The Jungle by Upton Sinclair: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
In this lesson you'll learn about Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle. We'll discuss the book's muckraking origins and see why it's an examination of working conditions in early 20th century America.

A Bright Horizon…Or Not?

If you've ever seen a horror movie, you probably know what takes place after the killer finds a victim. There's screams, blood, death, and fear to spare. Upton Sinclair's 'muckraking' 1906 novel, The Jungle, has all of these aspects, but it is no piece of horror fiction. Instead, it's a sensationalized look at the meatpacking industry of Chicago in the early 20th century. It focuses on an immigrant family that cannot catch a break within the confines of factory life, and their struggle to live their idea of the American Dream.

The Cover of The Jungle
Cover of The Jungle

Capitalism Kills: Summary of The Jungle

The story begins at the wedding of Jurgis and Ona. The Lithuanian immigrants at the wedding are excited at the prospect of working and providing for their large family. None of the guests, who are also poor immigrants, leave money toward the large reception at the saloon, and the couple soon finds that they owe a great deal of money for the party. Jurgis optimistically says that he will work hard to pay for it, and begins to search for work in Packingtown, the meatpacking area of Chicago where most of the immigrants live and work.

Jurgis's new job is disgusting and harsh, but various members of the family, including Ona's cousin, Marija, and her step-uncle, Jonas, join Jurgis in getting jobs. Ona's stepmother, Teta Elzbieta, stays at home to care for the family. The family buys a dilapidated house that they cannot really afford, and more family members, including Jurgis's father, Dede Antanas, must find work to keep up with expenses. The harsh conditions lead to the death of Antanas.

The conditions worsen significantly when winter sets in, and Jurgis must work in a freezing, disgusting slaughterhouse where he risks his life daily. Marija is in love with a violinist, but cannot save the money for them to marry. She also loses her job when her factory closes. She finds another job, but is fired when she protests her pay being stolen. Jurgis begins to examine the idea of the unions, and attempts to learn English in order to help the family. Ona gives birth to the couple's first child. He is a bright spot for the couple, who name him after Jurgis's father. Ona only receives seven days off following the birth.

Things get worse when Jurgis sprains his ankle because of poor conditions at the slaughterhouse, and is unable to work for months. Jonas abandons the family, and Teta Elzbieta's youngest son dies of food poisoning. When Jurgis recovers, he discovers that he will not receive his job back, and is forced to work in the fertilizer plant. Because of this, he begins drinking. Ona gets pregnant again, and does not come home one night from work. She had been forced to sleep with her boss, Phil Connor, or lose her job. Jurgis is enraged, attacks Connor, and is sentenced to a month in jail. Jurgis meets a criminal named Jack Duane in prison.

After his release, Jurgis finds out that his family has been evicted from their home, and are back in the boardinghouse they began in. After he arrives, he discovers Ona in premature labor, and she and the baby both die. Jurgis cannot take this latest pain, and he goes on a drinking bender.

Teta Elzbieta finally convinces Jurgis to quit drinking, and to think of the son he has left. With some help, he finds a job at a steel mill, and takes care of Antanas. This all falls apart, however, when Antanas drowns in the muddy streets of Chicago. This breaks Jurgis completely, and he abandons the rest of the family to travel as a tramp.

Jurgis returns to Chicago and works diggings tunnels, but is injured, and has to go to the hospital. He then cannot find work again, and begs for money. A wealthy young man gives him a hundred dollar bill, and when he goes to change it, he is cheated out of the money by a bartender. He fights the bartender and is sent back to prison, where he again finds Jack Duane.

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