The Jungle | Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle | Symbols


Sinclair's view of society is represented by the images of animals in a jungle who fight for survival.


Throughout the novel, the Packingtown workers are often compared to the very animals they slaughter. The meatpacking factory brings animals in by the thousands each day, killing them and extracting every ounce of value they can before discarding the rest. The same can be said for the way they treat their workers—extracting every ounce of value from their hard work before tossing them aside. When workers try to organize against these exploitative conditions, they realize there is no point. Thousands of other immigrants, desperately searching for work, will jump at the chance to take over their positions. Work-hungry immigrants pour into Packingtown at nearly the same volume as the slaughterhouse animals. While many of these workers start out determined and optimistic, they are reduced to animals, compared to "dumb beasts" like the cows and hogs they slaughter.

The Slaughterhouse

In Sinclair's novel the slaughterhouse represents the brutal, dehumanizing aspects of both modern industry at large and the capitalist machine. The killing beds in Packingtown slaughter over 25,000 animals every day, breaking them down and extracting every ounce of value—from the meat, to the skin, to the fat, to the bones, the factories use "everything about the hog except the squeal." The animals march onto the killing floor in a steady stream while workers wait, emotionless, to dispatch them. The killing is so efficient that these beasts aren't even thought of as animals. Hundreds of thousands of animals are slaughtered each week, and no matter how many are killed, the same amount shows up tomorrow for the same fate. Sinclair personifies the hogs in Chapter 3 saying, "they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly" to strengthen the comparison between the hogs and the workers. Just as the slaughterhouse emotionlessly dispatches the animals, it also destroys the lives of the workers. The packers also extract every ounce of value from the workers before emotionlessly disposing of them. The comparison is so strong, in fact, that it's unclear whether lines like, "each was full of self-confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity" describe the animals or the workers. Both are "slaughtered" by a ruthless machine that churns out death to line the pockets of the business owners.

The Jungle

In the pursuit of making money in a ruthlessly competitive environment, men are reduced to being like animals, beasts of burdens or predator and prey. In this way Packingtown becomes like a jungle, the symbol reflected in the novel's title. The business owners are predators, preying on the vulnerability and desperation of their exploited workers. Workers like Jurgis are beasts of burden, forced to withstand brutal working conditions and treatment in their struggle to stay alive. The most vulnerable workers are prey to the powerful business owners: women and children are forced to work inappropriate jobs (that involve child labor and prostitution) according to their employers' whims; some die, like Ona and Stanislovas. As the brutal conditions break down humanity, many characters find themselves acting like animals. When Jurgis attacks Connor, for example, he is described in an animalistic way, forced to be a predator: "he bent down and sunk his teeth into the man's cheek; and when they tore him away he was dripping with blood, and little ribbons of skin were hanging in his mouth." Sinclair's jungle is a brutal place, with only the briefest glimpses of human kindness.

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