by Upton Sinclair
The Jungle Suffering Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
They were beaten; they had lost the game, they were swept aside. It was not less tragic because it was so sordid, because it had to do with wages and grocery bills and rents. They had dreamed of freedom; of a chance to look about them and learn something; to be decent and clean, to see their child grow up to be strong. And now it was all gone—it would never be! They had played the game and they had lost. Six years more of toil they had to face before they could expect the least respite, the cessation of the payments upon the house; and how cruelly certain it was that they could never stand six years of such a life as they were living! (14.7)
When the narrator comments that Jurgis's suffering "is not less tragic because it was so sordid," he is writing against centuries of tradition about tragedy. Tragedy as a literary genre often relies on the so-called "fatal flaw" of an individual's nature to create plots that end in doom: for example, Macbeth's greed, King Lear's pride, Hamlet's indecisiveness, and so on. But the tragedies of Jurgis's life aren't about human nature; they are the result of an unjust, inhuman social structure. Even if his family's troubles are "so sordid," though, they are still painful and agonizing. They still deserve recognition, even if this isn't the stuff of classical tragedy.
It was not an easy thing for Jurgis to take more than two or three drinks. With the first drink he could eat a meal, and he could persuade himself that that was economy; with the second he could eat another meal—but there would come a time when he could eat no more, and then to pay for a drink was an unthinkable extravagance, a defiance of the agelong instincts of his hunger-haunted class. One day, however, he took the plunge, and drank up all that he had in his pockets, and went home half "piped," as the men phrase it. He was happier than he had been in a year; and yet, because he knew that the happiness would not last, he was savage, too with those who would wreck it, and with the world, and with his life; and then again, beneath this, he was sick with the shame of himself. (14.11)
Jurgis is suffering so badly that he starts drinking to feel better. Even if drinking makes him "happier than he had been in a year," he is still so angry and ashamed with himself for doing it that he feels "sick." So, even though he is trying to make himself feel better, he is actually adding to his own suffering. There is nothing in The Jungle that we can think of – alcoholism, prostitution, crime – that doesn't have some kind of social explanation within the novel. Jurgis drinks because he's poor and unhappy; Marija becomes a prostitute because her family is starving, etc. Is there anything that happens in the book that can't be tied back to the evils of society? Does the strong political agenda of the novel ever strain the believability of the plot?
Jurgis had first come to the stockyards he had been as clean as any workingman could well be. But later on, what with sickness and cold and hunger and discouragement, and the filthiness of his work, and the vermin in his home, he had given up washing in winter, and in summer only as much of him as would go into a basin. He had had a shower bath in jail, but nothing since—and now he would have a swim! (22.25)
The unhappiness of Jurgis's life in the stockyards has left an actual, physical residue – filth – on his skin. Once he leaves the city to start hoboing, he can finally wash this filth off. How long does Jurgis's feeling of freedom last while he is traveling on the road? How does Sinclair depict the life of a hobo? How does this period in Jurgis's life seem to fit in with the rest of Sinclair's political commentary?