Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

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The author and his research team present the findings of their five-year study in The Jungle. Public companies that had achieved sustained success after years of mediocre performance were identified and the factors that made them different from their lacklustre competitors were pinpointed.

Several key concepts regarding leadership, culture and strategic management have been distilled from these factors.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Plot Summary

A turn-of-the-century immigrant to Chicago is converted to socialism after struggling in vain to make a life for himself and his family.

Chapter 1 (The Wedding) 

Jurgis Rudkus and Ona Lukoszaite are Lithuanian immigrants who have come to America at the turn of the century in search of a better life. The bursts of joy that color their wedding feast do little to dispel the general air of poverty in the stockyard district of Packingtown, a Chicago neighborhood. 

Old-world values clash with new-world realities as many guests fail to honor the tradition of contributing to the cost of the celebration; sharing and cooperation have given way to greed and competition. Jurgis attempts to ease his family’s despair by repeating, “I will work harder.”

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Chapters 2–6 (Flashback) 

The narrator reveals that Jurgis was born and raised in the Lithuanian wilderness. A year and a half before the novel begins, Jurgis had met Ona at a horse fair. When her family undertook to follow the lead of Jokubas Szedvilas, a friend who had “gotten rich” running a delicatessen in Packingtown, Jurgis decided to join them. 

After losing most of their money in the course of the journey, when an agent swindled them, they arrived in Chicago and obtained temporary lodging at a filthy rooming house run by Aniele Jukniene. Jokubas took the group on a tour of the packinghouses, where 10,000 head of cattle were processed daily. 

They were impressed by the mechanical efficiency of the operation. But Jurgis, who had easily obtained a job because of his good health and uncommon strength, failed to understand the system of ruthless competition on which the packing industry was based.

Ona’s uncle Jonas and cousin Marija also got jobs, but Jurgis’s father, Dede Antanas, had difficulties that convinced the immigrants that respect for age was not the same in America as in the old country. 

Flushed with financial promise, they set goals for learning English and sending the children to school. After buying a “new” house they had seen advertised on a circular, they discovered that the house was not new and would require repairs. Ona was forced to seek employment, as was her son, Stanislovas, who joined the 1.75 million underage children laborers. 

At work, Jurgis discovered that slow workers were quickly fired. Nonetheless, he had no sympathy for the union movement; he preferred self-reliance.

Chapters 7–15 (Troubles For The Family) 

Once they have saved enough money, Jurgis and Ona get married (the flashback has now ended and the story continues from where it left off at the end of Chapter 1). 

As winter strikes, Stanislovas acquires a fear of the cold and snow. Old Antanas, who has been working in a dark, unheated cellar, dies of consumption (tuberculosis). The practice of drinking alcohol as a way of escaping Packingtown’s harsh realities becomes even more common as warm saloons offer free hot meals with the purchase of drinks. 

Marija is courted by Tomaszius, but just when they feel they can afford to marry, they are both laid off. The family begin to view the labor union as a “new religion” among “brothers in affliction.” It is clear to them that Mike Scully, the Democratic “boss” of the district, has great political clout.

Before long, Jurgis learns English and becomes a citizen. Home repairs become frequent and interest payments are steeper than they had planned for. In the summer, Marija returns to work, but is fired soon afterward. 

Ona gives birth to a son, Antanas, and discovers that sexual abuse of women is widespread in the packinghouses. Economic stability seems once again within their grasp until Jurgis is injured and loses his job. No longer a prime physical specimen, he has great difficulty finding employment and finally has to work at the fertilizer plant, the lowest form of employment in the packing industry.

When Jonas deserts the family, two more of the children have to leave school and are quickly exposed to the immoral conditions of street life as they peddle newspapers. Ona’s stepmother, Elzbieta, also finds work—in a sausage factory.

Through various jobs, the family learns of numerous industry shortcuts and swindles, including the processing of dead rats, rat dung, and poisoned bait along with the other ingredients in sausage. Elzbieta’s son Kristoforas dies, perhaps from eating contaminated meat. 

Jurgis turns to drink and Ona nearly goes mad when she becomes ill during her second pregnancy and suffers fits of hysteria. Ona and Jurgis begin to mistrust each other, and on two occasions, she fails to return home at night. Jurgis learns that Connor, the boss of a loading gang in her factory, has forced her into having sex as a way of maintaining her job. Wild with rage, Jurgis attacks the Irishman.

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Chapters 16–17 (Jurgis’s First Trip to Jail) 

Jurgis is arrested and taken to jail, where the injustices of the legal system become apparent to him. He meets Jack Duane, a safecracker whose notion of a war between himself and society suggests the theory of the social origin of crime. During Jurgis’s 30-day incarceration the family have severe financial troubles: they must survive without his wages and without Ona’s, who has been fired.

Chapters 18–21 (More Trouble) 

Jurgis gets out of jail and finds that the family have lost their house. He locates them at Aniele’s boarding house and discovers that Ona is in difficult labor up in the unfinished attic. Jurgis hurries to locate a midwife, Madame Haupt, but she wastes time haggling about conditions. Both Ona and the baby die. In his despair, Jurgis turns to drink, but Elzbieta convinces him to pull himself together for the sake of his son.

Blacklisted and unable to find a job in Packingtown, he takes a position in a downtown Harvester Trust factory. However, the factory soon shuts down.

His family come to depend on the pittance earned by the children selling papers; they feed themselves by digging for scraps of food in the dump. Finally, a tenement worker takes pity on them and finds Jurgis a job in the steel mills, where he burns his hand helping a coworker injured in an explosion. 

He recovers and is beginning to feel hopeful again, when he returns from work one evening to find his son has drowned in one of the filthy pools of water dotting the neighborhood.

Chapter 22 (The Country) 

Jurgis abandons his family and jumps a train out of the city to be “free.” Arriving in the pleasant countryside, he bathes for the first time since leaving Lithuania. His youth and healthful vigor begin to return and give him strength to do battle with the world. 

He occasionally links up with groups of other tramps and eventually joins a harvest crew. He spends his earnings on drink and debauchery but is haunted by memories of the past.

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Chapters 23–24 (Winter Woes) 

With the onset of colder weather, Jurgis returns to Chicago and gets a job digging underground tunnels—apparently for telephone lines but, as he later learns, actually for a rail system designed to undermine the power of the teamsters’ union. When he suffers another industrial accident and is again unable to work, he becomes a beggar.

One evening, Jurgis meets a young drunkard who befriends him and invites him home to supper at his Lakeshore Drive mansion. Jurgis is given $100 to pay cab fare, but keeps it when a servant pays the cabbie. 

The young man turns out to be Freddie Jones, son of a Beef Trust magnate, and through him Jurgis sees at first hand the wealth amassed at the expense of the Packingtown workers. When Freddie falls sleep, Jurgis is kicked out of the house by a servant, but manages to retain the $100.

Chapters 25–26 (Crime and Politics) 

When he tries to make change for the money in a saloon, the bartender cheats him, and a fight ensues. Jurgis is arrested and sentenced to 10 days in jail, where again he encounters Jack Duane.

Through Duane he learns that there are Racing and Poolroom Trusts which are even more powerful than the Beef Trust; he comes to understand the “army of graft” that enables a small but powerful group of businessmen to rule the city.

He is introduced to Buck Halloran, a worker in Mike Scully’s Democratic Party organization. Jurgis turns from street crime to politics, and under Scully’s protection, returns to Packingtown—ostensibly to work as a hog killer, but actually to participate in an election scam orchestrated by Scully. He soon becomes part of the system of graft.

When the great beef strike erupts, Jurgis works as a scab and eventually becomes a boss over the newest generation of Packingtown slaves—Southern blacks and “the lowest foreigners.” He occasionally wears a linen collar and greasy necktie, befitting his position; however, his prestige and prosperity are short-lived, for he runs into Connor, attacks him again, and ends up in jail.

Jurgis’s connections with Bush Harper, Scully’s right-hand man, are not enough to get him off, since Connor has too much pull with Scully. So it is arranged for him to buy his way out of jail with the last of his savings and then skip bail. Once again, Jurgis returns to begging.

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Chapters 27–28 (Renewing Family Ties) 

Since habits of prosperity are hard to forget, Jurgis finds the life of a tramp more difficult than ever. One evening, to escape the cold, he attends a political rally, but is kicked out when the warmth makes him fall asleep. In the street, he runs into a former acquaintance who tells him where Marija can be found. 

In the year since he left Packingtown to go to the country, she has become a prostitute. When he goes to find her, he gets caught in a police raid. Sent to jail for the night, he is haunted by memories of the past. 

From Marija he learns that Stanislovas was eaten alive by rats. She reveals that she is taking morphine and that drug addiction is a widespread means of holding women in the prostitution trade. Jurgis returns to the political hall and this time hears a speaker who greatly moves him by

depicting the risks of being human.

Chapters 29–31 (Socialism) 

The speaker’s language gives Jurgis a great sense of freedom: “He was free, he was free.” After learning that the man had been talking of socialism, Jurgis is introduced to a “comrade” who explains the workings of the Beef Trust (greed and price-fixing) and the basics of socialism.

Jurgis learns three things: that political freedom is meaningless under the current competitive wage system; that class consciousness is necessary because the capitalists and the proletariat (workers) are engaged in a struggle for survival; that the Socialist movement is international, and that socialism is a “new religion” for humanity.

Jurgis is quickly converted to socialism. He renews contact with Elzbieta and decides to stick by the family despite their problems. He gets a hotel job working for the Socialist Tommy Hinds, under whose guidance he furthers his political education. 

One evening, Jurgis attends a meeting at the house of a millionaire Socialist where he hears the Swedish professor and philosophic anarchist Herr Doctor Schliemann, who debated fiercely with Mr. Lucas, a religious zealot. 

Schliemann outlines the underlying principles of socialism (common ownership and the organization of wage earners into labor unions) and describes the wastes of competition, the endless worry in the lives of workers, the law and its machinery of repression, and the unproductive and frivolous rich who prey on the poor. 

The day after this discussion, election results (1904) show substantial gains for the Socialists. Jurgis attends a party gathering where an orator’s impassioned statements lead to the final hopeful cry: “Chicago will be ours!”

Key Characters

Jurgis Rudkus: Lithuanian immigrant and packinghouse worker who loses his health, job, and family due to exploitative conditions imposed by the Beef Trust. He converts to socialism.

Ona Lukoszaite: Jurgis’s wife who is frail and was sexually abused at work. She dies in childbirth at the age of 18.

Marija Berczynskas: Ona’s cousin who is initially strong and exuberant, but becomes a drug addict and prostitute.

Elzbieta Lukoszaite: Ona’s stepmother who is practical and persistent. She is the mother of six other children.

Dede Antanas: Jurgis’s elderly father who is determined to pay his share of the family’s expenses. He takes a job in the pickling room and dies of consumption.

Nicholas Schliemann: Swedish professor of philosophy who is an eloquent speaker and believes in socialism.

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Themes and Ideas

1. Capitalism vs. Socialism

According to Sinclair, capitalism is all about greed and competition, resulting in low wages and unsafe working conditions. This economic system leads to mistrust, exploitation, and corruption, and it’s like economic slavery, making political freedom meaningless.

Socialism, on the other hand, advocates for the democratic management of industry through common ownership. It eliminates privilege and exploitation, seeking a class-conscious union of wage earners. Jurgis and his family experience the negative effects of capitalism, but socialism gives them hope for a better future.

2. Freedom vs. Confinement

The Packingtown workers’ lives are reminiscent of the animals they process. Some are locked up in factories or prisons, while others are confined to the hardships of life outside of confinement. Only socialism can provide real freedom, as Sinclair argues. The countryside represents a sense of freedom, but it is only temporary, and the real solution to confinement is socialism.

3. Humans as Beasts

In Sinclair’s novel, the animals going to the slaughterhouse represent the human condition, and socialism reveals this fact to Jurgis. Under capitalism, people are treated worse than animals, as they face hunger, sickness, and alcoholism. Visitors to the sausage factory watch the workers’ movements like wild beasts, and Jurgis reacts to Ona’s sexual abuse like a wounded bull. Socialism’s message is that people can be better than beasts.

4. Survival of the Fittest

Naturalist writers, influenced by Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest, depict Packingtown residents as engaging in a struggle for survival. The weak suffer at the hands of the strong, and the system doesn’t provide for them. Jurgis, injured and unable to work, is at the mercy of his rivals, and weak workers die off when there are too many. Socialism teaches the idea of “economic evolution,” where the strong overcome the weak, and “combination” through union organization is the higher kind of strength that can bring about the workers’ triumph over capitalism.

5. Corruption and Exploitation

Capitalism allows a few people to control wealth and power, leading to corruption. Health and safety regulations are bypassed through payoffs, and factory bosses abuse and exploit workers by threatening to fire them. Politicians peddle influence, and party workers rig elections. Wealthy businessmen maintain their power through an army of graft. Socialism offers an alternative to this system of corruption and exploitation.

6. The Past

Throughout the novel, the past seems better than the present and unknown future. The old-world values of sharing, trust, cooperation, and respect have been replaced by greed, competition, and cheating. However, Jurgis comes to believe in the future after his conversion to socialism, which offers hope for a better world.


1. Jungle

Image of humans as animals. When Jurgis is with the prostitute, a “wild beast” rose up within him and screamed, as it has screamed in the jungle from the dawn of time. This implies the human struggle for survival in a climate of ferocity and violence.

2. Water

Suggests (a) the flow of life, creating associations between humans and animals (a “stream of workers” enter the packinghouses where a “stream of animals” enter the chutes and become a “river of death”); (b) purification: Jurgis bathes in the countryside after fleeing the city; (c) the individual’s lack of control over his or her life (workers’ families “drift into drinking, as the current of a river drifts downstream”); (d) the uncertainty of a social organization (the Beef Trust is described as a “pirate ship” on an “ocean of commerce”); (e) the future, “stream of progress.”

Praise for “The Jungle”

1. Revealing the Harsh Reality of Lower-Class Life

The Jungle is an unforgettable journey through the life of Jurgis Rudkus and his family, Lithuanian immigrants who arrive in America with dreams of a better life. The novel exposes the harsh realities they face in the heart of the meatpacking industry in Chicago.

The overcrowded slums, unhygienic living conditions, and high mortality rates paint a vivid picture of the suffering of the working class during the Gilded Age. Sinclair’s powerful storytelling forces readers to confront the disparities and injustice faced by the lower class in a system designed to keep them oppressed.

2. Exposing the Corruption and Cruelty in the Food Industry

Perhaps the most famous aspect of The Jungle is its graphic portrayal of the meatpacking industry’s unsanitary and dangerous practices. Sinclair’s detailed descriptions of contaminated food, sick and abused animals, and lax government oversight shocked readers and led to major reforms in food safety regulations.

The novel’s influence on the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act demonstrates its enduring impact on American society. Sinclair’s unflinching look at the food industry’s darkest corners remains a powerful reminder of why strict regulations and oversight are necessary to protect public health.

3. The Timelessness and Relevance of the Novel’s Themes

Over a century after its publication, The Jungle remains a relevant and thought-provoking work of literature. The novel serves as a reminder of the importance of social programs and worker protections in the face of corporate greed and unchecked power.

Sinclair’s vision of a future where automation would ease the lives of workers and reduce costs is both prophetic and sobering, as many of the issues he raised still persist today. While some progress has been made in improving working conditions and addressing economic inequality, The Jungle is a potent reminder that the fight for social justice and workers’ rights is far from over.

Criticism of “The Jungle”

1. Overly Preachy and Ideological

While The Jungle provides a compelling look at the struggles of immigrant life and the horrors of the meatpacking industry, its final chapters take a sharp turn into political ideology.

Sinclair’s passionate defense of socialism is clear, but the novel becomes overly preachy, with characters delivering long speeches that may wear on some readers. The heavy-handedness of these sections detracts from the gripping narrative and immersive historical setting that captivated readers in earlier chapters, making the conclusion feel unsatisfying and didactic.

2. Incomplete and Censored Versions

Some readers may not be aware that there are different editions of The Jungle, with some containing censored or abridged content. Discovering this after reading the book can be frustrating, as it leaves readers wondering what they might have missed in a more complete version.

This lack of clarity and transparency about the different editions can detract from the overall experience of reading The Jungle, making it difficult for readers to feel confident that they have engaged with the full scope of Sinclair’s vision.

3. Emotionally Draining and Dark

The Jungle is not for the faint of heart. Its graphic depictions of the meatpacking industry, heart-wrenching portrayal of immigrant life, and pervasive sense of despair can be emotionally draining for sensitive readers.

The novel’s unrelenting darkness and grit may make it difficult for some to fully engage with the story and its characters. While this intense realism is part of what makes The Jungle so powerful and enduring, it can also be a barrier for readers who struggle with its harsh subject matter and bleak outlook.


The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is a compelling and thought-provoking classic novel that immerses readers in the harsh realities of early 20th-century immigrant life in Chicago.

Sinclair’s gritty and realistic portrayal of the characters and their struggles prompts readers to consider the social and economic conditions of the time and to question their own perspectives on the working class.

The book serves as a reminder of the progress made since the Progressive Era, while also highlighting the importance of continued efforts to maintain a fair and just society.

While Sinclair’s proposed socialist solution may not resonate with everyone, The Jungle serves as a valuable reminder of the need for a compassionate and supportive social safety net.

As we continue to grapple with economic inequality and the challenges facing our society, it is crucial to reflect on our history and the lessons we can learn from works like The Jungle.

By engaging with this classic novel, readers are prompted to think deeply about the past and its implications for our present and future, making it a powerful and enduring piece of literature.

About The Author

Upton Beall Sinclair (1878–1968) was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He studied at City College of New York and Columbia University. 

Known as a Socialist who used literature to convey ideas about society, he is the author of more than 90 works, including his novel Dragon’s Teeth (Pulitzer Prize, 1943) and studies on religion, journalism, writing, and education in American life. Several unsuccessful campaigns for public office. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize (1932).

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