Study Guide

The Jungle Poverty

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There's a lot of poverty in The Jungle – it's a novel about economic exploitation, after all. Still, the interesting thing about Sinclair's approach to poverty is that he does not let his clear favor for the workingman blind him to some serious social problems that poverty causes. For example, thanks to Jurgis's workplace injury and overall bitterness, he becomes physically abusive with little Stanislovas. Jurgis is our main character and we are supposed to identify with him, but we can't whitewash or overlook the fact that he beats up a thirteen-year-old kid to get him to go to work in the mornings. Poverty becomes the explanation for a host of antisocial behavior, including Jurgis's alcoholism and criminal activity. Yet we have to ask ourselves: does a viable social explanation for why people do bad things still excuse them from blame?

Questions About Poverty

  1. How can you get rich in Packingtown? Is there any social mobility at all? Why does the question of social mobility matter to Sinclair's political message?
  2. What are some of the personal consequences of poverty in this novel? What effects does poverty have on the lives of Jurgis and his family?
  3. What are some of the larger social consequences of poverty in this novel? What social problems does Sinclair directly assign to poverty? How does he suggest these problems might be solved?

Chew on This

In The Jungle, the fact that poor men can only improve their quality of living by breaking the law becomes proof that the American economic system is inherently unjust.

In order to make a case for socialism, Upton Sinclair bypasses questions of individual psychology or character development to claim that all crime is the result of economic inequality.

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