Study Guide

The Jungle Gender

By Upton Sinclair

Gender

Ona was blue-eyed and fair, while Jurgis had great black eyes with beetling brows, and thick black hair that curled in waves about his ears – in short, they were one of those incongruous and impossible married couples with which Mother Nature so often wills to confound all prophets, before and after. (1.5)

Jurgis and Ona are like an exaggerated version of the stereotypical male-female couple: Jurgis is giant and strong and Ona is tiny and fragile. Their marriage also starts out with these clearly defined gender roles: Jurgis wants to keep Ona at home while he works at the packing plants. Of course, this winds up being economically impossible. Once Ona enters the workplace, she becomes vulnerable to abuses from monsters like Connor, and Jurgis feels less and less in control of his family life and place in the world. It's a little hard to get a read on this: is Sinclair creating a subtle critique of women in the workforce? Would it be the "natural" order of things for Ona to stay home and Jurgis to work? Does the conclusion of the novel offer any philosophical hints about the role of women in socialist paradise?

It was nearly a year and a half ago that Jurgis had met Ona, at a horse fair a hundred miles from home. Jurgis had never expected to get married – he had laughed at it as a foolish trap for a man to walk into; but here, without ever having spoken a word to her, with no more than the exchange of half a dozen smiles, he found himself, purple in the face with embarrassment and terror, asking her parents to sell her to him for his wife – and offering his father's two horses he had been sent to the fair to sell. But Ona's father proved as a rock – the girl was yet a child, and he was a rich man, and his daughter was not to be had in that way. So Jurgis went home with a heavy heart, and that spring and summer toiled and tried hard to forget. In the fall, after the harvest was over, he saw that it would not do, and tramped the full fortnight's journey that lay between him and Ona. (2.4)

Here is how marriage is arranged in the society that Jurgis comes from: he asks Ona's father if he can marry Ona before he even really speaks to the girl. It's not until Ona's father dies and leaves the family with tons of debt that Jurgis has a shot at Ona because their social statuses are so different. Is there any indication in the novel that marriages are arranged differently in the United States? Can we contrast Jurgis's courtship of Ona in Lithuania with any other (very slow) courtships once the family arrives in America?

All day and all night for nearly a whole week they wrestled with the problem [of whether or not to buy a house], and then in the end Jurgis took the responsibility. Brother Jonas had gotten his job, and was pushing a truck in Durham's; and the killing gang at Brown's continued to work early and late, so that Jurgis grew more confident every hour, more certain of his mastership. It was the kind of thing the man of the family had to decide and carry through, he told himself. Others might have failed at it, but he was not the failing kind—he would show them how to do it. He would work all day, and all night, too, if need be; he would never rest until the house was paid for and his people had a home. So he told them, and so in the end the decision was made. (4.14)

As "the man of the family," Jurgis decides to take full responsibility for the decision to buy the house. After all, "he would never rest until the house was paid for and his people had a home" – note that his family members are "his people," a particularly possessive way of thinking about them. In making the decision to buy the house, though, Jurgis gets everyone – Marija Berczynskas, Teta Elzbieta, Jonas (who doesn't stick around), Ona, everyone – into debt. His whole idea of the man as the master of a family unit is based on old world models; in this individualist American society, family doesn't seem to have the same coherence or importance as an idea. We think a little bit more about the place of family in Sinclair's vision of American culture in "Quotes: Society and Class."

Jurgis lost his temper very little, however, all things considered. It was because of Ona; the least glance at her was always enough to make him control himself. She was so sensitive – she was not fitted for such a life as this; and a hundred times a day, when he thought of her, he would clench his hands and fling himself again at the task before him. She was too good for him, he told himself, and he was afraid, because she was his. So long he had hungered to possess her, but now that the time had come he knew that he had not earned the right; that she trusted him so was all her own simple goodness, and no virtue of his. (7.4)

Both Jurgis and Ona seem to suffer from the belief that they have to suffer in silence to protect one another. Jurgis never really talks to Ona about the rage that sends him drinking and that makes him start to beat Stanislovas, and Ona doesn't willingly talk to Jurgis about Connor's sexual harassment. Why doesn't Ona tell Jurgis what she is suffering at work? What is the origin of the gulf between these two people? As with so much else in this novel, do the problems in their marriage have a social explanation based in Sinclair's criticism of American capitalism? Or is it more personal?

He had heard dreadful stories of the midwives, who grow as thick as fleas in Packingtown; and he had made up his mind that Ona must have a man-doctor. Jurgis could be very obstinate when he wanted to, and he was in this case, much to the dismay of the women, who felt that a man-doctor was an impropriety, and that the matter really belonged to them. The cheapest doctor they could find would charge them fifteen dollars, and perhaps more when the bill came in; and here was Jurgis, declaring that he would pay it, even if he had to stop eating in the meantime! (10.10)

On what grounds does Jurgis disagree with "the women" about hiring a "man-doctor"? What might be Jurgis's reasons for wanting a "man-doctor" instead of leaving Ona's childbirth to more traditional methods? How does Ona's first birth compare to her second one? Who witnesses each birth?

She had about made up her mind that she was a lost soul, when somebody told her of an opening, and she went and got a place as a "beef-trimmer." She got this because the boss saw that she had the muscles of a man, and so he discharged a man and put Marija to do his work, paying her a little more than half what he had been paying before. (10.12)

Oddly, although the gap is closing, according to government statistics, women on average are still making less than men (source). Marija does the same job as a man, but her boss can still get away with paying her half as much. Marija has been such a firebrand – remember how she came to the States after beating the crap out of her abusive boss? What has happened to her up to this point that has made her willing to accept such low wages? How has the system started to wear down her expectations? Why might an impersonal system like American capitalism be harder for Marija to resist than a single abusive boss?

But there was no place a girl could go in Packingtown, if she was particular about things of this sort; there was no place in it where a prostitute could not get along better than a decent girl. Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers; under such circumstances immorality was exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it was under the system of chattel slavery. Things that were quite unspeakable went on there in the packing houses all the time, and were taken for granted by everybody; only they did not show, as in the old slavery times, because there was no difference in color between master and slave. (10.14)

Prostitution was a hot topic for social reformers at the turn of the century. In fact, Upton Sinclair refers to French author Émile Zola by name in Chapter 9. One of the novels that made Zola famous was Nana, which is about a prostitute who winds up dying of smallpox (not pleasant). We also can't forget American Stephen Crane's 1896 novel Maggie: A Girl on the Streets. A lot of writers were trying to explain prostitution as a symptom of various social ills, and Sinclair is no exception. For him, prostitution is the natural result of collecting a population of "low-class and mostly foreign" women with no money and no other options into one place under the power of "brutal and unscrupulous" bosses. It's not a question of low morality or anything like that; it's because poor women often have no other choice. This is essentially the conclusion that Marija Berczynskas comes to by the end of the novel, by the way – she has become incredibly practical about the whole thing.

It was dreadful that an accident of this sort, that no man can help, should have meant such suffering. The bitterness of it was the daily food and drink of Jurgis. It was of no use for them to try to deceive him; he knew as much about the situation as they did, and he knew that the family might literally starve to death. […] It was like seeing the world fall away from underneath his feet; like plunging down into a bottomless abyss into yawning caverns of despair. It might be true, then, after all, what others had told him about life, that the best powers of a man might not be equal to it! (11.18)

Jurgis tears a tendon on the job and is laid up for three months. Because of this three months without Jurgis's income, suddenly the whole family is on the brink of starvation. The trouble with relying on the man of the house to provide is that, if he falls out of commission, everything goes to pieces. We can compare Jurgis's concern over not being able to provide for his family with Marija Berczynskas's later statement that they should all just have lived off Ona as a prostitute from the beginning. Knowing what you know of these characters, would it have been possible for Ona to become a prostitute as soon as she and her family hit Chicago? How would her characterization be different if Ona had gone straight into prostitution? How would the plot structure of the novel itself change?

Several times she was quite beside herself and hysterical; and then Jurgis would go half-mad with fright. Elzbieta would explain to him that it could not be helped, that a woman was subject to such things when she was pregnant; but he was hardly to be persuaded, and would beg and plead to know what had happened. She had never been like this before, he would argue—it was monstrous and unthinkable. It was the life she had to live, the accursed work she had to do, that was killing her by inches. She was not fitted for it—no woman was fitted for it, no woman ought to be allowed to do such work; if the world could not keep them alive any other way it ought to kill them at once and be done with it. They ought not to marry, to have children; no workingman ought to marry—if he, Jurgis, had known what a woman was like, he would have had his eyes torn out first. So he would carry on, becoming half hysterical himself, which was an unbearable thing to see in a big man; Ona would pull herself together and fling herself into his arms, begging him to stop, to be still, that she would be better, it would be all right. So she would lie and sob out her grief upon his shoulder, while he gazed at her, as helpless as a wounded animal, the target of unseen enemies. (14.16)

Jurgis does not yet know that the reason Ona has become prone to these fits of hysteria is because she has been raped and is being intimidated into prostitution at work. All Jurgis can see is that the work she is doing is "killing her by inches." Jurgis perceives that "no woman ought to be allowed to do such work" at the factories – all of this hard labor is particularly tough for fragile Ona. Frankly, though, no man ought to be allowed to do such work, either. Jurgis works himself to the bone to keep his terrible jobs at various factories, even as they keep speeding up the pace of the work until he can hardly keep up. No one, regardless of gender, could stand the lives they are being made to lead – that's the whole point of The Jungle.

Jurgis had looked into the deepest reaches of the social pit, and grown used to the sights in them. Yet when he had thought of all humanity as vile and hideous, he had somehow always excepted his own family that he had loved; and now this sudden horrible discovery—Marija a whore, and Elzbieta and the children living off her shame! Jurgis might argue with himself all he chose, that he had done worse, and was a fool for caring—but still he could not get over the shock of that sudden unveiling, he could not help being sunk in grief because of it. The depths of him were troubled and shaken, memories were stirred in him that had been sleeping so long he had counted them dead. Memories of the old life—his old hopes and his old yearnings, his old dreams of decency and independence! (27.106)

Even after all of Jurgis's own humiliations – his days spent begging or on the road looking for a place to spend the night – the thing that really gets to him at last is that Marija Berczynskas has become a prostitute. Suddenly, his own family is no longer free of the "deepest reaches of the social pit" he hates so much. Why might Jurgis hold the women in his family to a higher standard of behavior than he himself follows? What might this indicate about Jurgis's view of the role of women in society?