Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers; under such circumstances immorality was exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it was under the system of chattel slavery. Things that were quite unspeakable went on there in the packing houses all the time, and were taken for granted by everybody; only they did not show, as in the old slavery times, because there was no difference in color between master and slave.
This quote from Chapter 10 comes from Sinclair’s explanation of Ona’s working conditions; she is forced to work under Miss Henderson, who runs a prostitution ring, and most of her coworkers are prostitutes. Sinclair presents these conditions as a horrible situation for the modest, moral Ona but also offers an explanation in which the system of prostitution is examined in rough economic terms. As with every other failing among the working class in the novel, prostitution is shown not as an innate fault of the women involved but rather as the fault of the capitalists and the economic oppression that they force upon the impoverished immigrants. This passage also hints at the sexual oppression that young working girls are forced to endure from their bosses and foreshadows Ona’s rape at the hands of Phil Connor.
Additionally, the last sentence raises a Marxist argument about the appearance of calm surrounding social relations under capitalism. The argument runs that social relations under capitalism are no less exploitative than those that existed under slavery and in feudal societies but that capitalism conceals the true turbulent nature of these relationships under a veneer of naturalness and inevitability. The difference between wage labor and these antiquated forms of subjugation is only a matter of transparency; though the “difference in color between master and slave” is no longer applicable to the owner-laborer relationship, the oppression remains the same.
[T]he meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.
This long description from Chapter 14 is among the most famous and influential passages in the novel and helps to explain why the book caused so much public furor upon its publication. Sinclair intended the book to raise public consciousness about the plight of the working poor, but he relied on a pseudo-naturalistic technique that emphasized the physically revolting filth and gore of the stockyards. As a result, the novel caused outrage about the unsanitary quality of the meat that was sold in stores rather than the oppression of the poor. The public pressed less for the socialist reforms that Sinclair backed than the public reform to food laws. The image of all kinds of waste being dumped in with the consumer’s product is surely revolting; that it is dumped in without any regard for the consumer by greedy capitalists is infuriating. Sinclair himself stated: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
They put him in a place where the snow could not beat in, where the cold could not eat through his bones; they brought him food and drink—why, in the name of heaven, if they must punish him, did they not put his family in jail and leave him outside—why could they find no better way to punish him than to leave three weak women and six helpless children to starve and freeze?
This quote from Chapter 16 explains Jurgis’s mindset when he is sent to prison after attacking Phil Connor. Ironically, to Jurgis, the prison is actually an environment far preferable to the cruel, filthy world of Packingtown. Here he receives shelter from the elements and food without having to do anything; he believes that his family members are the real prisoners, as, without his support, they now face starvation and eviction. It is a measure of Jurgis’s sympathy and of the horrible conditions that the family is forced to endure that Jurgis actually wishes that his family were sent to prison in his place. Additionally, Jurgis’s rhetorical question at the end of the quote speaks to the cold and unsympathetic nature of capitalism: if the women and children cannot earn the means to survive, it is because they aren’t productive enough as laborers.
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 carloads 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.
This descriptive passage from Chapter 26 portrays the rank and festering physical environment in which the Packingtown laborers are forced to live, helping to explain why Jurgis found prison so preferable. The passage also shows off the lurid, pseudo-naturalistic style that Sinclair adopted for the novel, which matches his flair for physical description with his desire to shock and disgust his readers. He captures the disgusting filth and general unbearableness of Packingtown in the images of “floors [that] stank and steamed contagion” and “blistering . . . railroad tracks.” Furthermore, he breaks down the meat-packing plant into the raw, nauseating elements of “rivers of hot blood” and “carloads of moist flesh.” This repulsiveness plagues not only the factories but also the laborers and their living quarters; they have “greasy laundry” and sordid bathrooms. Sinclair deliberately makes his readers feel uncomfortable in the hopes of stirring up their sympathy, and The Jungle is full of vivid and stomach-churning passages such as this one.
To Jurgis the packers had been equivalent to fate; Ostrinski showed him that they were the Beef Trust. They were a gigantic combination of capital, which had crushed all opposition, and overthrown the laws of the land, and was preying upon the people.
This quote from Chapter 29 illustrates the effect of Jurgis’s adoption of socialism upon his mind. He previously considers the capitalists “equivalent to fate,” believing them to be all-powerful, impersonal, inhuman forces that have total control over his life. But Ostrinski convinces him that the capitalists are merely corrupt human beings who immorally oppress other human beings. Jurgis realizes here that the only difference between the capitalists and the workers lies in money, for while the capitalists have “a gigantic combination of capital,” the workers have nothing. But, as the speech at the end of the novel emphasizes, there are many more workers than capitalists, which could enable the socialist party to overthrow the hegemony of capitalism in a democratic system. This quote demonstrates the opening of Jurgis’s mind to politics and economics, as he takes up the socialist cause with a fervor at least as strong as that with which he initially embraces capitalism and the American Dream.