Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair/Kristina Gehrmann

The Jungle [1906/2018] ★★★★★

 “The opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is enough” (Dr. Wess Stafford).

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage” (Seneca).

This graphic novel is based on a classic novel by Upton Sinclair The Jungle [1906] that tells of a Lithuanian family of immigrants who arrive to Chicago, Illinois in 1899 and find their hopes slowly turning to dust as they all take jobs exploiting them and their desperate need to survive in the foreign country. Jurgis Rudkus is a twenty-one year old man eager to work at any job in America and soon finds himself in a meat-processing factory, working in very unhygienic and even horrifying environment. His fiancée Ona starts working in packaging, while her cousin Marija begins painting cans, and even Jurgis’s elderly father tries to land some job in order not to be dependent on others, among other family members. This family comprising of three generations is soon hit very hard by the “hidden costs” of their American Dream, which becomes very hard to bear, especially when most factories close in winter and the mercilessness of the family’s employers and landlords leads to traumatic experiences. Though I have not yet read the original novel by Sinclair, I found this graphic adaptation deeply moving, offering an uncomfortable, yet valuable insight into Sinclair’s vision and the conditions of blue-collar workers in early twentieth-century Chicago.

The Jungle details the immigrants’ life in a foreign country from a perspective which is only too intimate and thus, later, quite shocking, making the readers care about one family from Lithuania who sacrificed a lot by fleeing their impoverished native land and now see America as their hope and future, a progressive and rich country with lots of land and opportunities. Rudkus’s family is kind, friendly, hard-working and flexible and, though prepared to embrace the American life-style, still wants to retain their culture and traditions, including having an expensive wedding. There are children in the family and, obviously, parents want the best for them. This is an ordinary family, maybe not too educated and a bit naïve, but not prone to vices, and one would think – “what could go wrong?”

Kristina Gehrmann, Ten Speed Press (2018), page 254

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is a book that contributed greatly to the American government passing the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, and that is because the book exposed the unsanitary conditions prevalent at that time in the meat-packing industry, all seen and experienced first-hand by Sinclair, who worked undercover. Similarly, Jurgis Rudkus in the story gets a job at Durham Co. in Chicago, a firm that prides itself in “processing about 250.000 heads in ten hours”, and is at first only too pleased that he is finally able to work and feed his family. However, the hours are too long, the work is too hard, the pay is too low, and the working conditions are both unhealthy and dangerous. His family members experience similar circumstances in their workplaces (together with their employers’ cheating and sexual assaults), and, to top it all off, the home that the family thought they “bought” transpired to have “hidden costs”, including interest rates and insurance. “Desperate times call for desperate measures”, and we see Jurgis’s family struggle against the current of abuse, exploitation, indifference and injustice, sinking deeper and deeper into their poverty. There are sometimes happy moments for the family, for example, during the feast celebrating Jurgis and Ona’s marriage and the birth of their son, but even these are overshadowed by the relentless despair fed by their “dog eat dog” environment.

“It appeared as if the whole world was one elaborate system, opposed to justice and kindness, and set to making cruelty and pain ”, once said Upton Sinclair, and in The Jungle, he undoubtedly attacks what he sees as the greed, corruption and ruthlessness of American capitalism in the early twentieth century. This is a system that takes advantage of the most vulnerable, defenceless, ignorant, needy and the poorest, and all with the goal of making a dollar. And, what is the fate of those who refuse to make others, including their neighbours and friends and even family members in some cases, their competitors? Starvation. A co-worker explains to Jurgis Rudkus the workings of his new employer: “…it starts at the top, where Old Man Durham, who owns the place…tries to make as much money as he can in any way he can. Underneath him, ranging in ranks and grades like an army, are managers and superintendents and foreman…each one driving the man immediately below him and trying to squeeze out of him as much work as possible. And all the men of the same rank are pitted against one another. The accounts of each are kept separately…and every man lives in terror of losing his job, if another has a better record than he! The place is a seething cauldron of jealousies and hatreds. There is no loyalty, decency, or honesty anywhere. You’ll find out for yourself that nobody rises in Packingtown by doing good work.” [Sinclair/Gehrmann, Carlsen Verlag/Ten Speed Press: 1906/2018/19: 107].

Kristina Gehrmann, Ten Speed Press (2018), page 132

Kristina Gehrmann first published her adapted novel in German in 2018, and her illustrations, though appearing rather sketchy, are still impactful and easy to follow. They do bring the feeling of immediacy to every action of the characters. The black-and-white illustrations signal the importance and historical significance of the events told, and some of the objects in the story are also coloured in bright red which puts a symbolic emphasis on either people or their living/working conditions, for example, on the blood in slaughter-houses or the hens in rented accommodations. I cannot judge the narrative details of the graphic novel because I have not read the original novel, but I must also add that I did find it rather puzzling that certain narrative threads followed (such as the unsanitary conditions at Durham or painting cans at Marija’s work) did not result in certain expected consequences (for example, illnesses due to the mentioned unsanitary conditions or workplace toxicity). That is, of course, not to say that this astonishing novel needs any more grimness than is already there.

Once you have finished reading it, The Jungle is impossible to forget. It is a powerful take on the life of immigrants in America, a painful overview of the conditions of low-wage workers in Chicago, an unflinching look at capitalism and a moving statement on the resilience of the human spirit facing the ultimate disillusionment.

See also my other graphic novels reviews – The Daytripper by Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá, Clyde Fans by Seth and anti-war Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna.

15 thoughts on “Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair/Kristina Gehrmann

    1. I am sure it is. I have not read the original novel yet (I’m obviously not from the US if it counts in my defence!), but I will soon. I also want to read Sinclair’s Oil!, not least because I like Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood inspired by it.

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  1. I need to read the original – I grew up in Mexico, and didn’t move back to the States where I was born until finishing college, and by then I was firmly into physics.

    I remember reading The Grapes of Wrath, another novel which exposed what the poor and desperate – in that case, people from Oklahoma displaced by the Dust Bowl; this particular group traveling to California to look for jobs.

    These novels created attention for the plight of those exploited – and ultimately led to some changes, but we have much yet to do.

    I remember watching There Will Be Blood! Unrestrained greed is the bane of humans.

    Thanks for reviewing this book.

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    1. Thanks for reading! The Grapes of Wrath is another great one, you put it very well, such novels are very eye-opening and important. Actually, speaking of John Steinbeck, I am now considering reading The Winter of Our Discontent, which some say is at the standard of The Grapes of Wrath.

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    1. A favourite of Alan Moore? That’s interesting and I certainly see that because some of his work is all about challenging authority, uncovering conspiracy, helping individuals wronged and that general revolutionary spirit. I want to read Moore’s Jerusalem.

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