The Jungle looks at the meatpacking industry in the United States during the early 20th century.
The novel depicts an immigrant family’s struggles as they try to make a success of their lives in America while depending on the industry for their employment.
This was partly in response to the impact Sinclair’s book had upon the population as it detailed the exploitation and shocking standards that were present in meat-packing factories across the country.
My The Jungle summary discusses this powerful book that rams home the importance of workers rights and regulations regarding food. If left unchecked, workers will be worked until they can be worked no more, and the food the population consumes is liable to contain anything.
The book is a powerful lesson in what can happen if capitalism is left unchecked. Profits come before the welfare of the people that underpin these industries.
Sinclair’s vision for the book was that it would usher in an era of Socialism in the United States, but his message fell short. Readers were more concerned with the description of the conditions at the meatpacking factories than they were with the book’s message about Socialism.
Sinclair himself remarked on this: “I aimed for the public’s heart, but I hit him in their stomach.”
Still, The Jungle is an eye-opening book which describes a world very different from the one we inhabit today.
It shows how far we’ve come from the exploitative practices used back then, but the similarities that still remain.
Think Uber drivers, Amazon fulfilment centre workers and consider whether the situation is similar once you’ve read the book.
The Jungle summary
- 1 sentence summary: The Jungle portrays the harsh conditions and the exploitation of immigrants in early twentieth-century America through the prism of the meatpacking industry.
- Author: Upton Sinclair
- Pages: 413
- Year published: 1906
- Rating: 7/10
Takeaway 1 – Unfettered capitalism exploits people
The Jungle is a cautionary tale about the excesses of capitalism. Back in the early 20th century, workers had little to no protection, the conditions they worked in were atrocious and those that they lived in were no better.
If we want a society that works for everyone and not just for those at the top, we have to take care of those at the bottom first. We shouldn’t treat each other like trash and toss people out when we have no more use for them.
This is what happens to the protagonist of the novel, Jurgis. When he first arrives in America he’s a strong young man who has no trouble finding work.
Initially, he looks on those who complain or don’t work as hard as he does with disdain. If he can work this hard then so can they is the philosophy Jurgis adheres to.
Partway into the book, Jurgis injures himself at work and has to rest to recuperate. With no sickness policy to cover him, he’s out of work and now at the back of the line when it comes to looking for work.
Once recovered, he goes to his old workplace to get his job back. But the bosses who once lauded him, now look at him as damaged goods.
He ends up going from job to job as he tries to make ends meet for himself ad his family.
This is what life was like during the early part of the twentieth century in America. Without a social security net, workers who found themselves unable to work for whatever reason were left to fend for themselves.
Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine highlights the worst excesses of capitalism. If it’s not kept in check by laws and an active state, those who wield power will exploit those who don’t.
Takeaway 2 – Regulation is necessary
Regulation is necessary for any society. There is a fundamental argument that regulation hinders capitalism, but the Jungle lays bear the fallacy in that argument.
Without regulation and strict laws, we become engaged in a race to the bottom. Living and working conditions worsen, which will lead to poorer economic output.
Without tight regulations, people are at the mercy of those in power and big corporations.
In The Jungle, the practices in the workplaces aren’t safe. Anything goes. The lives of workers are of little consideration. All that matters is that the company makes money.
Regulation keeps the excesses of society in check. A modern analogy is speed limits. If there were no speed limits, accidents and deaths would shoot up.
The argument against speed limits would be we should leave it up to people’s common sense to decide how fast they should drive.
Human experience and studies, such as those mentioned in Thinking, Fast and Slow, show that common sense isn’t as common as we think.
Without regulation, we’d quickly descend into chaos.
Takeaway 3 – Hard work alone will not make you successful
Hard work in itself is not enough to be successful. Jurgis is adamant that all he needs to provide for his family is to work.
As the novel progresses, a series of mishaps befall his family. Despite this, Jurgis is resolute in his thinking, not only will he continue to work, but he will work harder than before.
While this is a novel sentiment, it doesn’t get him very far when he gets injured and cannot work, and family slips further into poverty.
Hard work is a prerequisite if you want to be successful, but it does not guarantee success. For that, you need to work smart too.
Anyone can work hard, but if that work isn’t directed then it can lead to nothing.
This is what happens to Jurgis. He works as hard as he can during his first few months in his job to make an impression on his boss. Which he does.
However, all his hard work doesn’t pay off. When he gets injured, he’s let go and has nothing to show for all the graft he’s put in.
This is what can happen in our lives too. I worked in Bullshit Jobs in administration and realised I was easily replaceable.
No matter how hard I worked, I was unlikely to receive a promotion or a pay rise. The incentive to bust a gut was low.
Whereas working on my travel blog when I came home was much more appealing. It was a way out of my office job and the goal meant I worked hard and smart to achieve it.
- “The rich people not only had all the money, they had all the chance to get more; they had all the knowledge and the power, and so the poor man was down, and he had to stay down.”
- “If we are the greatest nation the sun ever shone upon, it would seem to be mainly because we have been able to goad our wage-earners to this pitch of frenzy.”
- “They were trying to save their souls- and who but a fool could fail to see that all that was the matter with their souls was that they had not been able to get a decent existence for their bodies?”
- “This was in truth not living; it was scarcely even existing, and they felt that it was too little for the price they paid. They were willing to work all the time; and when people did their best, ought they not to be able to keep alive?”
- “When he came home that night he was in a very sombre mood, having begun to see at last how those might be right who had laughed at him for his faith in America.”
The Jungle review
My The Jungle summary has looked at Upton Sinclair’s famous book on the meatpacking industry.
I had wanted to read this book for a while before I got my hands on it and I wasn’t disappointed.
Written in 1906, it’s a damning account of the conditions of the time in the land of the free.
What is described in the novel is harrowing. It’s hard to believe these were the conditions people lived under just over one hundred years ago.
Plenty can be improved today, but compared to the conditions Sinclair describes, it’s like we inhabit different worlds!
I enjoyed the book and the storyline is fantastic. The early parts of the book are mesmerising as Sinclair describes the travails of the family as they emigrate from Lithuania to America.
Where the book falls down is in the conclusion. I felt the conclusion was lightweight and didn’t hold the brilliance of the opening part of the book.
It turns into one long advertisement for Socialism, which is no surprise when you continue Sinclair was a member of the American Socialist party himself.
Aside from this, the book is an absorbing read and if you’ll be entertained and learn about the past and why we live the way we do today.
Who should read The Jungle?
Anyone who advocates for low regulation should read this book. The horrors of such a system are exposed by Sinclair.
His description of the meatpacking industry presents it as the wild west, which was not far from the truth.
If you want to gain a deeper understanding of what life was like for immigrants in early twentieth-century America, The Jungle is a brilliant read.