Study Guide

The Jungle Gender

By Upton Sinclair

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Even though women were an incredibly important part of the early American socialist movement, there are surprisingly few strong-minded female workers in The Jungle. Maybe even none. Jurgis definitely thinks of himself as the Man of the Family, and he imagines Ona as someone fragile who must be protected. Because Jurgis thinks of her in such possessive and protective terms, he makes it impossible for Ona to tell him that she is being assaulted and intimidated at work. Ona is so afraid that, if Jurgis finds out, he will go nuts and kill the guy who is assaulting her that she hides the truth from him.

Ona is not wrong: Jurgis takes her assault not only as a miserable thing for her, but also as a blow to his pride and a strike against his ability to take care of his family. So, Jurgis tries to kill Ona's attacker and winds up in jail, forever ruining the family financially. Because Jurgis imagines such a strong difference between male and female social roles, he makes it difficult for either of them to share their troubles equally with one another, which winds up being disastrous for both him and Ona. Perhaps it is this kind of situation that Dr. Schliemann is hoping to avoid by refusing to get married until women gain equality with men in the socialist future he predicts at the end of the novel (a topic we tackle at greater length in "Characters: Ona").

Questions About Gender

  1. Marija Berczynskas and Ona Lukoszaite are two very different characters. But they both fall in love and get engaged over the course of the novel. How are their two relationships different? Do their different temperaments affect the outcomes of their romances?
  2. How does Sinclair depict Teta Elzbieta's role as the mother of the family? How does her status within the family affect where Teta Elzbieta works and what jobs she does?
  3. What kinds of interaction does Jurgis have with prostitution? How does Sinclair explain the existence of prostitution as a social phenomenon? What kinds of judgments does The Jungle seem to make about prostitutes?

Chew on This

Because Upton Sinclair explains prostitution as the result of power inequality within the American capitalist system, he totally removes the question of sexual morality or judgment from his depiction of brothel life.

Jurgis's belief in traditional masculine and feminine social roles are not sustainable in the individualist economy of Chicago's Packingtown.

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