But it is not likely that he had reference to the kind of anguish that comes with destitution, that is so endlessly bitter and cruel, and yet so sordid and petty, so ugly, so humiliating—unredeemed by the slightest touch of dignity or even of pathos. It is a kind of anguish that poets have not commonly dealt with; its very words are not admitted into the vocabulary of poets—the details of it cannot be told in polite society at all.
The narrator, quoting a poet lamenting of anguish and despair, doubts that someone who has time to write poetry has ever experienced the sort of suffering that Jurgis and his family do on a daily basis. In fact, this statement infers that no one who has not lived in poverty can understand true anguish. The description of the family’s extreme suffering serves as part of the text’s argument for the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism.
This was in truth not living; it was scarcely even existing, and they felt that it was too little for the price they paid. They were willing to work all the time; and when people did their best, ought they not to be able to keep alive?
As the family experiences their first winter in Chicago, the narrator tells of their financial burdens, saying that as soon as they took care of one hardship, they would immediately face another, offering them no respite from stress and anguish. With the physical and mental strain of these hardships, no one in the family is able to enjoy life or find a way to move up in the world. The suffering this family, and other workers, experience keeps them from bettering their position.