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Quotes

Quote #1

It is very imprudent, it is tragic – but, ah, it is so beautiful! Bit by bit these poor people have given up everything else; but to this they cling with all the power of their souls – they cannot give up the veselija! To do that would mean, not merely to be defeated, but to acknowledge defeat – and the difference between these two things is what keeps the world going. The veselija has come down to them from a far-off time; and the meaning of it was that one might dwell within the cave and gaze upon shadows, provided only that once in his lifetime he could break his chains, and feel his wings, and behold the sun; provided that once in his lifetime he might testify to the fact that life, with all its cares and its terrors, is no such great thing after all, but merely a bubble upon the surface of a river, a thing that one may toss about and play with as a juggler tosses his golden balls, a thing that one may quaff, like a goblet of rare red wine. Thus having known himself for the master of things, a man could go back to his toil and live upon the memory all his days. (1.27)

Even though the veselija – the traditional Lithuanian wedding feast – winds up being a financial disaster for Jurgis and his family, they still hold one anyway. They do so largely because Teta Elzbieta insists, because she wants to keep their traditional celebrations alive. The purpose of this celebration, according to Sinclair, is to give poor people one brief, flickering joyful moment to look forward to so that all their lives, they can keep suffering and working hard without minding so much. Traditional rituals are just another way to help people put up with the injustices of the system. Do you agree with this analysis? What social purpose do you think celebrations like the veselija might have?

Quote #2

A very few days of practical experience in this land of high wages had been sufficient to make clear to them the cruel fact that it was also a land of high prices, and that in it the poor man was almost as poor as in any other corner of the earth; and so there vanished in a night all the wonderful dreams of wealth that had been haunting Jurgis. What had made the discovery all the more painful was that they were spending, at American prices, money which they had earned at home rates of wages – and so were really being cheated by the world! The last two days they had all but starved themselves – it made them quite sick to pay the prices that the railroad people asked them for food. (2.16)

Jurgis and his family arrive in the United States expecting higher salaries – and they do find that they are making more money in Chicago than they were in Lithuania. But things cost more in the States, lots more, so their money doesn't go as far. Currently, the poverty line for a family with 12 members (like Jurgis's family) is $51, 970 (source). Still, a lot of people say that these figures about how much you need to get by in this country are outdated and arbitrary because the cost of living is so high, especially in the cities. If you're interested in working out how much money you need to survive with the bare minimum, check out this cool calculator. Also, we love this article about how much money you need to live.

Quote #3

There was nothing better to be had – they might not do so well by looking further, for Mrs. Jukniene had at least kept one room for herself and her three little children, and now offered to share this with the women and the girls of the party. They could get bedding at a secondhand store, she explained; and they would not need any, while the weather was so hot – doubtless they would all sleep on the sidewalk such nights as this, as did nearly all of her guests. "Tomorrow," Jurgis said, when they were left alone, "tomorrow I will get a job, and perhaps Jonas will get one also; and then we can get a place of our own." (2.19)

When Jurgis and his family first settle in Chicago, they have to live in a terrible slum apartment that they share with numerous other people. One of the things we find most striking about this passage is the need for secondhand bedding, at least, if you're not satisfied with sleeping in the sidewalk. No wonder the slum districts of big cities were know for their outbreaks of cholera and typhus – exchanging bedding with complete strangers is a good way to spread germs and also (shudder) bed bugs.

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