This novel was written in 1906 by Upton Sinclair who was also a journalist. He aimed at painting a clear picture of the lives of American immigrants and the circumstances of their working conditions. The meat packaging industry especially is well covered in this book. This book also exposes the corruption especially among those in power and its results as well. A clear depiction of poverty, the lack of social programs as well as prevalent hopelessness is accomplished by this book. Upton worked incognito for a meat packaging company where he gathered this information for seven weeks. Although the characters in this book are fictional, the circumstances that are depicted here are those of true Americans at the time.
The book begins with the main character Jurgis Rudkus at his wedding with his newly married 15 years old orphaned wife Ona Lukoszaite. The couple ends up migrating from Lithuania to Chicago in the USA when Rudkus talks with Ona’s step-uncle Jona who has a friend in the USA who has gotten wealthy working there and they decide to relocate. They are accompanied by Ona’s six stepbrothers, Rudkus’s old father, Ona’s stepmother, Ona’s cousin, and Ona’s step-uncle Jona.
Poor working conditions
When Rudkus moves to Chicago and gets a job at a meat packaging company he promises to support his whole family. This turns out completely impossible owing to the compensation he gets while working there and eventually the children and as well as his elderly and ailing father is forced to work to ensure they survive. This depicts that child labor was allowed in Chicago at the time.
There are very many accidents at work. It is evident that the employers were not putting employees’ safety first. It is said that one such accident while at Brown’s slaughterhouse causes Rudkus to be fired! The search for greener pastures turns elusive when Rhukus finds out that working conditions in Chicago were way harsh than he expected. The book says that humans fell into grinders and got ground with animal parts at meat packaging companies. This is however seen as absurd and outrageous by many readers.
The slaughterhouses are operating at very alarming conditions that do not only threaten the well-being of workers but the health of the final consumer. It is said that even diseased animals are not exempted from processing. The plants are not properly equipped to get rid of sewage effectively and boarding houses are infested by rats.
When Rudkus moves to Chicago, he and his wife desperately try to acquire a house at the slum but immediately after they pay the down payment they are immediately evicted from the house. That is, they fall victim to con people. It is also told in this book that after Rudkus has been frustrated by life in the city and has gone to work in rural America he goes back to Chicago and also turns into a con man.
Marija Berczynskas who is Ona’s cousin had dreams of marrying a musician but eventually ends up in prostitution to feed the children after Ona’s demise and Rudkus’s abandonment. Ona on starting working she doesn’t take long before her boss allegedly rapes her and starts demanding sexual favors so as for him to keep her job. This obviously doesn’t go down well with Rudkus who attacks her boss which lands him in jail.
Corruption is also depicted in this book. Democratic and Republican party candidates pay people to vote them in. it is said that even Rudkus pays some workers at the slaughterhouse for votes. The corruption in the slaughterhouse is also alarming. Bosses force workers to produce cash ‘gifts’ from the employees
It is said that even the life city corrupted the children. Eventually, Marija becomes a drug addict and a prostitute. Rudkus is in and out of jail and picking criminal traits from there.
Hopelessness and misery
Poverty is well depicted in this book. It is said that Rudkus and his wife can hardly afford a slum house and to add salt to injury they are conned out of their down payment. On settling in Chicago the couple falls deep into debts an indicator of lack of self-sufficiency.
The fact that even the ailing and elderly as well as children had to work to survive indicate that people were not well compensated to support others. This is a hopeless situation. Rudkus’s wife is constantly defiled by the boss and there is nothing meaningful he could do about it which could be attributed to his financial situation. The only retaliation measure he can manage lands him in jail. Meaning more misery for him. After that ordeal, he comes from jail only to find his family evicted.
It is also heartbreaking when Rudkus loses his wife at the tender age of eighteen years just because he could not afford a doctor to deliver their child. Marija had dreams of marrying a musician but she found in a very hard position when Ona dies at childbirth and Rudkus has left. She results to a hopeless move of prostitution to feed the kids. The first house is only obtainable when twelve members of the family are working. this house has four rooms while there are twelve people to live in the house.
Winter unfolds yet more misery for them. Chicago winters are devastating and Jurgis’s suffers persistent lungs problems that eventually take his life. When Rudkus is injured he has to heal and takes about two months to do so. He being the biggest income earner strains the family. Jonas cannot take this anymore and disappears on the rest of the family and it is here that the under age children are forced to work. Ona after getting the first child Ontana has to immediately go to back work to ensure they survive as Rudkus is recuperating after the injury at the slaughter house. It is said that she was never healthy after that and this was one of the contributor to her premature birth and death during birth.
After the death of his wife who he begs before death not to leave him results into drinking. This is a sign of hopelessness. Worse still he abandons his family to go to rural America where he finds things not to be as good either. This is because after harvests the farmers turned their works away.
Rudkus comes back to the city and is only lucky to get a job for a few months before the company shuts down and he is actually forced to beg from the working kids. His son Ontana who had nobody to watch over him drowns in a puddle and now Rudkus is now without a wife and a son.
At some point Rudkus even begs from the streets to survive. He saves money from criminal dealings. Apparently bad luck keeps following him. The boss who had defiled his wife shows up and he attacks again which lands him in jail for the second time. He spends almost all his savings on posting bail and ends up broke again.
The economy is seen to be controlled by businessmen who control all aspects of it in such a way that oppresses the working class in a way that chances for change were marginal. It is for this reason that socialist people made associations in a bid to turn things around such as the Chicago socialist party. The wages are very low such that it is practically impossible for one to support a family. In fact, even the children have to work. The plants set seems to be focused on profit-making such that very many malpractices are being done. There is the processing of diseased animals, and risking the lives of workers’ safety. It is only after joining this movement that ruckus gets some hope in life.
The accomplishments and the reception of this book
When this book was published it met some criticism. There are those who viewed the author as a crackpot due to he held socialist views such of president Theodore Roosevelt. He viewed the author as untruthful and hysterical and expressed contempt towards the book. However, he agreed that radical changes in the meat packaging industry had to be made. To some extent what is fictional and what is real. For instance, the part of humans falling into grinders and getting grounded together with animal parts was outrageously viewed by many. The book however drew so much attention to such plants and resulted in the enactment of Act the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection in 1906.
“I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident, I hit it in the stomach.” Said Upton Sinclair after the reception his book got.
This book follows the life of a young man Rudkus and sheds light on the plight of immigrants in the USA. The author uses naturalist and muckraking stylistic devices to accomplish this. Though the book meets criticism, it at least led to the changing of many food processes in the USA which improved the safety of workers and final consumers.