Study Guide

The Jungle Society and Class

By Upton Sinclair

Society and Class

So, bit by bit, the feast takes form – there is a ham and a dish of sauerkraut, boiled rice, macaroni, bologna sausages, great piles of penny buns, bowls of milk, and foaming pitchers of beer. There is also, not six feet from your back, the bar, where you may order all you please and do not have to pay for it. "Eiksz! Graicziau!" screams Marija Berczynskas, and falls to work herself – for there is more upon the stove inside that will be spoiled if it be not eaten. (1.8)

This opening scene at Jurgis and Ona's wedding feast gives us a quick introduction to the Lithuanian cultural background of our heroes. At the same time, even as Sinclair orients us in the scene ("not six feet from your back," in which we are the "you") he is also subtly implying that this culture must be unfamiliar to us. The narrator is introducing us to an immigrant world that we are, presumably, not a part of. The Jungle is not written for people who know from first-hand experience what Chicago's slums are like. It's written for people on the outside to introduce them to these experiences.

"Little one," he said, in a low voice, "do not worry – it will not matter to us. We will pay them all somehow. I will work harder." That was always what Jurgis said. Ona had grown used to it as the solution of all difficulties – "I will work harder!" He had said that in Lithuania when one official had taken his passport from him, and another had arrested him for being without it, and the two had divided a third of his belongings. He had said it again in New York, when the smooth-spoken agent had taken them in hand and made them pay such high prices, and almost prevented their leaving his place, in spite of their paying. Now he said it a third time, and Ona drew a deep breath; it was so wonderful to have a husband, just like a grown woman – and a husband who could solve all problems, and who was so big and strong! (1.34)

Jurgis's tragic statement that he "will work harder" and solve all of their problems suggests his own inability to face the reality of the huge obstacles standing in front of him. Even in this first chapter, Sinclair is outlining Jurgis's utter lack of power in this system: he has run into corrupt immigration officials both in Lithuania and New York and had no way to fight them. These problems that Jurgis and his family had even getting to Chicago foreshadow how unprepared they are to integrate into a new (and difficult) country. They are at the bottom of a class system they don't even understand or recognize.

Better luck than all this could hardly have been hoped for; there was only one of them left to seek a place. Jurgis was determined that Teta Elzbieta should stay at home to keep house, and that Ona should help her. He would not have Ona working – he was not that sort of a man, he said, and she was not that sort of a woman. It would be a strange thing if a man like him could not support the family, with the help of the board of Jonas and Marija. He would not even hear of letting the children go to work – there were schools here in America for children, Jurgis had heard, to which they could go for nothing. […] Jurgis would have it that Stanislovas should learn to speak English, and grow up to be a skilled man. (4.3)

Part of the whole promise of the American Dream is that you can give the next generation a better life than you had. At this early point in the novel, Jurgis totally buys into that. Even if he has to work his tail off to keep Teta Elzbieta and Ona in the home, he will do it. Even if he has to labor all day, every day, he will make sure that Stanislovas and the rest of the children get to go to public school. He wants to climb the American social ladder through hard work and personal sacrifice, which is the entire ideal of the American Dream. Sinclair seems utterly disenchanted with the American Dream. Under what conditions could Jurgis and his family have achieved their wishes for a better life? Is there anything they could have done differently to make Jurgis's hopes come true?

Warming to the subject, Tamoszius went on to explain the situation. Here was Durham's, for instance, owned by a man who was trying to make as much money out of it as he could, and did not care in the least how he did it; and underneath him, ranged in ranks and grades like an army, were managers and superintendents and foremen, each one driving the man next below him and trying to squeeze out of him as much work as possible. And all the men of the same rank were pitted against each other; the accounts of each were kept separately, and every man lived in terror of losing his job, if another made a better record than he. So from top to bottom the place was simply a seething caldron of jealousies and hatreds. (5.13)

Here, Tamoszius Kuszleika is outlining a uniquely capitalist class system. This system is based on money rather than on aristocratic blood (although of course, if you're born into a wealthy family, you still have a leg up on everybody else). Do you recognize this class system Kuszleika describes? Do you think it is an accurate portrayal of America's economic divisions? Must competition between workers or businesses inevitably mean "driving the man next below him and trying to squeeze out of him as much work as possible"? Is there a more benevolent way of looking at the American class system?

Then he set some one else at a different job, and showed the lad how to place a lard can every time the empty arm of the remorseless machine came to him; and so was decided the place in the universe of little Stanislovas, and his destiny till the end of his days. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year, it was fated that he should stand upon a certain square foot of floor from seven in the morning until noon, and again from half-past twelve till half-past five, making never a motion and thinking never a thought, save for the setting of lard cans. […] And for this, at the end of the week, he would carry home three dollars to his family, being his pay at the rate of five cents per hour – just about his proper share of the total earnings of the million and three-quarters of children who are now engaged in earning their livings in the United States. (6.27)

As soon as the family starts to hit choppy economic waters, Jurgis sends thirteen-year-old Stanislovas out to find a job. Once Stanislovas joins the laboring work force, he has no chance to rise in the American class system: "it [is] fated" that he will keep working in factories until the end of his days. Yet, we see other examples (e.g. Jack Duane) of men who are educated but who also cannot get ahead. In Sinclair's incredibly dark view of American society, can education truly make an individual's life better? If Stanislovas had not been forced into child labor, how might his future (as the son of poor immigrants living in the slums) truly have been different?

A poor devil of a bookkeeper who had been working in Durham's for twenty years at a salary of six dollars a week, and might work there for twenty more and do no better, would yet consider himself a gentleman, as far removed as the poles from the most skilled worker on the killing beds; he would dress differently, and live in another part of the town, and come to work at a different hour of the day, and in every way make sure that he never rubbed elbows with a laboring man. Perhaps this was due to the repulsiveness of the work; at any rate, the people who worked with their hands were a class apart, and were made to feel it. (10.6)

Sinclair is identifying a certain stigma or prejudice that seems to attach to manual laborers. Even if a factory worker makes more money than a bookkeeper, the bookkeeper will still think he is better than the other guy. Why? Do you still think this prejudice attaches to guys who work with their hands? How would this change if Sinclair's vision of a socialist future came into being?

The young fellow [Jack Duane] had an amused contempt for Jurgis, as a sort of working mule; he, too, had felt the world's injustice, but instead of bearing it patiently, he had struck back, and struck hard. He was striking all the time—there was war between him and society. He was a genial freebooter, living off the enemy, without fear or shame. He was not always victorious, but then defeat did not mean annihilation, and need not break his spirit. (17.37)

Here, Sinclair is imagining crime as "striking all the time" against the injustices of society. What do you make of the morality of Sinclair's depiction of genial safe-cracker Jack Duane? To what degree is Sinclair asking us to forgive [Jack Duane] for his violent crimes because he has bad stuff in his own past? Is it ethical to excuse crime because of social injustice? Why or why not?

There came no answer to it, however, and at last, the day before New Year's, Jurgis bade good-by to Jack Duane. The latter gave him his address, or rather the address of his mistress, and made Jurgis promise to look him up. "Maybe I could help you out of a hole some day," he said, and added that he was sorry to have him go. (17.42)

Whatever we may make of the ethics of Jack Duane's situation, we can't deny that he is pretty much the only guy in the whole novel who reaches out to Jurgis without an immediate expectation of profit. What kind of social statement might Sinclair be making here? How does it fit into Sinclair's politics to make a criminal character more generous than Jurgis's legitimate bosses?

Of these professional tramps a great many had, of course, been shiftless and vicious all their lives. But the vast majority of them had been workingmen, had fought the long fight as Jurgis had, and found that it was a losing fight, and given up. Later on he encountered yet another sort of men, those from whose ranks the tramps were recruited, men who were homeless and wandering, but still seeking work—seeking it in the harvest fields. Of these there was an army, the huge surplus labor army of society; called into being under the stern system of nature, to do the casual work of the world, the tasks which were transient and irregular, and yet which had to be done. They did not know that they were such, of course; they only knew that they sought the job, and that the job was fleeting. (22.52)

Sinclair is identifying a class of people – migrant farm workers. They are "the huge surplus labor army of society," but, because they do not work regularly or together, they "[do] not know" that they are part of such a big social group. In other words, they have no consciousness of themselves as part of a collective. This struggle to organize a group of people who scarcely ever see one another over the course of their working lives is exactly the task César Chavez tackled in the 1960s and 1970s. It's interesting to read The Jungle and find passing references to social issues that will become huge over the course of the twentieth century.

"Looks like a lot, hey?" said Master Freddie, fumbling with it. "Fool you, though, ole chappie—they're all little ones! I'll be busted in one week more, sure thing—word of honor. An' not a cent more till the first—hic—guv'ner's orders—hic—not a cent, by Harry! Nuff to set a feller crazy, it is. I sent him a cable, this af'noon—thass one reason more why I'm goin' home. 'Hangin' on the verge of starvation,' I says—'for the honor of the family—hic—sen' me some bread. Hunger will compel me to join you—Freddie." (24.25)

"Master Freddie" is Freddie Jones, the son of one of the meatpacking magnates of Chicago. He has so much money that he can carry it around in a huge wad, yet he still thinks it's not enough. He has sent his father a message saying that he is "on the verge of starvation" and needs more money – and he actually dares to say this to Jurgis, who really is on the edge of starvation! Freddie's troubles actually indicate a larger economic point about "relative needs." We all have basic needs – food, shelter, clean water, and so on. But once you get into a complex economy, you also have relative needs that allow you to stay competitive. So, if you're a rich guy and you want to do business with other rich guys, you need that snappy suit that marks your social status and economic standing.

Freddie Jones is a victim of relative needs: since he has grown accustomed to a certain standard of living, it becomes hard to adjust that standard downwards even if his dad is trying to keep him on a tight allowance. Jurgis encounters a similar difficulty when he becomes homeless again after being a boss in one of the factories. Even though he has been poor before, it seems worse because he has gotten used to being pretty well-off.