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Quotes

Quote #4

Ona's heart sank, for the house was not as it was shown in the picture; the color scheme was different, for one thing, and then it did not seem quite so big. Still, it was freshly painted, and made a considerable show. It was all brand-new, so the agent told them, but he talked so incessantly that they were quite confused, and did not have time to ask many questions. There were all sorts of things they had made up their minds to inquire about, but when the time came, they either forgot them or lacked the courage. The other houses in the row did not seem to be new, and few of them seemed to be occupied. When they ventured to hint at this, the agent's reply was that the purchasers would be moving in shortly. To press the matter would have seemed to be doubting his word, and never in their lives had any one of them ever spoken to a person of the class called "gentleman" except with deference and humility. (4.11)

The real estate agent who bullies Jurgis and his family into buying this house they don't even like that much is profiting on the specific insecurities of these new immigrants. They have never spoken to a gentleman "except with deference and humility" – in other words, their cultural background emphasizes maintaining class differences. So they feel too shy to be direct in asking this well-dressed stranger some important questions about their new house purchase. The agent is intimidating them without showing obvious aggression or anger; he's subtle enough to frighten them through cues like nice clothing, quick answers, and rapid speech. His expression of power is like that of the capitalist system more generally in this novel. His power is not obvious and his exploitation is hidden and difficult to pinpoint. Once it becomes clear that he has cheated Jurgis's family, though, they have no recourse to solve the problem. They have absolutely no authority in this situation.

Quote #5

In Packingtown the advertisements had a style all of their own, adapted to the peculiar population. One would be tenderly solicitous. "Is your wife pale?" it would inquire. "Is she discouraged, does she drag herself about the house and find fault with everything? Why do you not tell her to try Dr. Lanahan's Life Preservers?" Another would be jocular in tone, slapping you on the back, so to speak. "Don't be a chump!" it would exclaim. "Go and get the Goliath Bunion Cure." "Get a move on you!" would chime in another. "It's easy, if you wear the Eureka Two-fifty Shoe." (5.2)

The laborers in Packingtown work in unsafe conditions to make almost no money. Once they've taken that money home, the corporations they work for use ads to try and sucker them into giving that money right back. Businesses in Packingtown are profiting two ways: first, by forcing people to work for not enough money and then, second, by encouraging them to spend that money on products they don't really need.

Quote #6

The peculiar bitterness of all this was that Jurgis saw so plainly the meaning of it. In the beginning he had been fresh and strong, and he had gotten a job the first day; but now he was second-hand, a damaged article, so to speak, and they did not want him. They had got the best of him – they had worn him out, with their speeding-up and their carelessness, and now they had thrown him away! And Jurgis would make the acquaintance of others of these unemployed men and find that they had all had the same experience. (12.14)

Sinclair is applying a classic form of Marxist philosophy in this analysis of Jurgis's troubles. According to Karl Marx, the communist philosopher, in early modes of economic development, people sell things that they have made. The price of these things is based on the materials that have gone into them. So, if you are selling a quilt, you base the price on cost of fabric, needles, band-aids for when you have pricked your fingers, etc. However, in a capitalist system, when you want to profit off objects for sale, you start to factor in the cost of your labor. How long did it take you to make the quilt? How much will the buyer be willing to pay you for that time? As capitalism evolves, what is made totally stops mattering. The price of an object is all about how much the buyer is willing to pay; it no longer depends on raw materials at all.

Once price becomes based on market value, the incentive is for the boss to pay his laborers as little as he can while he charges the consumer as much as they will pay. Thus, laborers who are willing to work a lot of time for a little money will get jobs over those who demand higher wages. The content of the work is no longer important; all that matters is the willingness of the worker to put in long hours without much reward.

To take the example of Jurgis, Jurgis works for several companies and it never matters what he makes – at different points in the novel, he works in a meatpacking plant, a factory for making harvesters, and a steel mill. In Marxist terms, this means that he has become alienated from his work. He is no longer directly profiting from the things he makes; he is simply one small part of a much large profit-making system. He is (more or less literally) a cog in a machine. When cogs get overworked and worn out, they get replaced. (Again, this is all according to Marxist thought – to read more, check out Marx's extremely famous foundational text Capital.)

The unfortunate result of capitalist development is that these cogs in the machine are often people, poor souls like Stanislovas running the lard canning machine or Marija trimming cattle. Once Stanislovas develops his terrible fear of cold and Marija injures her hand with a dirty knife, they can both be easily swapped out for other, less worn-down workers. There is no inherent respect or value attached to the worker in this system. This is why Jurgis can complain that his employers "had worn him out […] and now they had thrown him away!" These systems dehumanize workers, which means they get no consideration when they hit patches of bad luck.

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