The Jungle | Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle | Chapter 13 | Summary

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Summary

Jurgis continues to search for work, knocking on every door in Packingtown, twice. When he realizes he has no other options, he applies for work in the fertilizer plant. The job is so horrific and inhumane that Jurgis previously thought he would rather starve than work there. The narrator describes the putrid process through which all the factory's waste product is turned into fertilizer, and the terrible, poisonous toll it takes on the workers. After only a few days working the plant, the stench has permeated Jurgis's skin and cannot be washed away. He is like a leper in the city, with people gagging on his stench and hurrying away from him. Jurgis is weak, has a relentless headache, vomits constantly, and begins to lose his sight from the chemicals, but he returns to work every day, desperate to keep his family alive.

Slowly, the family begins to recover financially, finally able to save a bit of money again as summer approaches. While they make gains financially, they lose in other ways: one of Teta Elzbieta's sons dies, and once again the family must scrape together enough money for a funeral. Her older sons, newspaper boys, prefer to live on the streets, swearing, gambling, and not coming home at night. Jurgis decides that the older boys must return to school and Teta Elzbieta must find work now that her daughter, Kotrina, is old enough to care for the children.

Analysis

Jurgis reaches what he believes to be his lowest point—working in the fertilizer factory. Jurgis's dedication to a job that is slowly killing him shows his strength of character and his dedication to his family. Herein lies the situational irony of the novel: Jurgis works so hard to protect and preserve his family, but he has no time (or strength) to enjoy having a family. His work has him so beaten down that he lashes out at the ones he is working so hard to protect. When Kristoforas dies, for example, Jurgis barely takes notice. He is simply grateful that there is one less mouth to feed. At the same time, the other children, whom Jurgis had hoped to protect, are forced to grow up quickly, assuming adult roles. Kotrina, for example, is at thirteen charged with caring for the children, as well as the cooking, cleaning, and laundry of an eleven-person household. Her older brothers begin partaking in unsavory habits (like gambling and smoking) because their jobs have them living on the streets.

After taking work in the fertilizer plant, Jurgis is described like an animal, or "savage beast." Working in the filth, he becomes less human. The capitalistic machine is grinding the family down slowly; it's clear that they cannot survive this way much longer.

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