The Jungle | Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does the wedding scene that opens The Jungle introduce some of the novel's main themes?

The wedding reception shows how capitalism wears away the fabric of society and undermines tradition. During the wedding reception, according to Lithuanian tradition, guests are expected to dance with the bride and leave a financial contribution to help the new couple start their lives together. Guests swarm to the reception for the free food and drink, but almost no one leaves their expected contribution. The bartender, who is on the take, introduces the theme of graft and corruption. There is also a split between older Lithuanians who love the traditions, and the younger, who have quickly adapted to the new ways of every man for himself. The customs that traditionally bind society closely together are fraying, leaving Jurgis and Ona in horrific debt. Traditionally, weddings are joyous occasions that bring people together. Sinclair subverts this expectation by creating a financial situation that will tear the new family apart.

Why does Sinclair occasionally use second-person narration in The Jungle?

Sinclair wrote The Jungle as a political novel to encourage readers to join the socialist movement. By narrating from the audience's perspective, placing them at the scene, Sinclair brings a journalistic immediacy to the narrative. Sinclair uses this technique throughout the first chapter, throwing readers right into the wedding party and introducing them to all of the principal characters. Sometimes, as in the scene in Chapter 3 describing the meat inspector, the use of second person suggests that the audience is complicit in the broken system because they do nothing to stop it: "[the inspector] was quite willing to enter into a conversation with you, and to explain to you the deadly nature of the ptomaines which are found in tubercular pork, and while he was talking with you you could hardly be so ungrateful as to notice that a dozen carcasses were passing him untouched." At other times using the second person helps the audience empathize with the workers' plight: "The winter came, and the place where he worked was a dark, unheated cellar, where you could see your breath all day, and where your fingers sometimes tried to freeze." Later in the book Jurgis is captivated by a socialist's speech. The speech is delivered almost entirely in the second person, which helps explain why Jurgis is so struck by it. He feels that the orator is addressing him directly; the dystopian society the orator describes is exactly what Jurgis has experienced.

How does Jurgis's character change over the course of The Jungle, and why is the change significant?

Through the course of the novel, Jurgis undergoes a journey that first breaks him down, destroying his youthful optimism and naïvité, and then fills him with renewed hope. At the beginning of the novel, Jurgis is hard-working and determined to achieve the American Dream. He follows cultural traditions of home and family first. Through a series of devastating losses and years of exploitation, however, Jurgis all but loses his humanity, living more like an animal than a man. Later, through his discovery of socialism, he is reborn. The primary force breaking Jurgis down is the capitalist "machine." Physically, he is broken down as the literal machines injure and disfigure him: "they had worn him out ... and now they had thrown him away!" Emotionally, he is broken down by the unjust capitalist system, rigged in favor of the wealthy. Despite his honesty and hard work, Jurgis realizes he will never succeed until he embraces a new political system: socialism.

What is the significance of Sinclair's dedication in The Jungle?

Sinclair dedicates The Jungle to the "The workingmen of America." This dedication suggests that Sinclair envisioned his target audience as male laborers for whom Jurgis's experience might resonate. By choosing this dedication, Sinclair shows solidarity with the workers' struggles, giving a voice to the American "workingmen" who felt voiceless, powerless, and trapped in the capitalistic "machine." The dedication is fitting given that he gathered most of his research materials by working alongside factory workers, collecting their personal stories. However, he might also have dedicated his book to the working women of America, since his novel is filled with women who work alongside the men in the factories.

Why does Sinclair describe the music in such detail in Chapter 1 of The Jungle?

In the wedding feast scene, Sinclair spends a significant amount of time describing the music. Not only do these descriptions bring the wedding feast scene to life, they help characterize life in Packingtown. Initially, guests are able to escape the drudgery of their lives as the musics transports them to "a fairy place, a wonderland, a little corner of the high mansions of the sky." However, the reality of their situation looms, even in the music: "[the musician's] notes are never true ... they heed the dirt and noise and squalor." Additionally, the music highlights the culture clash between the old and young Lithuanian immigrants: the older crowd likes old world music, while the younger ones prefer popular songs they have learned in Chicago.

In what ways does Teta Elzbieta in The Jungle represent the difficulties of motherhood in Packingtown?

Traditionally, a "good mother" seeks to protect her child from harm and to create a better life for her child than she had herself. Teta Elzbieta's struggles to be a good mother highlight the challenges all working-class mothers face in Packingtown. While she would prefer to protect her children from the dangers of the workplace, she knows they must work to survive, whether that means leaving school to work in a lard factory (like Stanislovas) or selling papers on the streets. Social status prevents the impoverished Teta Elzbieta from becoming the "good mother" society demands. If she had a choice, however, Teta Elzbieta would have preferred to stay home to take care of disabled Kristoforas, but financial necessity requires her to work, leaving him in the care of another of her children, 13-year-old Kotrina. The reader learns that medical help might have been available for Kristoforas if Teta Elzbieta knew where to find it, but she cannot read the papers, so she doesn't know about a charitable outreach by a local surgeon. Sinclair suggests that Teta Elzbieta is as good a mother as her impoverished circumstances allow her to be—where every family member must work, and where few have the luxury of education. These evils, the novel suggests, would not occur in a socialist society.

How does The Jungle portray capitalism?

Capitalism is an economic structure in which private businesses control a country's industry for profit. This structure allows businesses to grow rapidly without being controlled by government laws. Businesses are free to set their own product prices and negotiate trade deals. In theory, the competition of capitalism creates better business as everyone strives to be "the best." In The Jungle, however, capitalism is presented as a brutal machine that, without government regulations and intervention, destroys family and society. Because only a few get rich at the expense of the rest, a huge divide is created between rich and poor. The rich control the destinies of the poor by making it impossible to break the cycle of poverty. The capitalist system depicted in The Jungle also tears at the fabric of society by encouraging everyone to seek their own advantage at the expense of everyone else. Graft becomes rampant, as anyone with the least bit of authority uses it to skim money that flows through the system. This system of graft affects elections, so that the government is run by corrupt officials whose only loyalty is to themselves and the business owners who have bought them.

In The Jungle how does Jurgis's life in America compare and contrast to his life in Lithuania?

Jurgis and his family have always struggled. Jurgis and his father lived off a six-acre farm in a remote forest, barely eking by. Ona and her family had been well-to-do, but they were swindled and left nearly destitute by the bank after her father's death. Their lives would always have been a struggle. However, in Lithuania, the family could have found relief in their extended network of family and friends. They knew the language, the customs, the traditions, and the opportunities available to them. In America, however, the family are complete outsiders. They have nothing and even begin to lose the comfort of their traditions. They don't have a safe home to live in, healthy food to eat, or clean water to drink. They work exploitative hours in horrific conditions for no gain. The fact that they live so close to enormous wealth seems to make their deprivation even harder to take than it was in Lithuania. To make matters worse, the family has no recourse for relief. They know no one, don't speak the language, and can't access government programs that might have benefitted them.

How does the story of Jadvyga Marcinkus and Mikolas, one of the couples at the wedding feast, help Sinclair upend the tradition of marriage in The Jungle?

Jadvyga Marcinkus and Mikolas have been engaged for five years. Although they are deeply in love, they cannot get married because they don't have the money. At first this seems preposterous—certainly the two could elope! However, even though they are desperately in love and both have jobs, they have large families who depend on them. Each of them is the principal wage earner. Traditionally, the institution of marriage helps stabilize families. In particular, marriage offers financial stability, particularly if both members are working. In The Jungle, however, the prospect of marriage threatens to break down that stability. Jadvyga's family—an invalid mother and three younger sisters—cannot afford the loss of income that would inevitably follow her marriage. For Mikolas, who earns good money when he can work, frequent injuries at his job keep him laid up for months at a time. This depressing relationship upends the expectations for marriage, supporting Sinclair's claim that capitalism destroys families. This argument gains further support through the fates of Marija and Tamoszius, who find themselves unable to marry because of family financial reasons, and of Jurgis and Ona, whose relationship crumbles as financial pressures mount.

How and why does Jurgis's view of prostitution change over the course of The Jungle?

At the beginning of the novel, prostitution is seen as a base pleasure, which Jurgis believes to be immoral and sinful. Not only wouldn't he take part in it, the knowledge that his wife has been forced into it leads Jurgis to a violent confrontation that lands him in jail. As he descends into immorality, however, he turns to prostitutes. He accepts money from Marija, who is now a prostitute herself, and when she tells him their family would have been better off had he simply accepted Ona's exploitation, he "half agreed ... that he ought to have sold his wife's honor and lived with it!" He seems more able to accept prostitution because he has been stifling his emotions: "All these emotions had become strangers to the soul of Jurgis; it was so long since they troubled him that he had ceased to think they might ever trouble him again." Jurgis's attitude toward prostitution has changed because his feelings, and his core morality, have become dulled through suffering and deprivation.

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