The Jungle is, arguably, one of the most important books in American history. Much has been written on its significance for the pure food movement, on its author, Upton Sinclairís, constant involvement with Socialism and other reform movements, on his witty observation that, with The Jungle, he tried to strike America in the heart and instead hit it in the stomach. The sheer towering historical importance of The Jungle as historical artifact has made it almost impossible to talk about the book itself. And thatís a shame, because The Jungle, apart from the outrage that followed it, the sensational life of its author, or any of the other historical lectures that accompany its mention, is one heck of a story.
It begins where many stories end, with a wedding. Jurgis and Ona Rudkus, two recent immigrants to Chicago, are being married in the style of their Lithuanian homeland. Itís a festive beginning, even as itís made plain that Jurgis, Ona, and all their neighbors are desperately poor; not a penny of the feast passes by without being accounted for, and the wedding party ends not with thoughts for the honeymoon but with worries over whether frail Ona will be able to work the next day after all the partying.
In fact she canít, and from that point the disintegration of Jurgisí family begins. Told both in flashback and in painfully advancing present, Jurgis, Ona, and their extended family struggle to work their way to the American dream. Along the way theyíre cheated, robbed, beaten, jailed, and defrauded by means legal and not. Ignorant of the legal protections of their new country and in truth not having many defenses, theyíre put through inhuman working schedules, denied food and utilities, and forced to send their children into the streets for work. Through it all, the family keeps working, believing in the American way with a heartbreaking faith-- until a crime too great to ignore shatters the household. From that point on, no amount of redemptive work can help repair the damage; frail Ona dies, the children sicken, Jurgisí old father fails, and Jurgis himself slowly weakens until he can no longer keep up with the grueling work schedules set in his meatpacking job. Itís a riveting portrayal of one familyís destruction, made more painful by the knowledge that, for its time, and for too many families today, it was fairly typical.
The Jungle isnít perfect. Upton Sinclair himself--and seemingly every reader since-- struggled with the ending. Having followed Jurgisí logical, almost unstoppable descent into financial, physical and moral ruin, Sinclair apparently found it impossible to end the story on such a dark note. The resulting ending has Jurgis turn his life around when he walks into a socialist meeting; and not only does socialism save his life, but an extra and frankly dull lecture on the imminent salvation of the worker through socialism promises hope for all the toiling masses reading at the time. Since socialism and industrialism alike were fairly new in 1905, Sinclair can be forgiven a certain amount of political naivetť; but the art of the novel was well established, and he should have known better than to muffle his ending.
Weak ending notwithstanding, The Jungle remains one of the most powerful American novels. More readable than Uncle Tomís Cabin and more relevant than Huckleberry Finn, itís a socially motivated story worth reading for itself and still-- sadly-- relevant to the issues of the day.