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The Jungle

Summary

Chapters 18–21

Summary Chapters 18–21

The mill is too far for Jurgis to return to the boardinghouse during the week, so he travels home only on the weekends. He loves his son with an overwhelming devotion. Antanas’s first attempts at speech provide no end of delight to Jurgis. Jurgis begins to read the Sunday paper with the help of the children and settles in a livable routine. But he returns to the boardinghouse one day only to discover that a freak accident has occurred: Antanas has drowned in the mire of mud in the streets.

Analysis: Chapters 18–21

The narrative shape of The Jungle is extremely simple: it exposes the fallacy of the American Dream by portraying the gradual destruction of the immigrant family at the hands of the forces of capitalism. Every section, every chapter, and nearly every individual event throughout most of the book operates according to this plan. In this section, not surprisingly, the family continues to suffer greater and greater misfortunes. Their home, the symbol of family life, has been taken from them; the building looks as if the family never even lived there. Jurgis’s return to his home is a metaphor for the cyclical nature of generations of immigrants. These waves of immigrants pass through Packingtown and its misery—the only constant in their lives.

Moreover, the second- and third-generation children of earlier waves of immigrants seem to forget that their ancestors suffered the very same abuses that they now perpetrate on the newer generations of immigrants. As theories about eugenics (a science concerned with improving a specific race’s hereditary qualities) arose in the late nineteenth century, making claims about the inherent inferiority of nonwhite peoples and white peoples of certain descent, Americans became hostile toward the waves of immigrants whom they perceived as infiltrators spoiling the purity of the American people. The first waves were constituted largely of northern and western Europeans. The Irish, then, stereotyped as potato-eating drunks, were among the early targets of ridicule. With the arrival of later waves of immigrants, largely from southern and eastern Europe, these earlier immigrants sought to take advantage of these new immigrants. Phil Connor, for example, an Irishman, takes part in the abuse and degradation that, a few decades earlier, the Irish suffered at the hands of more powerful ethnic groups. Historical memory is short if not nonexistent in The Jungle.

These chapters also function as the next stage of Sinclair’s attack on capitalism. Earlier, he shows that child labor laws do nothing to stop child labor, implying that it is not possible to improve working conditions and labor practices from within the structures of capitalism. Jurgis’s job at the harvester factory expounds upon the same idea. The factory supposedly functions according to philanthropic values, and the facilities are cleaner and the working conditions more pleasant. Nevertheless, the factory shuts down periodically after the rush season just like other factories, leaving thousands of laborers without the income necessary to survive. The factory’s philanthropic values do nothing to change the essentially precarious existence of wage laborers. Again, working from within capitalism fails to provide wage laborers with a secure, decent living.

The young woman who secures Jurgis a job with her recommendation shows compassion in an otherwise cruel world. However, her actions do nothing to change the dangerous working conditions in the steel factory where her fiancé is a superintendent—Jurgis witnesses several men suffer horrendous, disabling accidents in the steel mill. Neither does her kind action make a difference in the dangerous conditions in the slums where wage laborers live. She helps Jurgis secure an income, but Antanas still drowns in the unpaved, muddy streets outside the boarding house. Through this example, Sinclair argues, pessimistically, that individual philanthropists working within the structures of capitalism are likewise ineffective at changing the lives of wage laborers for the better.