The representation of immigrant life in Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle"

Seminar Paper, 2007

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Immigration and Urbanization

3. Summary of The Jungle

4. Social conditions of living of the immigrants and their representation in The Jungle
4. 1. Living Conditions
4.1.1. Description and social consequences
4.1.2. Literary representation
4.2. Working Conditions
4.2.1. Description and social consequences
4.2.2. Literary representation

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle was published in 1906 during the era of Progressive reforms. The starting point of this era roughly lies at the turn of the century (1900) and if one insists on an ending point it would be the First World War. But as this time was an age of reform and rethinking in respect of various realms of society it has had a long-lasting effect and some remnants of this progressive movement can still be observed today.

During the Progressive Era and the time before there was a constant wave of immigration from all parts of the world to the United States. The immigrants who entered the country were in search of religious or political freedom, of work, in short of better opportunities. As a result of industrialization the country was in need of workers and so most of the immigrants went to the big cities in order to find a job there. As a consequence, the cities grew and more and more people left the countryside. America had undergone a change from an agricultural to an industrial country and the therefore the city offered more opportunities. It was then that on the one hand a few people benefited from the renewals and modernizations which industrialization had pushed forward, but on the other hand that for many, especially for the immigrants, " […] life was often a desperate cycle of poverty, exhausting labor, and early death." (Boyer 725). The immigrant family in Upton Sinclair's novel headed for Chicago, where the big meatpacking industries were located, to find work. They experience what it meant to be an immigrant worker in need of money and without any knowledge of the language let alone of the rights a person had at that time.

Upton Sinclair's novel is based on his research in the meatpacking districts in Chicago. This city was the American center of the meatpacking industry in the Progressive Era. "[P]ostwar [Civil War; my annotation E.D.] railroad expansion and complementary development in refrigeration technology" (Skaggs 428) enabled a few companies to rise and swallow smaller butcher shops and slaughterhouses. The few big companies which were left were usually called the beef trust, although officially there did not exist a real trust because of the Sherman Antitrust Act 1890 (Shannon 29-32). But the operations of this trust were "secret, intangible, without record and without form, without officers, without a scratch of a pen to mark its trail, without witnesses and without papers […] " (Russel 370).

After being asked by the editor of the socialist review Appeal to Reason to write a novel about wage slavery Sinclair decided to go straight to Chicago to investigate the working conditions for seven weeks (Sinclair 2003, 350). Disguised as a worker (Wilson 130) he saw the plight of the working class and the conditions under which they had to work with his own eyes. In The Jungle he made that what he saw major topics and built a fictional story around it. As Sinclair was doing what is now called investigative journalism and what then was given the name "muckraking"[1], he "[…] was determined to expose the brutality and inhumanity that the ordinary workers of America […] suffered." (Mookerjee 42). The imbalance within society, the unjust distribution of wealth and the exploitation of the weak, in short, the rising capitalism was something Sinclair wanted to change through his books. The explanation for this system which was often referred to, namely the Darwinist one of the survival of the fittest, did not convince Sinclair (Mookerjee 6). He wanted - as many other journalists and writers as well - bring "social change" (Mookerjee 2). As a socialist he also wanted to write for those who were concerned, for the working class: "The protetarian (sic!) writer is a writer with a purpose; he thinks no more of 'art for art's sake' than a man on a sinking ship thinks of painting a beautiful picture in the cabin; […]" (Sinclair 2003, 352). In The Jungle he therefore represents the life of the immigrants and the workers in a very realistic and straightforward way.

In my paper I would primarily like to demonstrate how Sinclair represents the immigrant life in his book and how it ties with the reality at that time. However, before coming to this I would like to outline the immigration to and the urbanization in the United States in the Progressive Era and give a short summary of The Jungle.

2. Immigration and Urbanization

The following excerpt of the famous poem by Emma Lazarus[2], which can be found on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty's pedestal, illustrates very much what America represented for many immigrants:

"[…]'Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!' "

This indicated that everyone who could not be free or even survive in his or her own country was welcomed by the American people. Indeed, most of them who came to the New World immigrated in pursuit of either religious or political freedom, or because they simply thought America was a country with better opportunities. The immigrants from Eastern Europe fled oppression and poverty which the Russian Empire had brought with it (Woll). These push and pull factors - a country which had nothing more to offer and another country full of seeming opportunities- were mainly the cause for these immigrants to give up their old life and enter America. In 1880 this so called new wave of immigration from eastern and southern Europe slowly began whereas immigration from the old sources, like Great Britain, Germany and Scandinavia, was at its peak. But this declined in the 1890s and made way for the many new immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. The Americans, however, had many prejudices against them because they considered them to be too different from themselves and the old immigrants. The American people thought they were illiterate and very poor when arriving in the country in comparison to their predecessors. Furthermore they regarded the mostly Roman or Orthodox Catholic or Jewish people as a threat to the mainly protestant society (Shannon 94-95). No matter if this was justified or not the immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were faced with opposition and sometimes even hatred on the part of the Americans (Shannon 94-96).

During 1890-1917 there was a total of 17,991,486 immigrants entering the USA of which 3,328,00 (18,50%) came from Eastern Europe (Shannon 95). As I have written earlier, most of the immigrants headed for the cities and so there was a huge growth in population in American cities. In Chicago for example the population increased from 503,185 in 1880 to 2,185,283 in 1910 (Still 138). This urbanization, due to industrialization, changed the picture of American cities. New transportation systems like cable cars or later electric street cars made it possible to travel long distances within the city in a short amount of time. This also led to a distribution of the population according their wealth: The poor lived in the city center where they were close to work and the wealthy ones moved to the suburbs. The consequence was a formation of slums and ghettos where mostly immigrants lived in overcrowded tenements under very unhealthy conditions. As a result of overpopulation in these tenements and in the inner city as a whole violence and crime was a growing part of the life in the city (Boyer 624-639).

As one can imagine life was not very pleasant for a poor immigrant family in those days. Upton Sinclair describes in The Jungle the dismal conditions under which such a family had to live at that time. To inform the reader about the content of this book I will provide a short plot summary of it in the next section.

3. Summary of The Jungle

A Lithuanian family tries to find their fortune in America. They think that this is a place where they could be free no matter if they were rich or poor in contrary to their home country Lithuania. There were 12 of them when they arrive in Chicago’s stockyards districts. The protagonist Jurgis and his fiancée Ona, her stepmother Teta Elzbieta and her six children, Elzbieta's brother Jonas, Ona's cousin Marija and Jurgis' father Dede Antanas. The family has to face a lot of ups and downs when being confronted with America’s reality of life. Jurgis and later nearly all members of the family have to go to work and toil for very little money.

Those who find work at the stockyards in one of the meatpacking industries must learn that the workers are nothing worth, that the working conditions are very poor and that there is always another one who wants to do the job for even less money. They also discover the dark secrets of the so-called Beef Trust: the main aim is making money, no matter what happens to the victims. The Beef Trust doesn’t care if the animals which are slaughtered are diseased, pregnant or even fetuses. The responsible ones do not care if the workers who handle the carcasses are sick with infective diseases, if there is so much filth which is added to the meat when it is finished, if there are rats and vermin which accidentally fall into the cauldrons where the sausages are being made. They do not care if the people buy the products in the belief it is pure meat and bears no dangers for the health. But this is only one of their experiences with the harsh life in capitalist America.

They have to endure a series of tragedies: They are deceived when buying a house, they have to send the children on the street to work, Ona has to work as a mistress for fear of being fired, Jurgis is put into jail for beating Ona’s boss, he is injured and loses his job, his father dies, Ona dies, their child dies and he finally flees the town and heads toward the countryside. He cannot stand the hopeless situation no longer. But he comes back and is put in jail again, in there he meets a man who is a professional criminal and who shows Jurgis how to earn a living as a criminal. He learns about corruption in politics and he even helps out a candidate for the Republican Party by bribing fellow workers at the meatpacking plant and offering them money for their votes. But he is put in jail again for beating Ona’s ex-boss once more and then flees another time to the countryside. Back in Chicago he accidentally attends a meeting of a Socialist party and is very enthusiastic about these ideas. He becomes an enthusiastic Socialist because he thinks that this is the solution to all the problems.

4. Social conditions of living of the immigrants and their representation in The Jungle

What this Lithuanian family in The Jungle had to endure was very similar to the fate of hundreds of thousands of eastern European immigrants. Most of them did not come alone but in large company, mostly family members. It was often the case that they had friends or relatives who immigrated to America and from whom they had heard that they made it (Bodnar 280). In Sinclair's novel this was exactly the same: Jonas had a friend who "had gotten rich" (Sinclair 2001, 25) in America and so they all decided to go there because for them America now "was a place of which lovers and young people dreamed" (Sinclair 2001, 25). All the immigrants had great expectations when leaving their home countries, but when arriving in America, they had to learn that it was not exactly what they had hoped for. A passage in The Jungle illustrates that very well:


[1] Term coined by Theodore Roosevelt by referring to Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" (Crunden 457).

[2] To find there:

Excerpt out of 18 pages


The representation of immigrant life in Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle"
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
American Culture and Society During the Progressive Era
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Upton, Sinclair, Jungle, American, Culture, Society, During, Progressive
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Eva Deinzer (Author), 2007, The representation of immigrant life in Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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