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Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle": A Brief Study Guide

written by: blion23 • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 1/21/2013

Written to highlight the perplexity of the working class and the corruption of American meat packing in the early 20th century, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair was published after an astonishing five rejections. It has become one of the most recognized novels today.

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    Author Background Information

    Upton Sinclair was born on September 20, 1878, in Baltimore, Maryland, to an impoverished family. When Sinclair was fifteen years old, he began writing to support himself and his hefty college expenses. During his college education, Sinclair became interested in the philosophy of socialism and was an avid supporter of the Socialist Party. Sinclair’s “The Jungle" was published in 1906 after it was rejected five times, regarded by many as being too shocking. However, it became a commercial success due to its dauntless interpretation of the American meat packing industry. The novel raised public upheaval regarding the issue and later led the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 to be passed to mitigate the situation.
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    Analysis of the Main Characters

    Jurgis Rudkus: A Lithuanian immigrant who comes to America with his wife, Ona. Jurgis is a strong believer in the ideal American Dream; however it is quickly shattered by the miserable living conditions that he faces in Packingtown. In the beginning of the story, he seems to be the ideal individual. He is young and energetic and is loyal to his country. However, he faces continued hardship, his character dramatically changes and he begins to drink heavily, and later he abandons his family. Jurgis’s character serves as an example of how capitalism ultimately leads to the fall of the working class.

    Ona Lukoszaite: She acts as a foil to Jurgis; she is much more fragile and pure than her counterpart. She is a lovely and optimistic young woman. She begins to question the forces of capitalism when she is raped by her boss and then lies to Jurgis about it. Ona's death only halfway through the book ultimately serves as a symbol for the notoriety of capitalism.

    Teta Lukoszaite: Teta is the mother of six children and is much older than Jurgis and her stepdaughter Ona. Despite the death of two of her children, she is able to maintain her composure. She is the strongest of the main characters and her value of hard work and her calm demeanor ultimately allows her to be the strongest character in the story. While she belongs in the house, she is willing to work when needed to keep her family from starving. She ends the novel with only a few family members with her, and even accepts Jurgis back into the family because he is able to provide financial support.

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    Themes and Motifs: Corruption and Family

    Corruption: Despite the continual hard work of Jurgis and his family, they find themselves surrounded with corruption. Laws are disregarded and communities of people take advantage of each other to get ahead. Jurgis goes in and out of jail and offers money to meat-packing workers for their votes. By the conclusion of the novel, Jarvis has stolen, mugged and has become an agent in a political vote-buying scheme. The family faces manipulation and rape which shows that things are only getting worse for the family unit.

    Family: Sinclair serves to show that capitalism can have a destructive effect on the family. Jurgis abandons the family and turns to alcohol. The poor living conditions and difficulty lead to the dehumanization of Jurgis; when Kristoforas dies, he is relieved because he needs to feed one less person. Behind the strength of Teta Elzbieta, the family is still intact, and it is not until the discovery of the idea of Socialism that optimism begins to come back to the family.