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The Jungle | Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


For what purpose does Sinclair personify the cold in The Jungle?

During the family's first winter in America, the cold is so brutal and unexpected that it attacks them like a violent stalker "yelling outside" with "death-dealing fingers." They fear it as much as they would a madman crouching outside their home waiting to strike. In the winter Packingtown is a version of hell, only freezing cold rather than hot, and the personified cold hovers around the family like a merciless, demonic presence waiting to pick off the weak. "It was cruel iron-hard; and hour after hour they would cringe in its grasp, alone, alone." In this way the cold is another predator in "the jungle," stalking and killing its prey.

How does The Jungle portray unions?

The Jungle portrays unions as a false hope. Initially, Jurgis is uninterested in joining the union because he doesn't want to pay union fees. After experiencing the abuses of the Packingtown bosses firsthand, however, he decides that joining would be a good investment in his family's future. He hopes his affiliation will give him power to battle against the exploitative nature of his workplace, but when he actually needs the union's support (after getting injured and losing his job), they offer no help. Later, when union workers go on strike, the owners hire "scabs" like Jurgis to work in their place. The union, although optimistic, is simply too small to battle against the beef trust. The only solution, Sinclair argues, is to change the entire structure of society through socialism. The small-scale representation of unions in the novel does not reflect the union movement in America at the time of the novel's publication. In the early 1900s, approximately 23,000 strikes were staged, involving six million workers. Laborers were eager to join unions and fight for better working conditions, although, as in the novel, their demands were often ignored.

What does Mike Scully represent in The Jungle?

Mike Scully, the most powerful politician in Packingtown, represents the highest level of systemic graft. Although he is a Democratic alderman—one member of a city council—he is said to be more powerful than the mayor. This perversion of the political hierarchy is representative of the immorality that pervades the city. Scully came to power through corruption—blackmail, violence, and election rigging—and has no interest in bettering the lives of the men he exploits. He also stands for nothing other than himself, as readers learn in the second half of the novel, when Scully promises to help a gullible fellow Democrat, a wealthy brewer, run for an open alderman's seat. He takes over the candidate's large campaign chest, but then he rigs the election for the same seat in favor of the Republicans. In return, the Republicans promise not to run against Scully in the next election. In this way Scully makes off with the campaign chest of the Democratic candidate he had promised to help, and assures his own re-election in the next race. In a capitalist society individuals are encouraged to prioritize their personal financial gain, with few government laws to regulate behavior. Those in power, like Mike Scully, manipulate, lie, and exploit to gain more money and power. He represents the complete loss of morality and values that results from capitalism.

How does the system of "broken time" reflect the abuses of capitalism in The Jungle?

"Broken time" is yet another way for bosses to exploit their workers in The Jungle. When Jurgis first learns about his hourly wage, he is filled with optimism. But in reality, the owners find all sorts of ways to keep workers' overall pay low. Under the "broken time" system, employees are only paid for full hours they work, meaning that if they start work at 9:01 am, their pay won't actually start until 10:00. Likewise, if they are told to stop working at 7:59 pm, they will only be paid until 7:00. Often, the bosses dictate when someone should start or finish their day, and the workers have no choice but to accept their unpaid hours or risk losing their jobs completely. "Broken time" directly undermines Jurgis's initial belief that if only he can "work harder," he will get ahead, because in this case working harder benefits only the bosses. "Broken time" is another example of the exploitation encouraged in a capitalist society. Each meat packing plant is competing to make the most money, which they do by producing products with the least overhead, including employee pay. Without government regulations or unions to protect workers, companies are free to conduct business however they choose.

How are factory-working women portrayed in The Jungle?

In the early 1900s hundreds of thousands of young women were wooed away from small towns and villages to life in big cities across the nation. Industrialization was sweeping the country, with factories opening in exciting new industries that desperately needed workers to "man" the machines. Women were offered seemingly generous wages, certainly far more than they could have made on their family farms, so they entered the workforce in droves. At the same time, immigration in America was rapidly increasing. In the year 1900 immigrants formed one-third of Chicago's population. Nearly 40% of its factory workforce was women, and by the end of the 1800s, the large majority of these female workers were ethnic minorities. Despite the new opportunities presented to female workers, women were vulnerable not only to the same workplace exploitations as men—low wages, long hours, unsafe conditions—they were also vulnerable to sexual exploitation, such as sexual harassment or forced prostitution. The Jungle clearly portrays the hard work and determination of female factory workers (Marija) and their exploitation (Ona).

How does "speeding up" in the factories reflect social Darwinism in The Jungle?

Through the process of "speeding up," employers ensure that their employees are constantly maximizing production. This means that employees are working as quickly as they possibly can each and every hour that they're working. While this may sound efficient, it leads to clumsiness, mistakes, accidents, and injuries as workers struggle to keep up with the pace. "Speeding up" seeks to dehumanize workers and turn them into another replaceable part of the machine. The sped-up pace is actually impossible to sustain, so as soon as workers have given everything they can, they are too tired or beaten down to continue. Because workers have been "mechanized," human weakness and mistakes are not tolerated. Exhausted workers are discarded as easily as broken parts, replaced by new workers with more strength and energy. This cycle reflects the theme that in Packingtown the law of the jungle applies. Only the strong survive, and no mercy is shown once that strength is gone; the workers are cast aside.

How and why does Jurgis's attitude toward children change in The Jungle?

Jurgis's view of children, like everything else, changes during his time in Packingtown. In the beginning, the children are his hope for a new future: He would not even hear of letting the children go to work—there were schools here in America for children, Jurgis had heard, to which they could go for nothing ... [H]is mind was made up that the children of Teta Elzbieta should have as fair a chance as any other children. Stanislovas is the first to be pulled from school, however, when the family discovers hidden costs in their housing contract. Jurgis initially feels guilty about putting Stanislovas to work, but as time passes, the young boy is viewed as another cog in the machine. As the demands of daily life cause Jurgis's values to deteriorate, he beats him every morning to get him to work on time. In fact, after a few years in Packingtown, Jurgis (and others) seem to view children who cannot pull their own weight as nuisances, like three-year-old Kristoforas, who suffers from multiple disabilities: All day long he would crawl around the floor in a filthy little dress, whining and fretting; because the floor was full of drafts he was always catching cold, and snuffling because his nose ran. This made him a nuisance, and a source of endless trouble in the family. For his mother, with unnatural perversity, loved him best of all ... and would burst into tears when his fretting drove Jurgis wild. When Kristoforas dies under the care of 11-year-old Kotrina, Jurgis's response—like most of the family's—is callous: No one was really sorry about this except poor Elzbieta, who was inconsolable. Jurgis announced that so far as he was concerned the child would have to be buried by the city, since they had no money for a funeral. The only child Jurgis remains sympathetic to throughout the novel is baby Antanas, his only biological child. Over time Jurgis and other family members, become hardened by deprivation, yet he still has love for baby Antanas, even after the child's untimely death.

What is the "savage beast" lurking in Jurgis's path in Chapter 13 of The Jungle?

The "savage beast" that threatens to destroy Jurgis is the lowest form of work in Packingtown, the fertilizer plant. Sinclair compares life in Packingtown to a jungle, where predators mercilessly stalked their prey. He approaches the plant like a beast going to the slaughter: All this while that he was seeking for work, there was a dark shadow hanging over Jurgis; as if a savage beast were lurking somewhere in the pathway of his life, and he knew it, and yet could not help approaching the place. For Jurgis, the fertilizer plant is a living death, where workers are surrounded by the "tankage" of waste products from slaughtered animals": [H]ere they dried out the bones - and in suffocating cellars where the daylight never came you might see men and women and children bending over whirling machines and sawing bits of bone ... breathing their lungs full of the fine dust, and doomed to die, every one of them, within a certain definite time. At this point, the family is destitute. Jurgis has been out of work for a long time, and he has run through all of his other options. But, as Sinclair says dramatically, "There is a place that waits for the lowest man—the fertilizer plant!" Working among the plant's noxious fumes makes Jurgis weak with pain. The chemicals cause his body to exude a stench that makes him unbearable to be near. Sinclair makes it clear that working at the fertilizer plant strips a man of his last shred of health and dignity.

How does life in Packingtown affect Ona and Jurgis's marriage in The Jungle?

Life in Packingtown slowly erodes the bond between Jurgis and Ona. When they arrived in America, Jurgis always put Ona's interests first. He worked hard to keep her out of the workplace as long as possible. When she does have to work, he carries her to and from the factory in winter. As his humanity is beaten out of him through his toil, however, his perception of Ona also changes. Both characters become less human and more animal: Once or twice in these outbreaks he caught Ona's eye, and it seemed to him like the eye of a hunted animal ... It was only because he was so numb and beaten himself that Jurgis did not worry more about this ... he lived like a dumb beast of burden, knowing only the moment in which he was. Marriage is a distinctly human institution not followed by animals. In their dehumanized states, there is no room for tenderness and fittingly, their marriage suffers. By the end of the novel Jurgis even admits that perhaps the family would have been better off had he ignored Ona's sexual exploitation by Connor and simply allowed it to continue.

In what ways is Ona's character both strong and weak in The Jungle?

From the very beginning, Ona is described as "one of God's gentlest creatures," with a "wan little face" and "small for her age, a mere child." On the surface, she seems weak and overwhelmed. She must be carried to and from the factory in the snow, for example, and she is "never the same" after pregnancy takes its toll on her body. She is always sick, tired, and frightened. In the jungle of Packingtown, she falls into the category of "a hunted animal." Physically, Ona is weak and vulnerable. Yet underneath this vulnerability is a fierce will to survive. Psychologically, she is strong. She begins hiding the family's financial struggles from her husband. She also keeps her rape and sexual exploitation a secret, calling her prostitution "such a little thing—to ruin us all." In the end, she dies in childbirth after battling through a terrible labor. Even Madame Haupt admits that, "she fight hard, dot girl."

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