Fiction – audiobook. Read by Grover Gardner. Blackstone Audio, 2011. Originally published 1906. 13 hours, 17 minutes. Purchased.
Immigrating from Lithuanian to Chicago, Jergis Rudkus is eager to live out his own American dream with his wife, Ona, and her stepmother and stepsiblings. Jergis takes a job at Brown’s slaughterhouse in Chicago, expecting to make enough to support his wife and their extended family. But the family, including the children, are all sent out to find work as the family quickly falls prey to con men and fall deeper and deeper into debt.
The family’s ability to stay healthy is eroded by their terrible working conditions and the subpar quality of the food they can afford. (Every item in Chicago’s Packingtown is doctored, from the tainted meat mixed with healthy stock and resold as canned goods to the milk cut with chemicals.)
When Jergis is injured on the job, he is quickly fired without compensation and has to scrambled to find a new job. But he loses his place at the fertilizer plant when he learns his wife has been blackmailed by her employer and, after a brief stint in jail, he finds himself blacklisted from all the factories in Chicago and his family destitute.
Jergis’ life seems completely hopeless, but he is thrown through the ringer several more times, presumably so Sinclair can show how the “easy” solutions are not really solutions for Jergis’ plight. Without giving away the ending, I will say that Jergis does eventually find his footing, allowing the novel to end of as happy a note as it came after such a horrific journey.
Sinclair wrote The Jungle in order to portray the harsh conditions of Chicago and similar industrialized cities, particularly for the immigrants exploited as cheap and easily replaceable labor, and to encourage his readers to join the socialist revolution. As his famous quote attests, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach”. The novel’s gruesome descriptions of unsanitary practices in the meat packing industry of Chicago led to public outcry and the passage of a series of laws requiring meat inspection and sanitary slaughterhouses, among other reforms.
As I listened to Sinclair’s novel, it became clear that little has changed since he originally published The Jungle in 1906. Several chicken processing plants in the United States were raided in August 2019 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for hiring illegal immigrants, but none of the companies are being prosecuted for their illegal labor practices.
It is estimated that over 30 percent of America’s meat production workers are foreign-born and working without workers’ comp insurance, making it both cheaper to hire them and easier to fire them when they are hurt on the job. Which sounds exactly like the exploitative conditions that Jergis worked under in the early 1900s.
Add to that, the exploitative lending practices that Jergis is subjected to when he tries to buy his home sound eerily similar to the practices that left so many bankrupt and homeless during the Great Recession of 2008.
If we look at the stomach rather than the heart, the American food supply is much safer than it was 100 years ago. Most of the experts surveyed in this PBS documentary agree on that point. But one in seven Americans is sickened some time during the year with food-borne illnesses, and one of the concerns with a post-Brexit trade agreement with the United States is that ‘dirty meat’ from America and chicken treated with bleach could make it to the British supermarkets.
See, very little has changed since 1906. Which makes this novel as “classic” not because of when it was published or how much it impacted American society at the time of publication, but because it is a story that still, sadly, occurs every day in America.
As for the readability of the novel, I found it to be incredibly engaging and well-written. I experienced a myriad of emotions while reading it – disgust over the treatment of people and animals in the slaughterhouse, anger over the forces colluding to exploit Jergis and others like him, despair over the way Jergis was robbed of the “American Dream” – that are all a testimony to the quality of Sinclair’s writing and, in this case, the performance Grover Gardner gave as the narrator. Surely not a novel I will forget anytime soon.
The Classics Club:
This is my 37th book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. This deadline has since come and past, but I am still trying to work through my list. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post or project post.