The Jungle | Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

The novel flashes back to when Jurgis and his family were still in Lithuania. Jurgis had been a hard-working farm boy, strong and physically fit. In addition to being strong, Jurgis was also determined. When Ona's father said he wasn't good enough to marry his daughter, Jurgis went away to work hard and prove he could make something of himself. During that time, Ona's father died and a series of corrupt government dealings left the family nearly destitute. Jurgis stepped in to claim his "prize," and at the suggestion of Ona's cousin Jonas, agreed to take the family to America to start over. People from home warned him that work was difficult to find in Chicago, but Jurgis wasn't convinced: "Do you [believe] that with these arms ... people will ever let me starve?"

When they arrived in America, the only word the family knew was "Chicago," but kindhearted people put them on a train and taught them the word "stockyard." As soon as the train reached Packingtown, the family was overcome with new sights, sounds, and scents. They met up with a friend from home, Jokubas Szedvilas, who owned the local delicatessen in Packingtown. Szedvilas brought them to Mrs. Jukniene who ran a filthy local boarding house. Despite the absolute rottenness of Packingtown, the family felt hopeful that their situation was only temporary and hard work would quickly create a better life.

Analysis

The majority of this chapter is spent describing Packingtown as the naïve immigrant family first saw it. Sinclair creates a dark mood: without exception, every object in Packingtown is described as ugly, dirty, filthy, dingy, tangled, dark, thick, strange, and pungent. The atmosphere is overcrowded, dark, and filthy from "immense volumes of smoke ... darkening the air and making filthy the earth beneath." The surrounding landscape is "hideous and bare." Sinclair's description leaves no doubt in readers' minds that Packingtown is an earthly version of hell. Despite Jurgis's naïve belief that hard work will award him a prosperous future, it's clear from the onset that hope is destroyed in Packingtown. Even Jokubas Szedvilas, renowned in Jurgis's hometown for having succeeded in Chicago, hasn't managed to escape Packingtown.

The rest of this chapter focuses on Jurgis and his blind faith in the American Dream. While it's true that Jurgis initially has no trouble securing work in America due to his size, the novel hints that success will be short-lived. For all his grit and determination, Jurgis is clearly naïve. Upon landing in America, he and his family are described as "pitiable in their helplessness." Sinclair casts Jurgis and his family as victims of an exploitative system rigged for their failure. In "the jungle" of capitalism, Jurgis and his family are prey to predatory businesses that profit off their hard work. However, the chapter closes with hope rising in Jurgis as he reflects on the greatness that brought all of this into being, and he sees the owners of the plant as his "protectors." This ending heightens his later fall from hope.

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