Summary and Analysis
The Jungle begins on the wedding day of two Lithuanian immigrants, Jurgis and Ona, highlighting many of the traditional Lithuanian customs that family members like Marija and Teta Elzbieta attempt to keep alive now that they live in Chicago. Jurgis and Ona have had to wait a long time after immigrating to the United States and settling in Chicago for their wedding to occur due to the economic hardships they've suffered. These hardships are laid out in Chapter 2, as the book continues in a flashback to before the time they met in Lithuania. The flashback continues until Chapter 7 of the book, where the story catches up to the wedding of Jurgis and Ona. Although many people are getting their fill of food and drink, a majority of the guests aren't fulfilling their end of the unwritten agreement to give a gift of money, and the bride and groom don't receive enough funds to start their married life together. In fact, they aren't receiving enough money even to pay for the reception, though, following the Old World tradition, no guest will be turned away. Jurgis, the protagonist, attempts to accept responsibility for this situation by declaring, "I will work harder."
Upton Sinclair opens his novel in media res — in the middle of the action — capturing the variety of emotions that surround every wedding day. Marija's barking at the carriage driver not only reveals her temperament and provides a glimpse of her strength of character; it also allows Sinclair to provide some history for his characters as well as providing the setting for the entire text. Marija is one of many immigrants who now call Chicago home, and with whom the book is concerned.
Most of the action takes place in Chicago at the turn of the century. The stockyards play a pivotal role, serving as both setting and character. As the setting, the stockyards capture a time and place — the meat packing industry at the turn of the century. The stockyards can be considered a character due to the influence and effect they have on Jurgis and his family. Sinclair develops the stockyards — through physical description, the comments of other characters, and direct commentary — more than any other character in The Jungle.
At the wedding feast, a variety of attitudes about life in America are revealed. The most important one comes from Dede Antanas (Grandfather Anthony) who "has been only six months in America," yet his toast to the newly married couple is pessimistic, revealing his disillusionment with America.
Sinclair uses information he supplies about one character to reveal important information about many characters. For example, Ona, the bride, is small and dependent. Her physical description prepares readers for the difficulties she faces in Chicago and enables readers to understand why Jurgis feels a need to protect her.
In opposition to Ona is her cousin, Marija, who is strong and concerned about appearances. Marija runs the entire wedding, and her emphasis on doing what is proper and right serves as a dark contrast to the woman she will become. From the onset, readers view Marija as a vigorous woman, a survivor.
Other characters at the wedding serve as glimpses of both the present and the future: The elderly stubbornly cling to Lithuanian customs while the young disregard tradition. References are made to children scavenging the dump for chicken food. The saloonkeepers are cheating the families, and the families begrudgingly accept the swindling because the barmen have connections with the politicians. Some workers are unemployed because of blood poisoning. No workers, not even the bride or groom, are able to take a day off from their jobs. Other couples cannot marry for lack of money. Although the wedding feast is a time for celebration, it is only one day out of a dreary existence for all who live in Packingtown.
Sinclair introduces Jurgis, the main character, almost in an aside. Not much is revealed about the man, although he is described as a "hunted animal." Animal imagery plays a significant part throughout the development of characters and themes in The Jungle, as are the last words of the chapter, "I will work harder." These words characterize Jurgis; however, many times when things are out of his control, so it doesn't matter how hard he works, he still may not succeed.
Stylistically, the narrative structure of The Jungle bothers some readers because Sinclair uses an all-knowing narrator. Sinclair used this form for a variety of reasons. First of all, The Jungle, like most novels of this time period, was originally published in serial form, and this type of narrative functions well in that particular format: Having a narrative voice outside the story to relate the action makes it easier for readers to follow the installments. Readers who don't appreciate this style do not typically enjoy early (Victorian) novels because the extensive narrative intrusions are bothersome to those who enjoy modern novels. Sinclair also desired to show life as he believed it really existed; therefore, his realistic fiction not only illustrates the real world, it attempts to capture the readers' attention by presenting characters who seemingly have genuine lives separate from the text. The narrator talks about what characters say, think, and do. Most contemporary novels are told from a particular character's point of view, allowing readers some internal insight, which is why many contemporary readers resist novels where a narrator "tells" what happens instead of "showing" the reader what happens.
Other readers are bothered by Sinclair's use of the second person "you." For example, when he discusses the payment of the bar tab, he writes, "You might complain." Sinclair uses "you" in the plural, "you all" form, to connect the reader to both the character and the situation. In addition to shifting from the third to the second person point of view, Sinclair also shifts from past to present tense, and this technique disturbs the unity of time and place while confusing some readers. Most critics concur that the time shifting is a result of hasty writing rather than for any literary purpose.
The problems the family faces at their reception in the New World mirror the problems they encounter in their new lives in America. The focal point of The Jungle is the plight of the immigrants. A major part of the problem is the excessive amount of graft and corruption in Packingtown. So many problems exist for the immigrants that the excitement of the wedding changes to trepidation about the next working day — just as their excitement about the New World has changed from optimism to pessimism.
Throughout The Jungle Sinclair explores how heredity, environment, and background all shape fate. The lower class is trapped by the very nature of capitalism. Sinclair contrasts Lithuania, where the characters were healthier and happier to where they are now, downtrodden and desperate in the slums of Chicago.
The meaning of foreign words and phrases are revealed through context, providing a sense of authenticity while simultaneously making the immigrants sympathetic to readers. Sinclair needs to have sympathetic characters in order to demonstrate how capitalism destroys them and their families; by presenting capitalism as the problem, he is able to present socialism as the solution. His novel is filled with contrasts; for example, from the onset capitalism is dishonest, a direct contrast to the honest, hard workers. In the first chapter of The Jungle, only the slightest hints of Sinclair's agenda are present; however, the predators of capitalism are immediately exposed, as are their prey — the working poor.
personage a person of importance or distinction.
veselija the Lithuanian wedding celebration which includes but is not limited to traditional foods, dances, and behaviors.
viands food of various kinds; especially, choice dishes
caper to skip or jump about in a playful manner.
swain a young rustic lover.
grandes dames women, especially older ones, of great dignity or prestige.
quaff to drink deeply in a hearty or thirsty way.
Faust the hero of several medieval legends and later literary and operatic works, a philosopher who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power; here, and in several places throughout The Jungle, Sinclair inserts literary allusions that are not compatible with the educational level of the character, a stylistic shortcoming.
ponas Lithuanian word meaning master, gentleman.
brass check refers to the style of time clock used during this period.