Merry Wanderer of the Night + [TIME]

The Jungle

When I was a junior or senior in high school I interviewed my favorite English teacher (I was on my high school's newspaper) about the books you must read before you go to college. I found a list online and then I asked him what he thought were the top twenty-five quintessential books to read before college. I remember Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was on the list. He said, "Oh, that is a really important book historically but I wouldn't say it's a must read." Or something like that. I'm paraphrasing from three or four years ago so don't hold him accountable. I don't know if this book is a must read before college, I don't know if I would have dug it in high school. I'm pretty sure I would have hated it. But right now, as a twenty-year-old college student, I loved it in spite of myself. Yeah, I loved The Jungle.

Everyone, and I mean everyone says The Jungle is about the meatpacking industry in Chicago around 1906. That is not what The Jungle is about. I'll just set the record straight on that right now. Sure, Jurgis, the main character, works in the meatpacking district in Chicago around 1906, off and on, for awhile. But he also works about every other job an immigrant would do in an industrious city. And he encounters every problem and immigrant would encounter in an industrious city. Jurgis comes with his family from Lithuania to find a better life. He believes he will be able to make more money, have a better lifestyle, and get everything he wants. He thinks he will have freedom.

But there are problems. Jurgis and his family don't speak English, and they are taken advantage of in every way possible because of this. It is cold in Chicago, and sometimes his family cannot make it home. They buy a home they cannot afford, and they think it's a new home when it turns out it's just a freshly painted rat's nest. He gets jobs, then gets fired for various reasons. The women in his family are forced to go to work, which is fine at first but turns into something problematic. A lot of people are annoyed by the fact that all of this stuff happens to one family, which would never happen in real life. But Jurgis and his family represent a lot more than that. They represent an entire generation of immigrants searching for freedom that does not exist.

Oh, did I mention this is kind of a socialist book? It is, and it all comes at the end. It's socialist fireworks basically. But it's a good read, I think. Sinclair uses the death of the animals in the meatpacking district as a way to understand the way immigrants are treated by those above them in factories. I loved how beastly Jurgis becomes as he moves through the book. At one point I think he is actually foaming at the mouth. I'll warn you that this is a difficult book to get yourself to read, but once you read it you will be glad you did.

This novel earned a B.

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The Jungle {TIME}