Study Guide

The Jungle Suffering

By Upton Sinclair


You would smile, perhaps, to see [Jadvyga and Mikolas dancing together] – but you would not smile if you knew all the story. This is the fifth year, now, that Jadvyga has been engaged to Mikolas, and her heart is sick. They would have been married in the beginning, only Mikolas has a father who is drunk all day, and he is the only other man in a large family. Even so they might have managed it (for Mikolas is a skilled man) but for cruel accidents which have almost taken the heart out of them. He is a beef-boner, and that is a dangerous trade, especially when you are on piecework and trying to earn a bride. Your hands are slippery, and your knife is slippery, and you are toiling like mad, when somebody happens to speak to you, or you strike a bone. Then your hand slips up on the blade, and there is a fearful gash. And that would not be so bad, only for the deadly contagion. The cut may heal, but you never can tell. (1.23)

The Jungle exposes multiple aspects of the cost of poor working conditions in Chicago. The fact that Mikolas has injured himself on the job does not just affect him. It also matters to his "large family," which relies only on Mikolas for support. And what about poor Jadvyga, who has been waiting for five years to get married? There is no such thing as individual suffering in this novel. Personal problems always wind up affecting a whole network of people.

There were groups of cattle being driven to the chutes, which were roadways about fifteen feet wide, raised high above the pens. In these chutes the stream of animals was continuous; it was quite uncanny to watch them, pressing on to their fate, all unsuspicious a very river of death. Our friends were not poetical, and the sight suggested to them no metaphors of human destiny; they thought only of the wonderful efficiency of it all. The chutes into which the hogs went climbed high up – to the very top of the distant buildings; and Jokubas explained that the hogs went up by the power of their own legs, and then their weight carried them back through all the processes necessary to make them into pork. (3.24)

This statement that "Our friends were not poetical, and the sight [of these cattle going to the killing floor] suggested to them no metaphors of human destiny" makes human destiny like a pink elephant in the room. Even though Jurgis and his family aren't making any parallels between their own lives and the cattle soon to be slaughtered, the fact that they specifically are not thinking such thoughts means that we are. In this early scene of watching the pigs and cattle suffer in these slaughterhouses, Sinclair quite explicitly foreshadows that Jurgis and his family are similarly doomed.

Still, it's also worth noting that the narrator takes such a distant view from Jurgis and his family – they "were not poetical," but presumably the narrator is, since he's drawing out these "metaphors of human destiny." How different would The Jungle be in terms of tone if it were told from the first person?

[Jurgis] could not hear it often enough; he could not ask with enough variations. Yes, they had bought the house, they had really bought it. It belonged to them, they had only to pay the money and it would be all right. Then Jurgis covered his face with his hands, for there were tears in his eyes, and he felt like a fool. But he had had such a horrible fright; strong man as he was, it left him almost too weak to stand up. (4.28)

When Jurgis walks confidently into the slaughterhouse to demand a job in the early chapters of the novel, he has total faith in his physical strength. He believes that he is beyond suffering. What he doesn't know is that all of these social setbacks – the terms on which they have "bought" their house, the taxes they have to pay, the expenses of getting doctors for Jurgis's ankle and Ona's childbirth – are going to wear him down. Jurgis becomes "almost too weak to stand up" from fear that the realtor has cheated his family; his physical strength is not enough to hold off his emotional suffering.

They were beaten; they had lost the game, they were swept aside. It was not less tragic because it was so sordid, because it had to do with wages and grocery bills and rents. They had dreamed of freedom; of a chance to look about them and learn something; to be decent and clean, to see their child grow up to be strong. And now it was all gone—it would never be! They had played the game and they had lost. Six years more of toil they had to face before they could expect the least respite, the cessation of the payments upon the house; and how cruelly certain it was that they could never stand six years of such a life as they were living! (14.7)

When the narrator comments that Jurgis's suffering "is not less tragic because it was so sordid," he is writing against centuries of tradition about tragedy. Tragedy as a literary genre often relies on the so-called "fatal flaw" of an individual's nature to create plots that end in doom: for example, Macbeth's greed, King Lear's pride, Hamlet's indecisiveness, and so on. But the tragedies of Jurgis's life aren't about human nature; they are the result of an unjust, inhuman social structure. Even if his family's troubles are "so sordid," though, they are still painful and agonizing. They still deserve recognition, even if this isn't the stuff of classical tragedy.

It was not an easy thing for Jurgis to take more than two or three drinks. With the first drink he could eat a meal, and he could persuade himself that that was economy; with the second he could eat another meal—but there would come a time when he could eat no more, and then to pay for a drink was an unthinkable extravagance, a defiance of the agelong instincts of his hunger-haunted class. One day, however, he took the plunge, and drank up all that he had in his pockets, and went home half "piped," as the men phrase it. He was happier than he had been in a year; and yet, because he knew that the happiness would not last, he was savage, too with those who would wreck it, and with the world, and with his life; and then again, beneath this, he was sick with the shame of himself. (14.11)

Jurgis is suffering so badly that he starts drinking to feel better. Even if drinking makes him "happier than he had been in a year," he is still so angry and ashamed with himself for doing it that he feels "sick." So, even though he is trying to make himself feel better, he is actually adding to his own suffering. There is nothing in The Jungle that we can think of – alcoholism, prostitution, crime – that doesn't have some kind of social explanation within the novel. Jurgis drinks because he's poor and unhappy; Marija becomes a prostitute because her family is starving, etc. Is there anything that happens in the book that can't be tied back to the evils of society? Does the strong political agenda of the novel ever strain the believability of the plot?

Jurgis had first come to the stockyards he had been as clean as any workingman could well be. But later on, what with sickness and cold and hunger and discouragement, and the filthiness of his work, and the vermin in his home, he had given up washing in winter, and in summer only as much of him as would go into a basin. He had had a shower bath in jail, but nothing since—and now he would have a swim! (22.25)

The unhappiness of Jurgis's life in the stockyards has left an actual, physical residue – filth – on his skin. Once he leaves the city to start hoboing, he can finally wash this filth off. How long does Jurgis's feeling of freedom last while he is traveling on the road? How does Sinclair depict the life of a hobo? How does this period in Jurgis's life seem to fit in with the rest of Sinclair's political commentary?

"When you get through working your horses this fall, will you turn them out in the snow?" (Jurgis was beginning to think for himself nowadays.

"It ain't quite the same," the farmer answered, seeing the point. "There ought to be work a strong fellow like you can find to do, in the cities, or some place, in the winter time."

"Yes," said Jurgis, "that's what they all think; and so they crowd into the cities, and when they have to beg or steal to live, then people ask 'em why they don't go into the country, where help is scarce." The farmer meditated awhile. (22.41-43)

Much of Jurgis's plot line draws attention to problems of urban poverty and poor working conditions. Even so, Upton Sinclair doesn't want you to think that the countryside is much better when it comes to labor exploitation. Even the countryside is still dominated by the capitalist search for profit. So when Jurgis finds out that a farmer would be willing to hire him just for the summer and that, after the harvest, he would be unemployed again, Jurgis is outraged. By this stage of the novel, Jurgis is really coming to terms with the negative effects of American society on his life: the stage has been set for his socialist conversion.

It was like breakers upon a beach; there was new water, but the wave looked just the same. He strolled about and talked with them, and the biggest of them told tales of their prowess, while those who were weaker, or younger and inexperienced, gathered round and listened in admiring silence. The last time he was there, Jurgis had thought of little but his family; but now he was free to listen to these men, and to realize that he was one of them—that their point of view was his point of view, and that the way they kept themselves alive in the world was the way he meant to do it in the future. (25.67)

Jurgis is back in jail for a second time after attacking a bartender. Surrounded by criminals, Jurgis realizes that he is "one of them – that their point of view [is] his point of view." This is Jurgis first experience of what socialist philosophers call "class consciousness." Class consciousness is the recognition that you belong to a certain social group, and that your interests are the same as those of other members of that group. It makes sense that Jurgis would feel a sense of solidarity with criminals before becoming a socialist, because Sinclair is portraying all of these criminals as working men who have just gotten a lousy break from society. Why do you think people fall into lives of crime? Are there other ways of interpreting criminal activity?

The victim was an insurance agent, and he had lost a hundred and ten dollars that did not belong to him. He had chanced to have his name marked on his shirt, otherwise he would not have been identified yet. His assailant had hit him too hard, and he was suffering from concussion of the brain; and also he had been half-frozen when found, and would lose three fingers on his right hand. The enterprising newspaper reporter had taken all this information to his family, and told how they had received it.

Since it was Jurgis's first experience, these details naturally caused him some worriment; but the other laughed coolly—it was the way of the game, and there was no helping it. Before long Jurgis would think no more of it than they did in the yards of knocking out a bullock. "It's a case of us or the other fellow, and I say the other fellow, every time," he observed. (25.77-78)

The victim in question is the first guy who Jack Duane and Jurgis beat up for his money. Jack Duane has been hardened against the suffering of others. He totally thinks it's a dog-eat-dog world and, if you're not doing the beating, then you will be beaten. Still there's something else that we find interesting about this passage: it's that note about the "enterprising newspaper reporter" who tells the victim's family that he has a concussion and will lose three fingers from frostbite. This reporter is invading these people's privacy so that he can tell the world how they first took the news that their father or husband has been mugged and is still unconscious. The news media is profiting off the suffering of others. This problem of sensational and exploitative journalism is a huge issue today. What do you think the public has a right to know? What limits should there be to personal privacy in the news?

All day long the blazing midsummer sun beat down upon that square mile of abominations: upon tens of thousands of cattle crowded into pens whose wooden floors stank and steamed contagion; upon bare, blistering, cinder-strewn railroad tracks, and huge blocks of dingy meat factories, whose labyrinthine passages defied a breath of fresh air to penetrate them; and there were not merely rivers of hot blood, and car-loads of moist flesh, and rendering vats and soap caldrons, glue factories and fertilizer tanks, that smelt like the craters of hell—there were also tons of garbage festering in the sun, and the greasy laundry of the workers hung out to dry, and dining rooms littered with food and black with flies, and toilet rooms that were open sewers. (26.46)

In the middle of the strike, the truly terrible hygiene of the slaughterhouses has gotten even worse, if that is possible to imagine. These kinds of descriptive passages are supposed to evoke the scene for you, to show you, through word pictures, just how awful the slaughterhouses really are. How effective is this imagery? What tone and style do you see at work in passages like these? What might Sinclair be trying to achieve with imagistic passages like this one?

"What," asks the prophet, "is the murder of them that kill the body, to the murder of them that kill the soul?" And Jurgis was a man whose soul had been murdered, who had ceased to hope and to struggle—who had made terms with degradation and despair; and now, suddenly, in one awful convulsion, the black and hideous fact was made plain to him! There was a falling in of all the pillars of his soul, the sky seemed to split above him—he stood there, with his clenched hands upraised, his eyes bloodshot, and the veins standing out purple in his face, roaring in the voice of a wild beast, frantic, incoherent, maniacal. And when he could shout no more he still stood there, gasping, and whispering hoarsely to himself: "By God! By God! By God!" (28.52)

Here it is, the moment that we have all been waiting for: Jurgis's conversion to socialism. The interesting thing about this revelation is that Jurgis still must cope with pain in his life, but he has now moved past "the degradation and despair" that has murdered his soul. The conditions of Jurgis's life are much the same as they always were, but his feeling about them has become entirely different. So suffering really does seem to be about your point of view, in this account.