Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
As Jurgis and his family members experience harder and harder times in Packingtown, they find themselves surrounded increasingly with signs of immorality and corruption—laws that are not enforced, politicians out for their own gain, salesmen who lie about their wares—a whole community of people trying desperately to get ahead by taking advantage of one another. At the beginning of the novel, the signs of corruption are slight; a few people neglect to leave money to pay for the wedding feast. By the end of the novel, however, Jurgis has been a thief, mugger, strikebreaker, and an agent in a political vote-buying scheme. The family itself has been subject to swindles, grafts, manipulation, and rape. As the corruption motif recurs with increasing levels of immorality, it enhances the sense that things are growing worse and worse for the family. Sinclair heightens the atmosphere of grim tragedy and hopelessness to such an extent that only the encounter with socialism in Chapter 28 can possibly alleviate Jurgis’s suffering and give his life meaning.
Counterbalancing the motif of human corruption and depravity in the novel is the positive portrayal of the essential goodness of family and social traditions such as the wedding feast in Chapter 1. One of the novel’s central criticisms of capitalism is that it has a destructive effect on the family. For Jurgis’s family, economic hardship at various times helps disintegrate the family: Jonas disappears, Jurgis abandons the family, and Marija becomes a morphine-addicted prostitute. As the novel progresses, the role of family diminishes as the individual characters become increasingly battered and beaten: when Kristoforas dies, for instance, Jurgis is relieved because it means one less mouth to feed in the house. But because of the strength of Teta Elzbieta, the character who most directly represents the home and family, the clan is never quite destroyed. After Jurgis’s reunion with Teta Elzbieta at the end of the novel, not long after his discovery of socialism, the book even brings a measure of optimism into its portrayal of the family’s future, as Teta Elzbieta welcomes his earning power back into the family.