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The Jungle

The Jungle

by Upton Sinclair

Language and Communication Quotes

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Quote #4

They could not understand why the union had not prevented [the canning factory from closing], and the very first time she attended a meeting Marija got up and made a speech about it. It was a business meeting, and was transacted in English, but that made no difference to Marija; she said what was in her, and all the pounding of the chairman's gavel and all the uproar and confusion in the room could not prevail. Quite apart from her own troubles she was boiling over with a general sense of the injustice of it, and she told what she thought of the packers, and what she thought of a world where such things were allowed to happen; and then, while the echoes of the hall rang with the shock of her terrible voice, she sat down again and fanned herself, and the meeting gathered itself together and proceeded to discuss the election of a recording secretary. (8.15)

After Jurgis joins his union, he convinces Marija to join one as well. But the union does not prevent Marija's canning factory from closing down and leaving her unemployed during the winter slow season. Marija goes to her union meeting to tell them she is outraged, but no one understands her: she is speaking Lithuanian. Again, this is another problem preventing the workingmen from having a real voice in US politics. Since a lot of the laborers suffering in the meatpacking plants are recent immigrants who aren't comfortable with English, no one understands them when they try to complain. So, in a sense, The Jungle is, itself, a translation of the laments of immigrant workers like Jurgis and his family.

Quote #5

Some time ago, Elzbieta was told, a Chicago billionaire had paid a fortune to bring a great European surgeon over to cure his little daughter of the same disease from which Kristoforas had suffered. And because this surgeon had to have bodies to demonstrate upon, he announced that he would treat the children of the poor, a piece of magnanimity over which the papers became quite eloquent. Elzbieta, alas, did not read the papers, and no one had told her; but perhaps it was as well, for just then they would not have had the carfare to spare to go every day to wait upon the surgeon, nor for that matter anybody with the time to take the child. (13.2)

The consequences of not knowing English in this country are enormous. It doesn't just limit the kinds of jobs you can get. It also means that Teta Elzbieta can't stay informed about lifesaving techniques that might have helped Kristoforas, her youngest son. If she were able to keep up with English-language newspapers, perhaps she might have contacted this doctor. This is one reason why many activists resist the whole notion of declaring English the official language of the United States: if all public business has to be transacted in English, many perfectly legal and hardworking immigrants may find themselves cut off from essential information about their rights. That could make them even more vulnerable to exploitation from unscrupulous people.

Quote #6

They were again able to pay their debts and to begin to save a little sum; but there were one or two sacrifices they considered too heavy to be made for long—it was too bad that the boys [Vilimas and Nikolajus] should have to sell papers at their age. It was utterly useless to caution them and plead with them; quite without knowing it, they were taking on the tone of their new environment. They were learning to swear in voluble English; they were learning to pick up cigar stumps and smoke them, to pass hours of their time gambling with pennies and dice and cigarette cards; they were learning the location of all the houses of prostitution on the "Levee," and the names of the "madames" who kept them, and the days when they gave their state banquets, which the police captains and the big politicians all attended. (13.14)

When summer comes around and the family's financial situation seems less dire, they want to figure out a way to get Vilimas and Nikolajus back in school (which never happens, by the way). It's interesting that one cause for concern about how the boys are growing up is that, on the streets, they are learning "to swear in voluble English" and generally to behave like Chicago criminals. From one point of view, these kids are adapting and assimilating into American culture much more successfully than any of the other members of their family. From another point of view, though, the culture that they are joining is not what Teta Elzbieta wants for them. It's as though, as soon as the children start working, their mother stops having any influence on their fates.

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