Study Guide

The Jungle Foreignness and the 'Other'

By Upton Sinclair

Foreignness and the 'Other'

"Z. GRAIEZUNAS, PASILINKSMINIMAMS DARZAS. VYNAS. SZNAPSAS. WINES AND LIQUOURS. UNION HEADQUARTERS" – that was the way the signs ran. The reader, who perhaps has never held much converse in the language of far-off Lithuania, will be glad of the explanation that the place was the rear room of a saloon in that part of Chicago known as "back of the yards." This information is definite and suited to the matter of fact; but how pitifully inadequate it would have seemed to one who understood that it was also the supreme hour of ecstasy in the life of one of God's gentlest creatures, the scene of the wedding feast and the joy-transfiguration of little Ona Lukoszaite! (1.3)

"The reader" – that's us. This passage comes right at the beginning of the novel, and it's definitely establishing the reader in a certain position in relation to the characters of the novel. The reader "has never held much converse in the language of far-off Lithuania." So we are assumed to be totally unfamiliar with Lithuanian language and probably culture. Similarly, we are supposed to be ignorant of "back of the yards" Chicago. So we are at a distance from these characters; they are foreign to us. The job of the novel is to introduce us to this unfamiliar terrain, to provide the "explanation" for which we "will be glad." While the whole point of an exposé is to unveil things that are hidden to the general public, you could also argue that the distance the narrator establishes between the reader and the characters makes it harder to feel personally moved by their stories.

It was one of the laws of the veselija that no one goes hungry; and, while a rule made in the forests of Lithuania is hard to apply in the stockyards district of Chicago, with its quarter of a million inhabitants, still they did their best, and the children who ran in from the street, and even the dogs, went out again happier. A charming informality was one of the characteristics of this celebration. The men wore their hats, or, if they wished, they took them off, and their coats with them; they ate when and where they pleased, and moved as often as they pleased. There were to be speeches and singing, but no one had to listen who did not care to; if he wished, meantime, to speak or sing himself, he was perfectly free. (1.6)

It's interesting that Sinclair starts the novel with Ona and Jurgis's wedding feast before going back in time to their origins in Lithuania and their initial introduction to Chicago. This is the only chapter in the book that is chronologically out of order with the rest of Jurgis's story. Why might Sinclair begin The Jungle with this spectacle of the veselija? What tone does he use to describe this celebration? How might the novel have been different if we just began with the family back in Lithuania?

And this was the fact, for Jurgis had never seen a city, and scarcely even a fair-sized town, until he had set out to make his fortune in the world and earn his right to Ona. His father, and his father's father before him, and as many ancestors back as legend could go, had lived in that part of Lithuania known as Brelovicz, the Imperial Forest. This is a great tract of a hundred thousand acres, which from time immemorial has been a hunting preserve of the nobility. There are a very few peasants settled in it, holding title from ancient times; and one of these was Antanas Rudkus, who had been reared himself, and had reared his children in turn, upon half a dozen acres of cleared land in the midst of a wilderness. (2.3)

Not only is Jurgis from a place that is assumed to be foreign to us – Lithuania – but Jurgis himself is unfamiliar with the things we take for granted, such as American cities and towns. In other words, Jurgis's foreignness in American society goes both ways: Americans are ignorant of his ways and he is baffled by America.

Now, sitting in the trolley car, they realized that they were on their way to the home of [the strange, unfamiliar odor] – that they had traveled all the way from Lithuania to it. It was now no longer something far off and faint, that you caught in whiffs; you could literally taste it, as well as smell it – you could take hold of it, almost, and examine it at your leisure. They were divided in their opinions about it. It was an elemental odor, raw and crude; it was rich, almost rancid, sensual, and strong. There were some who drank it in as if it were an intoxicant; there were others who put their handkerchiefs to their faces. The new emigrants were still tasting it, lost in wonder, when suddenly the car came to a halt, and the door was flung open, and a voice shouted – "Stockyards!" (2.12)

Jurgis and his family are so totally ignorant of the place that they are moving to that they don't even have words to agree on what the stockyards smell like. The world of the stockyards is so new to them that they cannot imagine what it is they are approaching, even though they have hints (for example, smoke and a strong smell) of what kind of a place this will be along the way. We have to pause for a second to express our respect for the kind of courage it would take to immigrate literally to the unknown. It sucks that their huge risk doesn't pay off.

One of the first problems that Jurgis ran upon was that of the unions. He had had no experience with unions, and he had to have it explained to him that the men were banded together for the purpose of fighting for their rights. Jurgis asked them what they meant by their rights, a question in which he was quite sincere, for he had not any idea of any rights that he had, except the right to hunt for a job, and do as he was told when he got it. Generally, however, this harmless question would only make his fellow workingmen lose their tempers and call him a fool. (5.10)

For all the beating Sinclair gives to American idealism over the course of this book, it is still notable that it is not until Jurgis comes to the States that he even conceives of the idea that he should expect better from his employment. Yes, his work was never as bad back in Jurgis's old life as it is in the States, but there is still a new language of freedom and human rights that inspires the people around him to form unions and to try and make things better here. Also, Jurgis's complete lack of familiarity with the American system is a useful plot device for Sinclair to introduce us to his perception of it. We are supposed to be learning along with Jurgis.

They were not going to lose all caste, even if they had come to be unskilled laborers in Packingtown; and that Ona had even talked of omitting a veselija was enough to keep her stepmother [Teta Elzbieta] lying awake all night. It was in vain for them to say that they had so few friends; they were bound to have friends in time, and then the friends would talk about it. They must not give up what was right for a little money – if they did, the money would never do them any good, they could depend upon that. And Elzbieta would call upon Dede Antanas to support her; there was a fear in the souls of these two, lest this journey to a new country might somehow undermine the old home virtues of their children. (6.1)

Even though the family has come to the United States to start a new life, the "old home virtues" of Lithuania retain a tight hold on Teta Elzbieta's mind. Besides ritual observances (such as the veselija and poor Kristoforas's funeral), what other signs of Teta Elzbieta's "old home virtues" do we see? Does Elzbieta's judgment of right and wrong differ from her more Americanized children? How does Teta Elzbieta adapt to her new home in the States?

These midnight hours were fateful ones to Jurgis; in them was the beginning of his rebellion, of his outlawry and his unbelief. He had no wit to trace back the social crime to its far sources—he could not say that it was the thing men have called "the system" that was crushing him to the earth, that it was the packers, his masters, who had bought up the law of the land, and had dealt out their brutal will to him from the seat of justice. He only knew that he was wronged, and that the world had wronged him; that the law, that society, with all its powers, had declared itself his foe. And every hour his soul grew blacker, every hour he dreamed new dreams of vengeance, of defiance, of raging, frenzied hate. (16.24)

Having been crushed down by "the system" (he's just been carted off to jail for beating up Connor), Jurgis is beginning to think of himself as an outsider to American society. He is full of "new dreams of vengeance." Jurgis isn't smart enough, though, to "trace back the social crime" that has caused all of his pain and suffering. One reason that the narrator seems so determined to regard his characters from a distant, objective standpoint is so that the narrator can add his own layer of analysis to Jurgis's early sufferings. How different might this novel have been if the analysis of Jurgis's life came not from the narrator, but from Jurgis himself? Would Jurgis seem so foreign if the novel were told in the first person? Before he becomes a socialist, how does Jurgis explain his family's suffering?

They came at last to the house, and to the group of frightened women in the kitchen. It was not over yet, Jurgis learned – he heard Ona crying still; and meantime Madame Haupt removed her bonnet and laid it on the mantelpiece, and got out of her bag, first an old dress and then a saucer of goose grease, which she proceeded to rub upon her hands. The more cases this goose grease is used in, the better luck it brings to the midwife, and so she keeps it upon her kitchen mantelpiece or stowed away in a cupboard with her dirty clothes, for months, and sometimes even for years. (19.46)

Obviously, the idea of goose grease stored for years to help assist midwives birthing newborn babies makes us shudder. We can't even stand to think of the germs. Blerg. At the same time, Sinclair really seems to despise midwives, and to lobby for new, clean, modern medicine. Why is it OK to want modern medicine, but it is not OK to want modern, mass-produced products? What part would modern technology play in Sinclair's future society?

Already Elzbieta had choked down her tears, grief being crowded out of her soul by fear. She had to bury one of her children—but then she had done it three times before, and each time risen up and gone back to take up the battle for the rest. Elzbieta was one of the primitive creatures: like the angleworm, which goes on living though cut in half; like a hen, which, deprived of her chickens one by one, will mother the last that is left her. She did this because it was her nature—she asked no questions about the justice of it, nor the worth-whileness of life in which destruction and death ran riot. (20.6)

And we thought Sinclair's depiction of Madame Haupt seemed a bit biased! What do you make of the narrator's incredibly condescending description of Teta Elzbieta as "one of the primitive creatures" who "asked no questions about the justice of it"? What kind of a person does Teta Elzbieta represent in this novel? Why might the novel be so profoundly dismissive of her character?

And so Jurgis became a workingman once more; and straightway he sought out his old friends, and joined the union, and began to "root" for "Scotty" Doyle. Doyle had done him a good turn once, he explained, and was really a bully chap; Doyle was a workingman himself, and would represent the workingmen—why did they want to vote for a millionaire "sheeny," and what the hell had Mike Scully ever done for them that they should back his candidates all the time? (25.113)

Even though Jurgis became a victim for frauds and crooks because he was an outsider to American culture when he first arrived in Chicago, he has no trouble (in his role as election rigger for Mike Scully) turning prejudice and hate on other people. Specifically, his target is the Democratic candidate for office, whom he calls a "sheeny" – an anti-Semitic term for a Jewish person. He doesn't even care about this guy or what he has done. He is being paid to win the election for the Republican candidate, and he will use any tools he has to cast doubt on the Democrat's qualifications for office. Do you feel that this kind of electioneering resembles our election process today? How does Jurgis's experiences with behind-the-scenes politics differ from or coincide with your understanding of how the American political scene works today?

As very few of the better class of workingmen could be got for such work, these specimens of the new American hero contained an assortment of the criminals and thugs of the city, besides N****es and the lowest foreigners – Greeks, Romanians, Sicilians, and Slovaks. They had been attracted more by the prospect of disorder than by the big wages; and they made the night hideous with singing and carousing, and only went to sleep when the time came for them to get up to work. (26.30)

Sinclair is obviously being sarcastic when he uses the term "new American hero" to describe workers coming in from outside the city to work at the stockyards while a general strike is on. By working even though a strike has been called, these workers (also called "scabs") are making it impossible for the unions to gain leverage over their abusive employers. What's really offensive about Sinclair's disdainful description of these strike-breakers is how racialized it is.

Sinclair wants to rouse the reader's feeling against workers who would willingly keep working while a strike is on. So, to make the reader hate these workers, he dismisses them as "attracted more by the prospect of disorder than by the big wages." In other words, according to Sinclair, these guys just want to fight and drink; they're not here because they need the money (which seems unlikely). Sinclair also plays on the prejudices of his reading audience by emphasizing that these guys are African Americans and "the lowest foreigners" (whatever that means). We are supposed to mistrust these workers because of their race or national origin. So, Sinclair is playing on racial stereotypes to make his readers identify with the striking workers and not with the men who have come in to replace them.

As a point of historical fact, the employers during Chicago's real-life stockyard strikes in 1904 played on exactly these racial tensions between black and white workers to undermine the strike. When their largely white work crews left their jobs to picket, the meatpacking factory owners brought African-American workers to replace them. This fanned the flames of antagonism between the two groups and made it difficult for the unions to organize workers across racial lines (source). So, Sinclair totally falls for the trick the employers were counting on: he also attaches racial prejudice to these new workers, which makes it impossible for him to consider them as laborers suffering under the same capitalist constraints that anyone else in The Jungle must face. Sinclair's Socialism is no protection against enduring racial prejudice.

There are seventeen in this place, and nine different countries among them. In some places you might find even more. We have half a dozen French girls—I suppose it's because the madame speaks the language. French girls are bad, too, the worst of all, except for the Japanese. There's a place next door that's full of Japanese women, but I wouldn't live in the same house with one of them. (28.16)

Marija is telling Jurgis all about her life in her brothel in this scene. At the brothel, all of the girls are known by their national origins. She herself goes by the new nickname 'Lithuanian Mary.' What's interesting about this particular quote is that all of these prostitutes have been horribly treated and forced into this life. But even though they have been so badly used by exploitative hustlers, Marija still maintains her racial prejudice. How can she say that "French girls are bad" and that she "wouldn't live in the same house" with a Japanese woman when they are all together in this misery? As with the example of the stockyard strike above, racism is another factor keeping these prostitutes from organizing together and escaping their exploitative madams.