Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair–An Examination of Chicago’s Packingtown

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair The Jungle Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair–An Examination of Chicago’s Packingtown The Jungle by Upton Sinclair 187x300Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, investigates the meatpacking industry of early 20th Century Chicago.  The health issues of the meatpacking employees, the less than desirable working conditions, and the inhumane treatment of the animals were scrutinized by Sinclair.  The Darwinian idea of the “survival of the fittest” is evident in the hierarchy of Packingtown—from the Beef Trust and rich company heads to the immigrant employees to the cattle and hogs on the killing bed.

New immigrants like Jurgis Rudkus believed America was supposed to be a land of plenty, a land where dreams came true.  After hearing that a fellow Lithuanian had “gotten rich” in the stockyards of Chicago, Jurgis with family in tow set out from New York to seek his fortune in Chicago (Sinclair, p. 34). The ruthless world of the stockyards was something to behold!  Over 200 miles of track wove throughout the yards bringing in tens of thousands of cattle, hogs and sheep (Sinclair, p. 36).  The stream of these creatures for consumption was a constant flow, never a slow trickle; and it was “uncanny to watch them, pressing on to their Fate all unsuspicious—a very river of death” (Sinclair, p. 36).

Hog after hog hoisted by chains wrapped around their kicking legs , squealing in protest were paid little notice as the men silt their throats and released them into large scalding baths (Sinclair, p. 38).  It was just business as usual for the workers.  Or was it?  Hog slaughter could very well make the “most matter-of-fact person” question the humanity of it all (Sinclair, p. 38).   The hogs were “so innocent, they came so very trustingly, and they were so very human in their protests—and so perfectly within their rights,” (Sinclair p. 38)! The very first sight of this gave Jurgis pause to think, “’Dieve’—but I’m glad I’m not a hog,” (Sinclair p. 38).  Eventually, Jurgis would find out that he too would be overly trusting; he too would protest; and he too would succumb to fate.

Every room in the slaughterhouse operated like a fine-tuned machine.  The cattle room had lines of men each doing a specific task that was performed in sync with others in an assembly line fashion (Sinclair, p. 42).  The cattle were first driven into a small pen with no room to move and with a very slim chance for escape (Sinclair, p. 42).  “Knockers” watched for the opportunity to strike the debilitating, but not deadly, blow (Sinclair, p. 42).   Like the hogs, the cattle were shackled and jerked into the air on a trolley system to move on to the butcher to be bled and again onto the “headsman” who removed the cows head (Sinclair, p. 43).  “Floors men” cut open the skin while others finished the job; until finally the splitters opened the carcasses and others scraped the hides (Sinclair, p. 43).  In the world of The Jungle, it was kill or be killed.  The animals were killed.  The workers did the killing efficiently or else face job termination.  Man triumphs over animal in a terrible display of an industrial predator versus helpless prey!

As an entry-level employee, Jurgis was shocked to hear that many of the other men and women hated their jobs in Packingtown (Sinclair, p. 63).  One reason for the hatred was the “speeding up” of the line because men were forced to keep the pace and this pace was murder (Sinclair, p. 64).  Jurgis boasted of his strength and ability as a worker and said “…if they couldn’t do it, let them go somewhere else” (Sinclair, p. 64).  At this point, he just didn’t comprehend that this business was brutal with every common man fending for himself with no one to “listen to him holler” (Sinclair, p. 64).

In the animal kingdom, the elderly, weak, and sick are picked off by predators first because they cannot keep up with herd.  Antanas Rudkus, Jurgis’ father, had worked much of his life in Lithuania, but had found it very difficult to obtain work in America (Sinclair, p. 64).  Despair set in with each refusal.  He became “worn in soul and body, and with no more place in the world than a sick dog “ (Sinclair, p. 64).  When he finally secured a job, a man swindled 1/3 of his pay for getting him the job (Sinclair, p. 65).  This selfish and greedy individual who may or may not have been a boss with the company preyed upon Antanas.   The job in the cold, wet pickling room eventually lead to Antanas getting very ill and having to quit.   Quite the twist on picking off the elderly of the herd!

Other family members like Marija gained employment because of another before her had been ill, and the job forelady had her standards “and could not stop for the sick” (Sinclair, p. 68).  Young Jonas, another kin to Jurgis, landed his job for more drastic reasons.  His predecessor was accidentally crushed to death by a truck (Sinclair, p. 68).  Many more men and women in Packingtown, Chicago found employment through the misfortunate of others in the industry.

Conditions inside the slaughterhouses and packing facilities were always unsavory.  Winters were particularly harsh on the workers in Packingtown.  Unheated facilities, frozen blood on everything, and cold, numb fingers were commonplace and often lead to accidents and illness (Sinclair, p. 89).  Steam rising from the hot water jets and from fresh animal blood caused low visibility, making conditions even more unsafe (Sinclair, p. 89).  Both accidents and illnesses usually meant someone else would take your job.

Further, no matter what time of year it happened to be, it was a constant struggle for the workers to get paid fairly for the day’s work.  Unionization became somewhat of a declaration of war on the bosses (Sinclair, p. 98).  Joining a union was a mentally liberating experience for Jurgis and others like him.  Yet several times throughout the course of The Jungle, the cunningness and manipulation of the bosses and the Beef Trust kept any changes short lived or made it extremely difficult to start back at work again in the company after employees went on strike.  Insubordination of any kind could get a person fired as well as blacklisted which made it next to impossible to find another job in the meatpacking industry. This really was a dog-eat- dog kind of environment.

Yes, my dear reader, it is a “jungle out there”; unless of course you are at the top of the hierarchal tier (i.e. owners of the companies).  While owners live in swank estates with paved streets and grand gardens, workers lived in slums lined with dangerous ditches and the only green grass they might see is in front of the office at the packing plant.   Owners eat and drink what they please; workers struggle to find food each and every day.     Owners have the money that the workers must literally work their fingers to the bone to maybe receive partial payment.  This definitely paints a bleak picture. It still resonates true today with the widening gap between the haves and the have not’s in America.

Finally, whether you are one of the many animals on the killing bed or the struggling immigrant workers in the slaughterhouse these song lyrics summarize The Jungle perfectly:

“Welcome to the jungle it gets worse here every day
You learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play
If you hunger for what you see you’ll take it eventually
You can have everything you want but you better not take it from me.

In the jungle, welcome to the jungle
Watch it bring you to your knees, knees
I want to watch you bleed!” *

*Guns N’Roses. “Welcome to the Jungle.” Appetite for Destruction. By Axl Rose & Slash. 1987. record.

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