The Jungle opens on a traditional Lithuanian wedding celebration, the veselija, which is being held in the back room of a Chicago Packingtown saloon. Both of these things – Lithuanian celebrations and Chicago's Packingtown – are supposed to be unfamiliar to us. The narrator takes it as his duty to introduce us to the unfamiliar world of Packingtown so that we will be aware of the abuses that go on there. It isn't just the reader who is supposed to find the world of the novel foreign. There is also a great deal of mutual misunderstanding and prejudice between different national and racial groups in this novel. For example, Jurgis's lack of familiarity with the English language and with American culture makes him subject to manipulation and abuse by his realtor and employers. These kinds of cultural divisions make the task of organizing the workingmen of Chicago into a collective group – such as a union or, even better, the Socialist Party – all the more challenging.
Questions About Foreignness and the 'Other'
How is Jurgis's ignorance of American culture portrayed at the beginning of the novel? What dialogue and plot cues do we get that Jurgis is becoming more and more assimilated into American culture?
Which of Jurgis's family members hold on most tightly to their Lithuanian roots? What traits do these characters share in common? What are the advantages and disadvantages of maintaining cultural ties to your country of origin, according to The Jungle?
How does Jurgis play on racial prejudice to help Republican "Scotty" Doyle win his election? During the stockyard strike, how do the stockyard owners play on racial prejudice to generate divisions between union members and non-union workers? How does racial prejudice provide an obstacle to Sinclair's political agenda?
Chew on This
Upton Sinclair chooses to focus the plot of The Jungle on newcomers to Chicago's meatpacking plants in order to educate a general public that is also presumed to be unfamiliar with the area and its social problems. Thus, the reader discovers the horror of Packingtown alongside The Jungle's characters.
Even as Upton Sinclair criticizes the divisions between workingmen that racial prejudice perpetuates, he becomes subject to these same divisions in his disparaging descriptions of African-American workers during the stockyard strikes.