The Jungle | Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

Jurgis and Ona's wedding reception has left them $100 in debt. As a result, Jurgis begins his disillusionment with America. Here, he realizes, "you went about with your soul filled with suspicion and hatred." He learns that you must search for opportunities to take advantage of others while fighting to protect yourself from exploitation. He doesn't yet realize is that everyone is taking advantage of him all the time. His house is built above a cesspool that holds 15 years of sewage; the milk he buys is watered down and adulterated with formaldehyde; canned peas are tinned with poisonous chemicals; meat, bread, jam, and butter have all been doctored to ensure companies maximize profits. His family can barely afford to eat, so when winter comes they cannot afford blankets, coats, or boots. When their house becomes infested with cockroaches, the treatments they spend precious money on fail too, so they must become content to live alongside vermin. For all of these reasons, Jurgis's family, like the rest in Packingtown, struggle with constant illness.

Chemicals in the pickle room eat through old Antanas's boots and begin eating into his flesh. He dies soon after from a tuberculosis epidemic that sweeps through Packingtown, picking off the weak and elderly. After Stanislovas witnesses a boy's ears break off from frostbite, he is too afraid to walk in the cold. Jurgis must carry him home from work each night or pay to put him in a transport car. The killing beds are freezing and the only place men have to eat their food is in the local bars (where they must order at least one drink). No matter what the family does, they feel they cannot escape the cold.

Analysis

The family's first winter in Chicago is a brutal awakening. Much of the chapter describes the horrors of being poor in the cold. There is no respite from the terrible cold, which Sinclair personifies as if it were another predator hunting the weak: "It crept through the cracks reaching out for them [with] icy, death-dealing fingers." The winter season, perhaps more than any other, highlights the "survival of the fittest" mentality of this jungle. The relentless cold, sickness, and starvation pummels the workers and they must huddle together in order to survive. The people are compared to icy branches on a frozen tree—a sudden strong wind would easily snap off thin twigs—and so the weak begin to fall. Old Antanas dies and Stanislovas is permanently traumatized. In fact, thousands die in Packingtown, but it doesn't matter to the owners: immigrants pour into the stockyards every day searching for work. There is always another immigrant to fill an empty spot on the production line.

No matter how hard Jurgis and his family work, the entire system is rigged for its own benefit and their failure. As Jurgis realizes, "the whole country—from top to bottom [was] nothing but one gigantic lie." The family can't find nutritious food because the food from the shops is doctored with chemicals to stretch profits. They must spend nearly all their money on bad food, so they cannot afford proper clothing or blankets, which leaves them vulnerable to illnesses for which they cannot afford treatment. Their poverty traps them in a vicious cycle. This is best understood through the cockroach infestation. The cockroaches come in, bringing sickness and germs with them. The family scrapes together their pennies to buy cockroach poison, but the poison is (of course) fake powder that has no effect. The family is forced to continue living with the roaches, but they are even poorer than they were before the infestation.

Sinclair makes it easy to understand why many men drink away their paychecks—not only for the fleeting warmth of alcohol but also to escape the brutal grind of daily life in Packingtown. Although Jurgis resists drinking excessively because he is in love and wants to protect Ona, the heavy drinking that surrounds him foreshadows future developments.

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