While it is most famous for its impact on food safety laws, The Jungle highlights the harsh realities of industry, politics, and the immigrant experience in America during the early twentieth century. Sinclair depicts a soul-crushing world marred by brutality and corruption at every turn, and by focusing on the horrors that Jurgis and his family endure as workers in the meatpacking industry, he squarely places the blame on capitalism. The insatiable greed of those in power drives them to exploit the working class, creating an unequal relationship which seems inescapable for a majority of the novel. No matter what Jurgis and his family members try to do in order to achieve the freedom and financial security that America once seemed to promise, they fall deeper and deeper into poverty. This unending struggle against the oppressive forces of capitalism ultimately emerges as the novel’s central conflict. Rather than create a single antagonist to act as the source of the family’s suffering, Sinclair argues that every part of the system, from the factory owners to the corrupt political leaders, is responsible for the inhumane world that America’s workers must face.

Rather than exposing the dark realities of business and government right from the start, Sinclair spends the early parts of the novel creating sympathetic characters with whom an American audience might identify. The first chapter describes the wedding celebrations of Jurgis and Ona, and while the novel’s narrator alludes to the grisly nature of their work in Packingtown, the tone of this scene is primarily lighthearted. Between the comforting nature of Lithuanian traditions and the energy that the music and dancing evoke, the true quality of the family’s life becomes disguised. Sinclair uses this gratifying moment in order to lure the reader into a false sense of security, making the novel’s more graphic moments appear even more disturbing by contrast. In the second chapter, the narrative jumps back in time in order to reveal the motivations behind Jurgis’s move to the United States. This shift works to highlight his sincere belief in the American Dream and emphasizes commitment to traditional American values such as hard work and the importance of family. Much like the wedding scene, these personal details invite the reader to emotionally invest themselves in Jurgis’s story. With this framework in place, Sinclair begins to pursue his true goal of exposing the plight of immigrant workers in the United States as Jurgis and his family make their way to Chicago. Their arrival in Packingtown serves as the novel’s inciting incident, although their naiveté and strong faith blinds them to the brutal future that awaits them.

The rising action develops across the first half of the novel as Jurgis and his family pursue the ideal life that the American Dream promises, and by highlighting the physical and emotional toll of their struggle, Sinclair suggests that such aspirations are unattainable. He alerts the reader to the gruesome nature of the meatpacking industry by describing in detail Jurgis’s tour of the stockyards. From the manipulation of diseased meats to the emphasis on exploiting every part of the livestock, Sinclair makes the inhumane conditions of the factories glaringly obvious to the reader while Jurgis expresses an earnest enthusiasm toward the idea of securing a job. His optimistic perspective fades, however, as the financial costs of providing for his family become too much to bear alone and the job prospects dwindle. The family purchases a house, a symbol of success, but they cannot keep up with the interest added on to their monthly payments. Jurgis’s father dies as a result of his attempts to earn his living, the women and children take on jobs, and Jurgis injures his ankle at work. As these and many other misfortunes play out, Sinclair continually emphasizes just how difficult it is for the family to survive. Jurgis’s inability to save Ona from dying breaks his heart and begins to convince him that he is powerless to escape his fate in Packingtown.

In the last ten chapters of the novel, Sinclair highlights the harmful consequences of Jurgis’s destroyed sense of hope and, as an alternative to capitalism, suggests that socialism offers the best chance for the working class to move forward. The daily struggles of life in Packingtown drive Jurgis to drink and act violently toward others, behaviors which mark a complete departure from his initial earnestness and determination. His real breaking point, however, comes when his son Atanas dies after drowning in the sunken street outside Aniele’s. This moment serves as the climax of the novel and emphasizes the significant extent of capitalism’s destructiveness. With his wife and son gone, Jurgis feels that he has completely failed in his mission to provide a good life for his family in America and leaves the city to pursue life as a tramp. He eventually returns to the city in the novel’s falling action and, with the help of a man he met in prison, becomes involved in Chicago’s political corruption himself. Unfortunately, even this work is not enough to keep Jurgis out of poverty. He feels completely helpless until he accidentally wanders into a socialist rally, and this event transforms his outlook on the future. Sinclair uses the last few chapters of the novel to explain the tenants of socialism and advocate for it as an alternative to capitalism. While Jurgis himself is not necessarily better off by the novel’s end, the shift to an optimistic tone invites the reader to consider the possibility of a better world for America’s working class.