Study Guide

The Jungle Poverty

By Upton Sinclair


It is very imprudent, it is tragic – but, ah, it is so beautiful! Bit by bit these poor people have given up everything else; but to this they cling with all the power of their souls – they cannot give up the veselija! To do that would mean, not merely to be defeated, but to acknowledge defeat – and the difference between these two things is what keeps the world going. The veselija has come down to them from a far-off time; and the meaning of it was that one might dwell within the cave and gaze upon shadows, provided only that once in his lifetime he could break his chains, and feel his wings, and behold the sun; provided that once in his lifetime he might testify to the fact that life, with all its cares and its terrors, is no such great thing after all, but merely a bubble upon the surface of a river, a thing that one may toss about and play with as a juggler tosses his golden balls, a thing that one may quaff, like a goblet of rare red wine. Thus having known himself for the master of things, a man could go back to his toil and live upon the memory all his days. (1.27)

Even though the veselija – the traditional Lithuanian wedding feast – winds up being a financial disaster for Jurgis and his family, they still hold one anyway. They do so largely because Teta Elzbieta insists, because she wants to keep their traditional celebrations alive. The purpose of this celebration, according to Sinclair, is to give poor people one brief, flickering joyful moment to look forward to so that all their lives, they can keep suffering and working hard without minding so much. Traditional rituals are just another way to help people put up with the injustices of the system. Do you agree with this analysis? What social purpose do you think celebrations like the veselija might have?

A very few days of practical experience in this land of high wages had been sufficient to make clear to them the cruel fact that it was also a land of high prices, and that in it the poor man was almost as poor as in any other corner of the earth; and so there vanished in a night all the wonderful dreams of wealth that had been haunting Jurgis. What had made the discovery all the more painful was that they were spending, at American prices, money which they had earned at home rates of wages – and so were really being cheated by the world! The last two days they had all but starved themselves – it made them quite sick to pay the prices that the railroad people asked them for food. (2.16)

Jurgis and his family arrive in the United States expecting higher salaries – and they do find that they are making more money in Chicago than they were in Lithuania. But things cost more in the States, lots more, so their money doesn't go as far. Currently, the poverty line for a family with 12 members (like Jurgis's family) is $51, 970 (source). Still, a lot of people say that these figures about how much you need to get by in this country are outdated and arbitrary because the cost of living is so high, especially in the cities. If you're interested in working out how much money you need to survive with the bare minimum, check out this cool calculator. Also, we love this article about how much money you need to live.

There was nothing better to be had – they might not do so well by looking further, for Mrs. Jukniene had at least kept one room for herself and her three little children, and now offered to share this with the women and the girls of the party. They could get bedding at a secondhand store, she explained; and they would not need any, while the weather was so hot – doubtless they would all sleep on the sidewalk such nights as this, as did nearly all of her guests. "Tomorrow," Jurgis said, when they were left alone, "tomorrow I will get a job, and perhaps Jonas will get one also; and then we can get a place of our own." (2.19)

When Jurgis and his family first settle in Chicago, they have to live in a terrible slum apartment that they share with numerous other people. One of the things we find most striking about this passage is the need for secondhand bedding, at least, if you're not satisfied with sleeping in the sidewalk. No wonder the slum districts of big cities were know for their outbreaks of cholera and typhus – exchanging bedding with complete strangers is a good way to spread germs and also (shudder) bed bugs.

Jurgis had come there, and thought he was going to make himself useful, and rise and become a skilled man; but he would soon find out his error – for nobody rose in Packingtown by doing good work. You could lay that down for a rule – if you met a man who was rising in Packingtown, you met a knave. That man who had been sent to Jurgis' father by the boss, he would rise; the man who told tales and spied upon his fellows would rise; but the man who minded his own business and did his work – why, they would "speed him up" till they had worn him out, and then they would throw him into the gutter. (5.14)

A "knave" is a dishonest person. So, if you're climbing your way out of poverty in Packingtown, you must be a crook. Jurgis certainly proves this saying later in the novel when he becomes a Chicago criminal. Still, do you think that this is a fair representation of American society as it affects the poor? Are there any options you can imagine to bring Jurgis or any members of his family out of poverty without breaking the law?

How could they know that the pale-blue milk that they bought around the corner was watered, and doctored with formaldehyde besides? When the children were not well at home, Teta Elzbieta would gather herbs and cure them; now she was obliged to go to the drugstore and buy extracts – and how was she to know that they were all adulterated? How could they find out that their tea and coffee, their sugar and flour, had been doctored; that their canned peas had been colored with copper salts, and their fruit jams with aniline dyes? And even if they had known it, what good would it have done them, since there was no place within miles of them where any other sort was to be had? (7.7)

One of the major, enduring struggles for the poor in this country (and any country, actually) is the problem of quality. When a person has more money, he or she can afford a better quality of food, medicine, and clothing. So his food nourishes him better and he can eat less of it to feel satisfied. People with more money also often receive better medical treatment and preventive care to avoid getting sick. When a person is poor, though, he or she cannot afford such high quality food or medicine at the outset. This also means that, over the long run, he may be spending more money on health problems that crop up from a poor diet or lack of medical care. This is a problem that Sinclair points out in The Jungle that, like many of the social issues he identifies, has yet to be solved today.

It is a kind of anguish that poets have not commonly dealt with; its very words are not admitted into the vocabulary of poets – the details of it cannot be told in polite society at all. How, for instance, could any one expect to excite sympathy among lovers of good literature by telling how a family found their home alive with vermin, and of all the suffering and inconvenience and humiliation they were put to, and the hard-earned money they spent, in efforts to get rid of them? After long hesitation and uncertainty they paid twenty-five cents for a big package of insect powder – a patent preparation which chanced to be ninety-five per cent gypsum, a harmless earth which had cost about two cents to prepare. Of course it had not the least effect, except upon a few roaches which had the misfortune to drink water after eating it, and so got their inwards set in a coating of plaster of Paris. The family, having no idea of this, and no more money to throw away, had nothing to do but give up and submit to one more misery for the rest of their days. (7.8)

Sinclair may seem to be wallowing in the details of the family's everyday miseries. Yet he's also making a statement by demanding that we pay attention to Jurgis's family's struggle with roaches, for example. These kinds of ordinary problems are what make the lives of poor people so awful – persistent roaches or bedbugs or mice are miserable to deal with if you don't have any resources. Sinclair is saying, "Hey, these problems may not seem like the stuff of poetry or literature, but they should be because they are no less horrible for being small." (That being said, we get that Sinclair is trying to have an effect on the reader, but still, Jurgis and his family are the unluckiest people in the world. Sometimes, we find that The Jungle verges on unrealistic.)

But they had come to a new country, where everything was different, including the food. They had always been accustomed to eat a great deal of smoked sausage, and how could they know that what they bought in America was not the same – that its color was made by chemicals, and its smoky flavor by more chemicals, and that it was full of "potato flour" besides? Potato flour is the waste of potato after the starch and alcohol have been extracted; it has no more food value than so much wood, and as its use as a food adulterant is a penal offense in Europe, thousands of tons of it are shipped to America every year. It was amazing what quantities of food such as this were needed every day, by eleven hungry persons. (11.19)

One ongoing problem in food production is so-called "empty calories," foods that have no nutritional value but lots of calories. The thing is, many of these foods are delicious (yum, French fries!), but they don't give your body the minerals and vitamins you need to survive. So even though Jurgis and his family are stuffing down smoked sausage that they think will sustain them, these products are basically sausage-shaped links of nothing. There is no content there to support their dietary needs. Similar charges have been made against fast food chain restaurants in documentaries like Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me or Robert Kenner's Food, Inc. We guess that you could call films like these the grandchildren of The Jungle, but with different political agendas.

[Vilimas and Nikolajus] would get on a car when the conductor was not looking, and hide in the crowd; and three times out of four he would not ask for their fares, either not seeing them, or thinking they had already paid; or if he did ask, they would hunt through their pockets, and then begin to cry, and either have their fares paid by some kind old lady, or else try the trick again on a new car. All this was fair play, they felt. Whose fault was it that at the hours when workingmen were going to their work and back, the cars were so crowded that the conductors could not collect all the fares? And besides, the companies were thieves, people said – had stolen all their franchises with the help of scoundrelly politicians! (12.9)

There is a sense in which it is inevitable that the younger children of this family are going to take to crime. There is no one at home to teach them otherwise and they are as filled with bitterness and resentment at their poverty as their elders are. Vilimas and Nikolajus start out stealing rides on streetcars, but it is implied by the end of the novel that they have just become generally bad kids. What responsibility do Jurgis and Teta Elzbieta bear for what has happened to Vilimas and Nikolajus? Is there anything they could have done differently, given their difficult circumstances, that would have kept the boys from becoming wild lawbreakers?

Many of these professional mendicants had comfortable homes, and families, and thousands of dollars in the bank; some of them had retired upon their earnings, and gone into the business of fitting out and doctoring others, or working children at the trade. There were some who had both their arms bound tightly to their sides, and padded stumps in their sleeves, and a sick child hired to carry a cup for them. There were some who had no legs, and pushed themselves upon a wheeled platform—some who had been favored with blindness, and were led by pretty little dogs. (23.34)

This is a common argument made about homeless people, that they are professional beggars and that they make tons of money asking for pennies on the streets. In Sinclair's world of capitalism, even beggars are in a competition, so a lot of these people exaggerate their difficulties to make the most cash they can. Jurgis is outclassed as a beggar because he is just an ordinary guy. Still, do you think that this is an accurate representation of beggars on the streets? Are they truly professionals with "comfortable homes, and families, and thousands of dollars in the bank"? What is your perception of why people beg on the streets?

It would be pleasant to record that [Jurgis] swore off drinking immediately, and all the rest of his bad habits with it; but that would hardly be exact. These revolutionists were not angels; they were men, and men who had come up from the social pit, and with the mire of it smeared over them. Some of them drank, and some of them swore, and some of them ate pie with their knives; there was only one difference between them and all the rest of the populace—that they were men with a hope, with a cause to fight for and suffer for. There came times to Jurgis when the vision seemed far-off and pale, and a glass of beer loomed large in comparison; but if the glass led to another glass, and to too many glasses, he had something to spur him to remorse and resolution on the morrow. (30.23)

Here is the proof that socialism does not immediately solve poverty or its associated social problems. Jurgis doesn't stop being an alcoholic because he is a socialist. He also doesn't stop being poor (though he does have more secure employment) because he is a socialist. socialism helps Jurgis withstand his tragic, difficult existence. Then again, how is socialism different from religion and tradition, both of which Sinclair criticizes for making the poor too complacent with their miserable lives?