The Jungle in Chicago

Upton Sinclair
Jurgis Rudkus
Marija Berczynskas

The Jungle is a famous novel written by the American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) in 1906. The novel portrays the harsh living conditions and brutal economic exploitation of Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago. Sinclair describes the terrible injustices of Chicago’s meat packing industry through the experiences of Jurgis Rudkus, his main protagonist. Rudkus comes to the US looking for the American Dream but ultimately discovers the bitter truth about opportunity and prosperity in America. The book resonated strongly with many across the world. Jack London, the prominent American writer, described the book as ”the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of wage slavery”. Winston Churchill also praised the book in a review. The book also provoked public outrage. Consequently, the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906. This act helped to considerably improve conditions in American slaughterhouses.

The book describes Chicago as a melting pot of many nations, including Lithuanians and Poles. The story starts following a marriage ceremony in a church. Marija Berczynskas, a 20-something orphan but a strong Lithuanian woman, “left the church last of all, and, desiring to arrive first at the hall, had issued orders to the coachman to drive faster. When that personage had developed a will of his own in the matter, Marija had flung up the window of the carriage, and, leaning out, proceeded to tell him her opinion of him, first in Lithuanian, which he did not understand, and then in Polish, which he did”. Marija hopes to arrive first to a traditional Lithuanian wedding feast (veselija) for her cousin Ona Lukoszaite, who just married Jurgis. The laws of the veselija described by the author include hospitality (“no one goes hungry”, “even dogs went out happier”), informality, music, dancing, singing, and finally the acziavimas (thanksgiving). According to Sinclair, “The acziavimas is a ceremony which, once begun, will continue for three or four hours, and it involves one uninterrupted dance. The guests form a great ring, locking hands, and, when the music starts up, begin to move around in a circle. In the center stands the bride, and, one by one, the men step into the enclosure and dance with her”