Upton Sinclair famously remarked about The Jungle: “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” If Sinclair’s aim was to arouse a sympathetic response, why does the novel fail to perform its intended function?

In The Jungle, his exposé of immigrant labor, Upton Sinclair had two seemingly compatible goals: to stimulate outrage at the practice of selling diseased meat to the public and to arouse sympathy for laborers who worked in the unsanitary conditions of the warehouses. However, in his novel, Sinclair places psychologically shallow, unrealistic characters in an extremely detailed, realistic environment, causing readers to be more affected by Packingtown’s horrific conditions than by the emotional and psychological damage inflicted on its residents. The novel sabotages Sinclair’s second intention by forcing readers to see, smell, and taste the environment of the meatpacking industry while simultaneously preventing them from sympathizing with the workers who endure its inhumane conditions.

Though The Jungle is a work of fiction, Sinclair’s use of highly evocative details and imagery links the novel to a type of journalism called “muckraking,” which was at its height in the years between the 1890s and 1920s. Muckraking journalists aimed to expose social misconduct through explicit descriptions of shocking conditions and actions, but these writers were rarely interested in nuanced behavioral analysis. Sinclair’s journalistic style of writing registers with photographic precision the external conditions in which the immigrants work. The novel bursts with the gritty, visceral details of Packingtown, and at times it seems as if Sinclair is describing a deserted battlefield rather than a production zone for consumer goods: Packingtown is full of rivers of blood and rotting carcasses. Sinclair emphasized the filthy conditions of the warehouses in the hopes that the revolting depictions would cause the reading public to press for the reform of the immigrants’ working conditions. The public, though, proved more affected by sensation than by sympathy. Indeed, Sinclair’s descriptive reportage clearly aims at “the stomach”; the novel lingers on gory images of poisoned rats and rusty nails in breakfast sausages. As the reading public’s response to The Jungle would seem to indicate, Sinclair’s dedication to blunt and sensational detail was useful for depicting the laborers’ external circumstances, but not their internal anguish or psychological conflict.

The graphic realism of the Packingtown environment engages readers through the stimulation of their senses, but in order to understand the human costs of such unsafe and unsanitary working conditions readers need to feel a sympathetic connection to the workers. In order to accomplish his second goal—prompting reforms to help protect laborers—Sinclair needed to create characters that the upper- and middle-class readers of The Jungle could identify with. However, in his attempt to make his protagonist, Jurgis, sympathetic, Sinclair ends up idealizing him. Patriotic, hardworking, and a devoted son and new husband, the young Lithuanian immigrant is free from any personal flaws. Any adverse consequence seems to occur through no fault of his own, but rather because of environmental contingencies. For example, Sinclair emphasizes how capitalism causes Jurgis’s descent into alcoholism, his abandonment of his family, and his falling prey to the influence of reprobates. He makes this clear by showing how Jurgis’s discovery of Socialist politics restores the humanity that capitalism had taken away from him. After attending the socialist meetings, for example, Jurgis returns immediately to work and to his family, instantly rehabilitated by the other “comrades.” Moreover, by overemphasizing his goodness in the face of the industry barons’ corruption, Sinclair portrays Jurgis as a wholly passive victim rather than an active agent. Such idealism results in a flat, static character, devoid of any realistic humanity. Ironically, the fact that Jurgis has no unsympathetic traits makes it difficult for readers to identify with him. It is no surprise, then, that Sinclair’s initial readers would feel more drawn into the visceral world of Packingtown—a world that engages them on the levels of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch—and less concerned with characters that hardly seem like real people at all.

The fact that The Jungle featured an unsympathetic protagonist and unbelievable characters didn’t deter the reading public, who turned the book into a bestseller and whose outcry against the meat packing industry’s low standards resulted in the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. If the public still persisted in advocating for a law that would protect them from consuming potentially tainted meat products, even when faced with the doubtful realism of key aspects of the novel, such as its characters, it paradoxically proves Sinclair’s fundamental point: Human individuals are nothing if not self-interested.