In our "In a Nutshell" and "Why Should I Care?" sections, we talk a lot about how Upton Sinclair uses The Jungle to criticize capitalism and US labor practices. But what about the investigative journalism that made The Jungle famous? No one would have read it if it had just been some crank complaining about the Man. What makes The Jungle important is the setting in Chicago's meatpacking factories. Upton Sinclair combined his own socialist ideals and agenda with some really hard-hitting descriptions of Packingtown and its poor sanitation and hygiene.
Amid all of the plot developments and meditations on Jurgis's inner turmoil, you also get these almost newspaper-like depictions of pigs with tuberculosis (an infectious lung disease) being processed into ham for sale. Or people falling into fat rendering tanks and getting turned into lard and fertilizer. Or men being gored by runaway cattle on the killing floor. These descriptions of the novel's setting were so unsettling and disgusting to The Jungle's contemporary readers that they demanded a federal review of food safety and packaging processes. People all over the country were eating these packaged and processed meats, which means that The Jungle wasn't only about a guy named Jurgis and his disastrous family life – it was about all of us and the quality of what we put in our mouths everyday.
It's not just the meatpacking factories themselves that are unhealthful. Everything in Packingtown has been tainted by the poverty and misery that the slaughterhouse industry has brought to the area. The river is filled with chemical runoffs from the factories. The streets have no drainage and are filled with potholes deep enough to drown a child in (as poor Baby Antanas tragically discovers). The tenements are overcrowded with workers and the houses are shabby and badly built. The whole area is far from Chicago's downtown, so Packingtown's dreary injustices are out of sight, out of mind for most of the city's residents. The polluted, overcrowded, impoverished backdrop of The Jungle gives the whole novel an inescapable, unhappy feeling that enhances the tragedy of what happens to Jurgis and his family.