The (Thoroughly Depressing) Jungle

by Erin

  • Explore someplace new
  • Be inspired
  • Read a classic (book 2 of 4)
  • Try a new recipe
  • (Re)connect
  • Get selfishly creative


Book #2: The Jungle

Again, I am not going to go into long summaries and critiques. I will say I had a confusing relationship with the book. I enjoyed reading it…looked forward to it…but reading the actual, dismal words on the page never left me with a  sense of joy and hope. I suppose that was exactly what Sinclair was going for.

There were exactly three points in the book in which there may have been a glimmer of excitement/hope/thrill that lasts longer than the end of a chapter.

1. The introduction – Reading about the history of The Jungle and how it came to be published, censored, and viewed as a vehicle for change really built momentum for me and made me want to dive in.

2. The first chapter – It all begins with a wedding: feasting, dancing, merriment, love. I did struggle a little getting into the first chapter (which seems to be pretty standard with me lately), but when you start off on such a happy note, it’s easy to move to the next chapter.

3. Somewhere in the last third of the book – A change of fortune! But by this time you have already become as cynical as the characters so you know it won’t last.

With all that said, I would recommend The Jungle if you are looking to read a piece of classic American literature. As far as writing goes, it is not all that unpleasant to read. And if you like to think about the state of the world/society/your country, this book will open up plenty of opportunities to do so while you are reading it and beyond.

If, as it turns out, you would rather have a quick summary, I have included actual quotes below (in chronological order) to give you a sense of the book. Don’t read on if you ever think you may actually read the book. I am not taking any care to keep spoilers at bay.

  • Chapter 1: “With laughter, and shouts, and endless badinage and merriment, the (wedding) guests took their places.” (Oh, the joys of a wedding!)
  • Chapter 2: “They began to notice a strange pungent odor…you could literally taste it…it was an elemental odor, raw and crude… The new emigrants were still tasting it when suddenly the car came to a halt, the door flung open, and a voice shouted – “Stockyards!” (And so the tale truly begins…)
  • Chapter 5: “So from the top to bottom the (meat-packing plant) is simply a seething cauldron of jealousies and hatreds; there is no loyalty or decency anywhere about it, there is no place in it where a man counted for anything against a dollar.”
  • Chapter 6: “The details came gradually… (The house) was not new at all… They used the flimsiest  and cheapest materials… They were sold with the idea that the people who bought them would not be able to pay for them.” (Especially when the family has to start paying for repairs…sometimes I feel this way about our house. Spoiler: The family eventually loses the house.)
  • Chapter 10: “When you have a  job in Packingtown you hang on to it… even if they kick you and beat you, you hang on as long as you can drag yourself there. Sometimes they come when they are dying and fall dead at their work.” (Spoiler: One of the family dies at work.)
  • Chapter 11: “Jurgis would begin to forget (about the horrors of his work life) and be happy, because he was in a world where there was no thing so beautiful as the smile of little (baby) Antanas (his son).” (Spoiler: This sweet boy drowns in the street two years later.)
  • Chapter 12: “In the beginning (Jurgis) had been fresh and strong…but now he was second hand and they did not want him…and yet it was in their service he had been damaged!”
  • Chapter 13: “The Almighty cannot have intended the science of healing to apply to human beings who have unventilated and filthy homes to live in, and dangerous and exhausting work to do, and insufficient food and clothing – who in other words are not human beings at all, but simply parts of a machine for producing wealth.”
  • Chapter 14: “Every spring they cleaned the (meat-waste barrels) and in the barrels would be dirt, and rust, and old nails, and stale water – and filth that cannot be named. The meat would be moldy and white, stinking and full of maggots; and still, cartload after cartload, it would be taken and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat and sent out to the dear public’s breakfast.”
  • Chapter 14: “And from all the unending horror of this there was a respite – he could drink! He could forget the pain, he could slip off the burden… His dead self would stir in him…he would be man again.”
  • Chapter 20: “But a big man cannot stay drunk on three dollars. Monday night Jurgis came home, sober and sick, realizing that he had spent every cent the family owned, and had not bought a single instant’s forgetfulness with it.” (Spoiler: What was he trying to forget? The death of his wife…who died in childbirth…carrying the child of her boss…who made her sleep with him to keep her job and allow her family to keep theirs.)
  • Chapter 29: “Jurgis had come into conflict with one of the creatures of the jungle whose power was greater than his own;and he had been worsted in combat, beaten down and trampled upon, and left crippled and wounded, to drag himself away.”
  • Chapters 32-37: “Comrades… open your eyes…Socialism…is…the only real remedy for such evils… We shall organize (the workingmen), we shall  drill them, we shall marshal them for the victory!” (Yes, I took some liberties with the ellipses, but really, the last quarter of the book is about making the case for Socialism.)

What else should I read? I have two more classics to read this year. How about something a little more uplifting, eh?

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