Before the publication of The Jungle, Sinclair commented in the Appeal, a Socialist journal, that his novel would “set forth the breaking of human hearts by a system which exploits the labor of men and women for profits. It will shake the popular heart and blow the roof off the industrial tea-kettle.” Critics have generally viewed his success in this plan as at least as mixed as his metaphor. Breaking human hearts requires more skill in characterization than Sinclair possessed, but in blowing roofs he succeeded most admirably. Concerned with all the evils suffered by wage earners under a capitalistic system and what he saw as the certain lessening of those evils under socialism, Sinclair picked as his subject an industry to whose callousness and dangers the public had already been alerted by several previous investigators. The thought that the canned meat products they regularly consumed might contain rat parts proved of more immediate concern to most readers than the adventures of a fictional Lithuanian immigrant. Sinclair himself later remarked that the packing house episodes quite took over the novel and moved the setting into position as a central theme. In effect, the reader’s turning stomach overshadows the protagonist’s breaking heart, and Sinclair is left to insert the idea of “salvation through socialism” unconvincingly into the book’s didactic closing chapters. Still, Sinclair’s novel fired at many targets in the jungle of social ills, and that it scored even one direct hit that resulted in significant reform entitles it to its respected place in the canon of American literature.
The Jungle chronicles the experiences of a Lithuanian family that immigrates to Chicago in search of wealth. At first enamored of capitalism and confident of his ability to ride this system in pursuit of the American dream, Jurgis Rudkus gradually realizes that control rests not with the individual but with an economic system directed by a very few people. This discovery ultimately points Jurgis toward the Socialist movement and the development of a new sense of hope. Displaying a journalist’s eye for precise detail, Sinclair depicts the many catastrophes that befall his protagonist and the unfortunate members of the Rudkus family: the family is swindled into buying a ramshackle house that is later repossessed; Old Antanas, Jurgis’s father, dies of consumption brought on by squalid working conditions; Jurgis’s wife Ona is driven into prostitution and later dies during childbirth; and Jurgis and Ona’s only child drowns. Yet only occasionally does Sinclair’s novel capture a sense of real human life. For the most part, the characters are passive rather than active, existing merely as tangible evidence of the powerful existence of an abstraction, the capitalistic system. Jurgis’s abrupt conversion to socialism, introduced by Sinclair’s excessive moralizing, further undermines the believability of his character. In the end, The Jungle teaches very little about the human character; it reveals a great deal, however, about the societal forces that affect character.