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The Jungle | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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How does The Jungle portray the American Dream?

Through the struggles of Jurgis and his family, The Jungle portrays the American Dream as an illusion. The American Dream suggests that with hard work and a bit of luck, one can climb the financial ladder in "rags-to-riches" success. In reality, however, the rich have all the power, mercilessly exploit poor workers, and force them into a cycle of poverty from which it is nearly impossible to break free. The only time Jurgis himself achieves financial success—building a savings of $300—he does so by abandoning the family, becoming a criminal, and exploiting others. Throughout the course of the novel, each marker of the family's success is subverted through capitalist corruption: Job: In the American Dream, individuals find jobs that are financially and emotionally fulfilling. While Jurgis succeeds in his first job at plant, as soon as he's injured, he must take less and less desirable jobs, as are the members of his family: Hour after hour, day after day, year after year, it was fated that he should stand upon a certain square foot of floor. Family: In the American Dream, families are happy—free to enjoy activities, good food, health, and wealth together. Through their financial struggles in America, Jurgis's family crumbles. Children die, everyone argues, and his once strong marriage collapses. Of the factories, he thinks: They had ground him beneath their heel, they had devoured all his substance. House: Owning one's own house is another sought-after goal in the American Dream. In their naïve pursuit of this success, the family is swindled into unsurmountable debt: Their home! They had lost it! Grief, despair, rage, overwhelmed him. Wealth: The American Dream promises financial security to pursue one's freedom and happiness. Yet, no matter how hard the family works, they can never make enough to survive. When Stanislovas visits Jurgis in prison he cries, [W]e can't pay the rent and the interest on the house. Systematically, the evils of corruption subvert and destroy each marker of success the family had hoped for in their American Dream.

How does Kristoforas's death highlight the struggles of working families in The Jungle?

The circumstances of Kristoforas's death show the consequences of the family's financial struggles, and by extension, the struggles of all working families in Packingtown. First, the only food available to him may or may not be toxic, because the family has access to no better; at any rate they believe bad meat may have caused his death. Second, the only person available to care for the disabled Kristoforas is 13-year-old Kotrina, a child herself and ill-equipped to handle a crisis. Third, after his death most of the family, benumbed by the daily grind of their lives, don't even mourn or care to observe the proper rituals of death. Kristoforas, who was crippled by a congenital hip defect which "made it impossible for him to ever walk" was most deserving of society's compassion. Perhaps he could have received medical care, but his mother didn't speak English and was unaware of resources that may have been available to him. Poverty robbed the family not only of the necessities of a decent life but of the emotional and spiritual responses to death that make them human.

In Chapter 15 of The Jungle, in what way is the fight between Connor and Jurgis a turning point for Jurgis?

In the fight between Jurgis and Connor, Sinclair once again compares denizens of Packingtown to beasts in a jungle. Jurgis wants to punish Connor—to whom he now refers as "it"—for preying upon Ona: "It had worked its will upon Ona, this great beast—and now he had it, he had it!" Jurgis himself attacks like "a tiger": It was only when half a dozen men had seized him by the legs and shoulders and were pulling at him, that he understood that he was losing his prey. In a flash he had bent down and sunk his teeth into the man's cheek; and when they tore him away he was dripping with blood, and little ribbons of skin were hanging in his mouth. Until now Jurgis and his family had been prey to the predatory factory owners and bosses in Packingtown. This role dehumanized the family and pushes Jurgis, who had been compared to a beast of burden, to breaking point. In the fight he snaps, becoming a predator himself. In this moment he loses the last vestiges of his humanity and sinks fully into the animalistic life that will strip him of his family, his home, his freedom, and his hope.

How does The Jungle portray prison life?

Jurgis's life in prison creates situational irony in The Jungle because this life of "punishment" is in many ways more comfortable than his life of freedom. In jail Jurgis is given access to at least one meal a day, warm drinks laced with drugs that make him docile, a bed to sleep in, and shelter from the brutal cold. He muses that if a man should truly be punished, they would lock his family up inside and leave the man to struggle outside. The true punishment for Jurgis, then, is knowing how his incarceration will affect his family. Although prison life is comfortable for Jurgis, this only highlights his depravity on the outside: His cell was about five feet by seven in size, with a stone floor ... There was no window ... There were two bunks, one above the other, each with a straw mattress and a pair of gray blankets - the latter stiff as boards with filth, and alive with fleas, bed-bugs and lice. When Jurgis lifted the mattress he discovered beneath it a layer of scurrying roaches. This description accurately describes prison life in America at the end of the 19th century, before outrage over prison conditions led to reform in the early 1900s.

What is the purpose of the poem at the end of Chapter 16 in The Jungle, and how effective is it in achieving this purpose?

The verses at the end of Chapter 16 of The Jungle are from the poem "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (pronounced "redding jail") by Oscar Wilde in 1898. Wilde wrote the poem when he was briefly jailed for being gay. Sinclair uses the poem to highlight the inhumanity of the penal system, which only encourages its inmates' criminal tendencies. The poem also says society would be aghast if they knew what went on inside of jails. At the time of the poem's publication, homosexuality was viewed as a corruption of morality and was therefore illegal. A comparison can easily be made to Jurgis's crime, which was also a result of lost, or misguided, morality. While the poem's theme is appropriate, its inclusion here seems out of place. Jurgis is uneducated and basically illiterate. He would likely never have heard of Oscar Wilde, let alone be familiar with any of his work. Although the omniscient third-person narrator generally tracks Jurgis's perspective, the poem clearly represents Sinclair's views rather than Jurgis's. Its inclusion represents an example of the mawkish sensationalism that temporarily undermines Sinclair's generally steely-eyed, naturalistic narrative.

How are Jurgis and Jack Duane similar and different in The Jungle?

Jurgis and Jack Duane become partners in Chicago's underworld, profiting off a life of crime and the misfortunes of others. Both men were beaten down by the capitalist system—Duane after losing his entrepreneurial fortune to a corrupt judge, Jurgis through exploitative work conditions. Duane embraces a life of crime to avenge his lost fortune, while Jurgis embraces crime out of sheer desperation. Both men seem to enjoy the proceeds of their crime, spending their ill-gotten gains on base pleasures, but only Duane seems completely emotionally at ease with his actions. He has stopped thinking about his family back east because "he didn't allow it. Thinking about it would make it no better." When Jurgis feels guilty the first time they mug a man who has done them no harm, Duane says, "He was doing it to somebody as hard as he could, you can be sure of that." Shortly after, Jurgis begins living life with Duane's same hard, cruel outlook. At the end of the novel, socialism makes him an honest man again, suggesting he never fully embraced Duane's lifestyle. This reticence is Jurgis's saving grace, making him a forgivable character.

How does the narrator's tone change in the final chapters of The Jungle?

In the final chapters of The Jungle, the tone changes dramatically. The narrative is no longer concerned with the story of Jurgis and his family, but focuses almost entirely on political ideologies and benefits of socialism to the reader. The tone becomes academic and "preachy": Communism in material production, anarchism in intellectual was the formula of modern proletariat thought. As soon as birth-agony was over ... there would be a simple system whereby each man was credited with his labor and debited with his purchases; and after that the processes of production, exchange, and consumption would go on automatically. This is a sharp comparison to the preceding narrative, which alternated between a steely-eyed journalistic approach and sentimentality. In fact, long stretches of the final chapter consist of socialist-themed speeches to which both Jurgis and the reader are captive audiences. Several new characters are introduced but never developed in any depth. Maynard, Dr. Schliemann, and Lucas all deliver pages-long speeches about their political and religious beliefs, but the reader learns nothing about them as characters. The awkward ending reflects Sinclair's uncertainty about how to bring Jurgis's story to a close. Following the social Darwinist logic of the first twenty-seven chapters to the end would have made for a bleak finale. Instead, Sinclair wanted The Jungle to serve the dual purposes of exposé and inspirational socialist propaganda.

Why is The Jungle often considered propaganda?

Propaganda is information given (often manipulated) to promote a particular political idea. The Jungle is often considered to be political propaganda because it was written to promote the political doctrine of socialism. Each of the first 27 chapters points to a social or economic problem: the graft, exploitative work conditions, wage slavery, and the corruption of family values and social morality are a few examples. The last four chapters reveal that the answer to each of these problems is socialism. Sinclair's message in these chapters is so strong it prevents readers from making up their own minds about how Jurgis's experiences should be interpreted. The author tells the readers exactly how to feel: capitalism is evil and the only solution is socialism. For this reason, The Jungle is often heralded as a "classic" for its muckraking style, not as an example of high literary work.

Why are the methods for improving workers' lives within the capitalist system in The Jungle ineffective?

The novel explores many different ways that people attempt to better the lives of the workers in The Jungle: Unionization: The workers attempt to band together to make demands of their employers. However, the unions don't have enough money or power to help their members or sway business owners, points made when Jurgis injures his ankle and again during the beef strike. Philanthropy: Wealthy individuals attempt to better the lives of impoverished workers, but this fails because individuals cannot change a corrupt and exploitative system on their own. This approach is represented by the well-connected settlement worker, who sends groceries and finds Jurgis a job at the steel mill after seeing the children foraging for food in the dump. Laws: On paper the government creates laws to prevent the exploitation of workers, like child labor laws, but these laws are rarely enforced and easy to dodge. Jurgis easily secures false papers that enable Stanislovas to work in the lard-canning facility. Ultimately, none of these methods of improving lives is effective. At the end of the novel, Sinclair illustrates how socialism is the answer to society's ills. His arguments are considered political propaganda, however. Sinclair presents socialism as a flawless political system, when in practice, it risks becoming just as corrupt and mismanaged as capitalism.

In what ways does The Jungle present pessimistic and optimistic views of America?

The Jungle presents a pessimistic view of capitalistic America, where greed is a destructive force against American families, society, and ideals. In Sinclair's America, greed and corruption are the lynch pins of society, and these evil forces cannot be overcome without completely overhauling the country's political structure. Sinclair's obvious message is that socialism is the answer to capitalism's evils. The novel ends with the notably optimistic chant that, "Chicago will be ours!" While Sinclair's view of a socialist America is certainly optimistic, clear parallels can be drawn between Jurgis's easy acceptance of the socialist message and his earlier naïve belief in the American Dream.

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