Most people think ‘The Jungle’ was written to point out how unhealthy the production of meat used to be— so many, in fact, that in 1906 Theodore Roosevelt passed two food safety acts. The scenes that do take place in the slaughterhouses (all two of them) are nauseating, but Upton Sinclair was more concerned with the workers than the cows. Those that clamor that ‘The Jungle’ is about injustice and exploitation are closer, but in the end it seems that the novel boils down to an essay entitled “Why Capitalism Sucks And Socialism Is Great.”
Don’t get me wrong— capitalism does suck. Upton Sinclair makes that abundantly clear through his main character, Jurgis. Jurgis is a Lithuanian immigrant who travels to the United States to seek opportunity and other shiny dreams. In order to survive he’s forced to work from sunrise to dusk, in unsafe conditions, for wages that are barely enough to live on. Due to workplace politics and injury, Jurgis loses several jobs and is forced to steal or beg to stay alive.
‘The Jungle’ is a heart-wrenching read. Jurgis loses everything he has, including his wife and child. By the end of the book, he is homeless, jobless, and alone. This, apparently, is when Upton Sinclair got tired of writing about him.
After a bit of narrative in which a young, drunk, rich guy gives Jurgis one hundred dollars and then a bartender steals it from him, Upton Sinclair lovingly guides his protagonist into a tent and abandons him. Up until this point the author has used his story very effectively to address the problems of capitalism, and suddenly he shoves everything aside, gets up on a soap box, and starts grunting, “SOCIALISM GOOD.”
‘The Jungle’ could have been brilliant social commentary, but it fell flat. Upton Sinclair roused my anger and my compassion, but I wasn’t about to raise my fist and cheer with him when he presented his solution to the problem. Ending an emotionally stirring book with an essay about a better economic system— even if the author is right— nullifies everything that came before it.