Study Guide

The Jungle Language and Communication

By Upton Sinclair

Language and Communication

Jurgis was confident of his ability to get work for himself, unassisted by any one. As we have said before, he was not mistaken in this. He had gone to Brown's and stood there not more than half an hour before one of the bosses noticed his form towering above the rest, and signaled to him. The colloquy which followed was brief and to the point:

"Speak English?"

"No; Lit-uanian." (Jurgis had studied this word carefully.)


"Je." (A nod.) (3.1-5)

The reason Jurgis is right to be confident about getting a job even though he speaks no English is that he is not being employed for his mind. To his boss, Jurgis is just a set of muscles. Once he injures himself and can't work anymore, his boss swaps him out for another set of muscles – there is no consideration in the system for Jurgis as a person.

Promptly at seven the next morning Jurgis reported for work. He came to the door that had been pointed out to him, and there he waited for nearly two hours. The boss had meant for him to enter, but had not said this, and so it was only when on his way out to hire another man that he came upon Jurgis. He gave him a good cursing, but as Jurgis did not understand a word of it he did not object. (4.1)

Jurgis is so utterly ignorant that it doesn't occur to him to go inside the door to see if his job is waiting for him. He waits at the door for two hours. Here is proof that, with Jurgis, we are truly starting from scratch: it's as though he is a baby, unable to speak or act for himself, slowly being socialized into the grown-up world. The end result of this process of adapting to the American workplace is that Jurgis goes from being utterly unable to communicate anything at all in English to being able to deceive other people in his union about "Scotty" Doyle. So there you go: the greatest linguistic achievement is the ability to lie.

It was nearly two feet long, printed on calendered paper, with a selection of colors so bright that they shone even in the moonlight. The center of the placard was occupied by a house, brilliantly painted, new, and dazzling. […] For fear that the significance of all this should be lost, there was a label, in Polish, Lithuanian, and German—"Dom. Namai. Heim." "Why pay rent?" the linguistic circular went on to demand. "Why not own your own home? Do you know that you can buy one for less than your rent? We have built thousands of homes which are now occupied by happy families." – So it became eloquent, picturing the blissfulness of married life in a house with nothing to pay. It even quoted "Home, Sweet Home," and made bold to translate it into Polish – though for some reason it omitted the Lithuanian of this. Perhaps the translator found it a difficult matter to be sentimental in a language in which a sob is known as a gukcziojimas and a smile as a nusiszypsojimas. (4.6)

This realty advertisement is one of the only printed messages we have seen in the entire book that bothers to translate its message into other languages besides English. Still, the only reason this advertisement appears in Polish, Lithuanian, and German is because this real estate agency is deliberately targeting recent immigrants who won't know they are being scammed. The only time anyone goes out of their way to speak Lithuanian to Jurgis's family is to cheat them – that is, until the socialists make sure they find a Lithuanian-speaker to introduce Jurgis to the Party.

They could not understand why the union had not prevented [the canning factory from closing], and the very first time she attended a meeting Marija got up and made a speech about it. It was a business meeting, and was transacted in English, but that made no difference to Marija; she said what was in her, and all the pounding of the chairman's gavel and all the uproar and confusion in the room could not prevail. Quite apart from her own troubles she was boiling over with a general sense of the injustice of it, and she told what she thought of the packers, and what she thought of a world where such things were allowed to happen; and then, while the echoes of the hall rang with the shock of her terrible voice, she sat down again and fanned herself, and the meeting gathered itself together and proceeded to discuss the election of a recording secretary. (8.15)

After Jurgis joins his union, he convinces Marija to join one as well. But the union does not prevent Marija's canning factory from closing down and leaving her unemployed during the winter slow season. Marija goes to her union meeting to tell them she is outraged, but no one understands her: she is speaking Lithuanian. Again, this is another problem preventing the workingmen from having a real voice in US politics. Since a lot of the laborers suffering in the meatpacking plants are recent immigrants who aren't comfortable with English, no one understands them when they try to complain. So, in a sense, The Jungle is, itself, a translation of the laments of immigrant workers like Jurgis and his family.

Some time ago, Elzbieta was told, a Chicago billionaire had paid a fortune to bring a great European surgeon over to cure his little daughter of the same disease from which Kristoforas had suffered. And because this surgeon had to have bodies to demonstrate upon, he announced that he would treat the children of the poor, a piece of magnanimity over which the papers became quite eloquent. Elzbieta, alas, did not read the papers, and no one had told her; but perhaps it was as well, for just then they would not have had the carfare to spare to go every day to wait upon the surgeon, nor for that matter anybody with the time to take the child. (13.2)

The consequences of not knowing English in this country are enormous. It doesn't just limit the kinds of jobs you can get. It also means that Teta Elzbieta can't stay informed about lifesaving techniques that might have helped Kristoforas, her youngest son. If she were able to keep up with English-language newspapers, perhaps she might have contacted this doctor. This is one reason why many activists resist the whole notion of declaring English the official language of the United States: if all public business has to be transacted in English, many perfectly legal and hardworking immigrants may find themselves cut off from essential information about their rights. That could make them even more vulnerable to exploitation from unscrupulous people.

They were again able to pay their debts and to begin to save a little sum; but there were one or two sacrifices they considered too heavy to be made for long—it was too bad that the boys [Vilimas and Nikolajus] should have to sell papers at their age. It was utterly useless to caution them and plead with them; quite without knowing it, they were taking on the tone of their new environment. They were learning to swear in voluble English; they were learning to pick up cigar stumps and smoke them, to pass hours of their time gambling with pennies and dice and cigarette cards; they were learning the location of all the houses of prostitution on the "Levee," and the names of the "madames" who kept them, and the days when they gave their state banquets, which the police captains and the big politicians all attended. (13.14)

When summer comes around and the family's financial situation seems less dire, they want to figure out a way to get Vilimas and Nikolajus back in school (which never happens, by the way). It's interesting that one cause for concern about how the boys are growing up is that, on the streets, they are learning "to swear in voluble English" and generally to behave like Chicago criminals. From one point of view, these kids are adapting and assimilating into American culture much more successfully than any of the other members of their family. From another point of view, though, the culture that they are joining is not what Teta Elzbieta wants for them. It's as though, as soon as the children start working, their mother stops having any influence on their fates.

[Teta Elzbieta] was part of the machine she tended, and every faculty that was not needed for the machine was doomed to be crushed out of existence. There was only one mercy about the cruel grind – that it gave her the gift of insensibility. Little by little she sank into a torpor – she fell silent. She would meet Jurgis and Ona in the evening, and the three would walk home together, often without saying a word. Ona, too, was falling into a habit of silence – Ona, who had once gone about singing like a bird. (14.5)

Everyone is so depressed at the miseries of their working lives that they have literally fallen silent. They don't even have the energy or presence of mind to complain about their fates. This silence seems to be in keeping with the socialist speaker's accusation in Chapter 28 that these factory owners "kill the soul" (28.52). This silence also stands in contrast to the incredible amount the socialist speakers at the end of the novel talk – page after page of speechifying! It's not just that The Jungle is wordy for the sake of style or anything like that; the novel itself seems to connect talking to hope and idealism and silence to soul death.

"I hit him, sir," said Jurgis.

"Say 'your Honor,'" said the officer, pinching his arm hard.

"Your Honor," said Jurgis, obediently.

"You tried to choke him?"

"Yes, sir, your Honor."

"Ever been arrested before?"

"No, sir, your Honor."

"What have you to say for yourself?"

Jurgis hesitated. What had he to say? In two years and a half he had learned to speak English for practical purposes, but these had never included the statement that some one had intimidated and seduced his wife. (17.49-53)

Truly, it doesn't matter what Jurgis says at his first trial. The judge hates immigrants and the guy who Jurgis beat up is an important man around Packingtown. There is no chance Jurgis is going to get away without punishment, but the judge still bothers to observe the formalities. They even bring in a Lithuanian interpreter to tell Jurgis's story of Ona's rape. It's all for nothing: Jurgis might as well not have said anything at all. Why does Judge Pat Callahan listen to Jurgis's statement at all? Why persist in this courtroom theater if the verdict has been decided before Jurgis and Connor have even said a word? Who is this performance of a trial even for?

"Hello, Jack," said the saloonkeeper, when he entered—they call all foreigners and unskilled men "Jack" in Packingtown. (19.53)

The fact that all the foreigners in Packingtown get the same name is sinister. Not only do they have no individuality or status within the factories where they work their lives away, but they also have no individuality in the places where they hang out after work. In this harsh economic system, foreign workers become literally nameless. Jurgis frequents the bars – can't any of the bartenders be bothered to remember a good customer's real name?

"I vould not put on my hat for a dollar and a quarter," she said.

"It's all I've got," he pleaded, his voice breaking. "I must get some one—my wife will die. I can't help it—I—"

Madame Haupt had put back her pork and onions on the stove. She turned to him and answered, out of the steam and noise: "Git me ten dollars cash, und so you can pay me the rest next mont'."

"I can't do it—I haven't got it!" Jurgis protested. "I tell you I have only a dollar and a quarter." (19.21-24)

This is one part of Jurgis's desperate exchange with Madame Haupt, the midwife. We find it interesting because Jurgis's accent has completely disappeared from the spelling of his dialogue. Madame Haupt's heavy German accent is carefully spelled out, though: "Git", "und," "vould," and so on. Why does Sinclair spell out Madame Haupt's accent but not Jurgis's? One reason might be that Sinclair wants to emphasize our sense of Madame Haupt's foreignness to us as readers. He doesn't want us to sympathize with Madame Haupt in this scene, but he wants us to like Jurgis. So, the dialogue makes Jurgis's speech familiar and standard while Madame Haupt sounds accented and strange.

[Jurgis] did his best, flying here and there, placing them in rows and showing them the tricks; he had never given an order in his life before, but he had taken enough of them to know, and he soon fell into the spirit of it, and roared and stormed like any old stager. He had not the most tractable pupils, however. "See hyar, boss," a big black "buck" would begin, "ef you doan' like de way Ah does dis job, you kin get somebody else to do it." Then a crowd would gather and listen, muttering threats. After the first meal nearly all the steel knives had been missing, and now every N**** had one, ground to a fine point, hidden in his boots. (26.36)

In our discussion of Madame Haupt above, we mentioned that her accent comes through very strongly in dialogue where Jurgis's has disappeared in order to make her seem less relatable or likable to the reader. Well, it seems like the same thing is going on here with this extremely stereotypical and racially derogatory depiction of an African-American man refusing to work as Jurgis has demanded. Sinclair's rendering of an African-American accent – "See hyar, boss […] ef you doan' like de way Ah …" – makes the speaker's words seem alien and foolish to the reader. Sinclair is using accents (along with racial epithets and outright negative characterization) to make these temporary workers appear unpleasant to his imagined audience. Now, these passages describing the black workers who came to the meatpacking factories in 1904 when the (largely white) stockyard unions declared a strike seem like the most dated and offensive moments in the whole novel. How can Sinclair support racialist thinking when he also believes in organizing workers collectively? Are there signs at other points in the novel that Sinclair is trying to work against racial or national prejudices?

[Jurgis] waited long, long; and at last, when he was sure that he was no longer watched, he stole a glance out of the corner of his eyes at the woman who sat beside him. She was young and beautiful; she wore fine clothes, and was what is called a "lady." And she called him "comrade"! (28.44)

When Jurgis goes to his first Socialist Party meeting, he enters the building looking for a warm place to sit. He is not paying attention to the speaker at all. It is only when his neighbor – this well-dressed lady – nudges him and calls him comrade that Jurgis really starts to pay attention. All it takes is one respectful word from someone who appears highly placed in society to change all of Jurgis's bitterness and resistance to politics. Does this idealism about the power of language in the socialist context seem in keeping with other criticisms of language we find earlier in the novel? Does the style of these final few chapters change with the different, more openly political content, or does each part of The Jungle show stylistic uniformity?