A jungle is a dense, often tropical forest – we're thinking of vines, brightly colored flowers, maybe a few parrots, and a smattering of monkeys. The Jungle, on the other hand, is a brutal exposé of the widespread abuse of immigrant and poor workers in Chicago's meatpacking district at the turn of the twentieth century. So…why name a novel about the horrors of city life after a thick, lush kind of forest?
One possibility is that author Upton Sinclair had a publishing deadline and just needed to slap some darn title on this thing. After all, the magazine in which he published the novel, Appeal to Reason, does not have the snappiest name we've ever heard. And Sinclair isn't terribly creative with names – he called his 1927 novel about the oil industry Oil!, for crying out loud. Still, we think we can come up with a few ideas beyond random chance or desperation for why Sinclair chose The Jungle as the title of his most enduring book.
The word "jungle" appears in the novel once, in Chapter 22. Protagonist Jurgis Rudkus is drunk and decides to sleep with a prostitute. The novel compares Jurgis's sexual desire to that of a beast in the jungle. So the novel itself associates jungles with primitive, uncontrolled desires. And of course, the awful conditions of the workers in Packingtown (the meatpacking district of Chicago) are the result of unrestrained human desire, not so much for sex, but for money. The Jungle is about human greed and the social damage it does. The novel uses a jungle to symbolize unrestrained longing for something. From this perspective, it makes sense to name a novel about out-of-control lust for money using a symbol for hunger and desire. The images of "beasts" that live in the jungle also brings to mind violence and brutality – another huge theme of Sinclair's analysis of life in Packingtown.
Not only that, but to many of Upton Sinclair's white, middle-class American readers (the "you" to whom he is exposing the hidden horrors of Chicago's meatpacking industry), the events and places of the novel would have seemed as unfamiliar as any Amazonian jungle. Sinclair's novel may take place in the outskirts of Chicago, right in America's Heartland, but the abuses he describes were deliberately hidden by the powerful business interests of the day. Packingtown would have seemed exotic, distant, and grotesque to the average reader. As the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, one meaning of the word jungle is "a place of bewildering complexity of confusion." In other words, a jungle can be a secret place full of unknown elements – just like the mystifying meatpacking district at the heart of Upton Sinclair's Jungle.