight” and urban sprawl. It is clear that negative implementation of capitalism can result in powerful effects.

Bibliography Blackwell, Jon. "1906: Rumble Over 'The Jungle'" The Capital Century. The Trentonian. Web. 25 Nov. 2011. <>. "New Deal Critic: Upton Sinclair." Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Web. 25 Nov. 2011. <>. Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.