Grandmother Majauszkiene, a wizened old Lithuanian neighbor, explains to the family that houses such as the one they have taken are a swindle. She and her son were lucky enough to make the payments long enough to own the house but most people are never able to do so. She explains that the houses are more than fifteen years old and that they were built with the cheapest, shoddiest materials. No one is able to buy the houses because, for the Packingtown workers, missing even one month’s payment means eviction and the forfeiture of everything paid on it. The family is shocked to learn that they have to pay interest on their debt, bringing the actual monthly payment close to twenty dollars.
Grandmother Majauszkiene came to Packingtown when the work force was mostly German. The Irish took the Germans’ place, and now the Slovaks have taken the place of the Irish. The companies grind down and wear out successive generations of immigrant workers. Four families tried to buy the home that Ona, Jurgis, and their family now live in. One by one, each failed due to the death of a key wage earner through accident or illness.
By paying ten dollars to the forelady, Ona obtains a job sewing covers on hams in a cellar. The young Stanislovas lies about his age and obtains a job working a lard-canning machine.
Ona and Jurgis’s veselija has put them over a hundred dollars in debt. Illness strikes the family frequently due to the unsanitary conditions of Packingtown, but no one can take a day off work to recover.
Winter brings bitter cold and impassable snow drifts. The companies don’t provide adequate heating at work. There is a wave of death in Packingtown as the bad weather and disease claims the weakened, the hungry, and the old, including Dede Antanas. Thousands wait to take the vacant places in the plants. Many men succumb to the allure of whiskey and beer and become alcoholics. Jurgis resists these temptations because he is determined to shield Ona and their family from the tortures of homelessness and starvation.
Tamoszius, a musician, begins to court Marija. His fiddle-playing brings a note of cheer into the family’s life. He is also a popular guest at various celebrations because he is a musician. He invites Marija to most of them; if the hosts are his friends, he invites the entire family. These celebrations aid the family in surviving the relentless monotony of toil and poverty. Tamoszius proposes to Marija and she accepts. They plan to finish the attic in the house and use it for their room.
Marija’s canning factory shuts down and she loses her job. During the winter, after the rush season, many factories close down and many workers lose their jobs. Even Jurgis suffers from a cut-back on the hours at his job. Workers receive no pay for partial hours. The wage earners in the family all join unions. Jurgis begins to recruit other Lithuanians for the union with a zealous fervor, often frustrated by their ignorance and indifference. Their optimism and naïve commitment to the American Dream remind him of the misguided views he held when he first arrived in America.
Jurgis attends union meetings religiously and resolves to learn English by attending night school and having the children help him. Jurgis becomes a U.S. citizen at the urging of a man at his plant. He does everything that the man says and follows him to the voting booths and marks the ballot how the man tells him to. For his trouble, Jurgis receives two dollars. Only later does he learn what the entire process means when his fellow union members explain to him that he has been exploited in one of the many vote-buying schemes in the country.
Jurgis learns the folklore of Packingtown. He learns of the graft, corruption, and greed spread by the likes of Mike Scully, a local Irish politician. He hears of the physical injuries and disease that ravage the labor force. He comes to realize that the dishonest meat companies sell diseased meat and label cans as “deviled ham” or “potted ham” although the contents are a mixture of leftover bits and entrails from any number of slaughtered animals.
The family’s encounter with Grandmother Majauszkiene foreshadows these immigrants’ eventual fate. The real-estate companies have trapped them in a scheme by selling them a house that is shiny and pretty on the outside but rotten on the inside. In this way, the house is similar to the tins containing rotten and diseased meats—like these meat products, the house is sold on its appearance. This ruse also exemplifies the betrayal of the American Dream by capitalism. The home is the symbolic center of the family, and owning one’s own home is a central tenet of the American Dream. The real-estate company’s swindling of Jurgis and his family suggests that the capitalism that makes the American Dream possible also, paradoxically, destroys it.
Grandmother Majauszkiene has seen successive generations of immigrant laborers crowd into Packingtown where they are ground down and worn out. Those who survive enter the web of graft and corruption and, by doing so, advance in power and status, mostly by abusing the next generation of immigrants. The successive waves of wage laborers who come to Packingtown to face abuse and degradation recall the image of the animals being herded to slaughter in the stockyards. These immigrants either fail to succeed or they compromise their moral principles. Either way, as with the ill-fated animals, forces beyond their control determine their respective fates.
An important premise of the novel is that the political and governmental systems that support American capitalism are as rotten and corrupt as the business world itself. Sinclair makes clear that the few labor reform laws aimed at preventing abusive labor practices are largely ineffective. The child labor laws forbidding children under the age of sixteen to work do nothing to keep children from being forced to labor at grueling jobs, since the desperate need for money necessitates that these youths work any job that they can. The very structure of capitalist economics, in Sinclair’s portrayal, demands such a sacrifice in order for one to survive. Throughout The Jungle, Sinclair uses narrative incidents such as Stanislovas’s exploitation as evidence to support the argument that working from within capitalism is not effective. Socialism, he argues, is the only viable political and economic system.
Jurgis’s naturalization to become an American citizen, which might otherwise be seen as an encouraging step on his way toward achieving the American Dream, is tainted with corruption. The democratic process is entirely besmirched by politicians with hands caught in the deep pockets of big capitalists. Elections are rigged through an extensive vote-buying scheme, and members of the Chicago criminal underworld take advantage of ignorant, impoverished wage laborers to pervert the democratic process according to the wishes of big businessmen and their cronies.