The Jungle | Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

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Chapter 21

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 21 of Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle.

The Jungle | Chapter 21 | Summary



Once again desperate and destitute, Jurgis returns to prowling the streets in search of any work. The children bring him a few cents from selling papers once a week to ensure he doesn't starve, but there isn't enough food for them at home. Juozapas, one of Teta Elzbieta's crippled sons, picks through the dump each day salvaging for food. While he is there, a "settlement worker," one of the first social workers, approaches and begins asking him questions about his home life. Shortly after, she visits the family in their "home" and is deeply disturbed by their surroundings. She arranges to have food brought in for the family and for her wealthy fiancé to find Jurgis a job at the steel mills downtown. The job is terrifyingly dangerous, but Jurgis doesn't care. He is making money to support his precious Antanas again. The sweet boy has learned to walk and talk and toddles around Jurgis during his weekend visits, endlessly entertaining him. Jurgis begins to feel optimistic again, buying newspapers and working on his English. In the spring Jurgis eagerly rushes home one weekend to visit his son and is met by a large, emotional crowd outside his house. Antanas has fallen into one of the flooded streets while playing outside and has drowned.


Even before Antanas's death, the family was living in horrific conditions. When Juozapas is sent to the dump to scrounge for food, the reader is reminded of the children foraging for foods in the dumps in the novel's first chapter. Now the family, like so many others, has fallen to the very bottom of society, living among the dumps as the human garbage disposed of in the "great machine" of capitalism. While the symbolism between the family and garbage is strong, this chapter also highlights social efforts to create humane conditions for the poor. The settlement worker briefly improves the family's life simply by sending the family food and finding Jurgis a job. However, Jurgis's new work is terribly dangerous, and the food she provides is but a temporary relief from the family's inevitable starvation. Her well-intentioned generosity, Sinclair suggests, cannot truly improve their lives, when the evils of capitalism are so insidious and strong: "she was standing on the brink of the pit of hell and throwing in snowballs to lower the temperature." Through this philanthropic character, Sinclair argues that society cannot simply be changed by the generosity of kind-hearted people; the entire system needs to be overhauled.

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