How we cite our quotes:
But there was no place a girl could go in Packingtown, if she was particular about things of this sort; there was no place in it where a prostitute could not get along better than a decent girl. Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers; under such circumstances immorality was exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it was under the system of chattel slavery. Things that were quite unspeakable went on there in the packing houses all the time, and were taken for granted by everybody; only they did not show, as in the old slavery times, because there was no difference in color between master and slave. (10.14)
Prostitution was a hot topic for social reformers at the turn of the century. In fact, Upton Sinclair refers to French author Émile Zola by name in Chapter 9. One of the novels that made Zola famous was Nana, which is about a prostitute who winds up dying of smallpox (not pleasant). We also can't forget American Stephen Crane's 1896 novel Maggie: A Girl on the Streets. A lot of writers were trying to explain prostitution as a symptom of various social ills, and Sinclair is no exception. For him, prostitution is the natural result of collecting a population of "low-class and mostly foreign" women with no money and no other options into one place under the power of "brutal and unscrupulous" bosses. It's not a question of low morality or anything like that; it's because poor women often have no other choice. This is essentially the conclusion that Marija Berczynskas comes to by the end of the novel, by the way – she has become incredibly practical about the whole thing.
It was dreadful that an accident of this sort, that no man can help, should have meant such suffering. The bitterness of it was the daily food and drink of Jurgis. It was of no use for them to try to deceive him; he knew as much about the situation as they did, and he knew that the family might literally starve to death. […] It was like seeing the world fall away from underneath his feet; like plunging down into a bottomless abyss into yawning caverns of despair. It might be true, then, after all, what others had told him about life, that the best powers of a man might not be equal to it! (11.18)
Jurgis tears a tendon on the job and is laid up for three months. Because of this three months without Jurgis's income, suddenly the whole family is on the brink of starvation. The trouble with relying on the man of the house to provide is that, if he falls out of commission, everything goes to pieces. We can compare Jurgis's concern over not being able to provide for his family with Marija Berczynskas's later statement that they should all just have lived off Ona as a prostitute from the beginning. Knowing what you know of these characters, would it have been possible for Ona to become a prostitute as soon as she and her family hit Chicago? How would her characterization be different if Ona had gone straight into prostitution? How would the plot structure of the novel itself change?
Several times she was quite beside herself and hysterical; and then Jurgis would go half-mad with fright. Elzbieta would explain to him that it could not be helped, that a woman was subject to such things when she was pregnant; but he was hardly to be persuaded, and would beg and plead to know what had happened. She had never been like this before, he would argue—it was monstrous and unthinkable. It was the life she had to live, the accursed work she had to do, that was killing her by inches. She was not fitted for it—no woman was fitted for it, no woman ought to be allowed to do such work; if the world could not keep them alive any other way it ought to kill them at once and be done with it. They ought not to marry, to have children; no workingman ought to marry—if he, Jurgis, had known what a woman was like, he would have had his eyes torn out first. So he would carry on, becoming half hysterical himself, which was an unbearable thing to see in a big man; Ona would pull herself together and fling herself into his arms, begging him to stop, to be still, that she would be better, it would be all right. So she would lie and sob out her grief upon his shoulder, while he gazed at her, as helpless as a wounded animal, the target of unseen enemies. (14.16)
Jurgis does not yet know that the reason Ona has become prone to these fits of hysteria is because she has been raped and is being intimidated into prostitution at work. All Jurgis can see is that the work she is doing is "killing her by inches." Jurgis perceives that "no woman ought to be allowed to do such work" at the factories – all of this hard labor is particularly tough for fragile Ona. Frankly, though, no man ought to be allowed to do such work, either. Jurgis works himself to the bone to keep his terrible jobs at various factories, even as they keep speeding up the pace of the work until he can hardly keep up. No one, regardless of gender, could stand the lives they are being made to lead – that's the whole point of The Jungle.