A man named Jack Duane joins Jurgis in his cell. Duane is an educated man who has seen much of the world. He is a professional safecracker, though he is in jail for being a public nuisance. His arrest had been because the police could gather no evidence against him for safe-cracking crimes, according to Duane. Jurgis and Duane converse about the situations that put them behind bars. Jurgis listens with wonder to Duane’s stories “of midnight ventures and perilous escapes, of feastings and orgies, of fortunes squandered in a night.” Jurgis finds it pleasant to talk with such a man and Duane introduces him to all the other prisoners whom he knows by name.
Jurgis’s jail is “a Noah’s ark of the city’s crime.” It holds all the petty thieves and vice criminals. In these criminals, Jurgis sees the worst in society and he sees how they have been beaten down by the world. “Into this wild-beast tangle these men had been born without their consent, they had taken part in it because they could not help it; that they were in jail was no disgrace to them, for the game had never been fair, the dice were loaded.”
Jurgis arrives back in Justice Callahan’s courtroom. Teta Elzbieta and Kotrina are there in the courtroom, but Jurgis does not speak to them. Jurgis sees Connor come in wrapped in bandages. He wants to jump up and attack the man again, but he is held back by the guards. Jurgis goes before the judge, who asks him if he had beaten this man. Jurgis admits to the whole thing and, through a translator, gives the reasons why. When the judge asks Connor if it is true that he had raped Jurgis’s wife, Connor denies it. The judge sentences Jurgis to thirty days in prison. He tries to cry out for his family, but the judge only tells him, “‘You would have done well to think about them before you committed the assault.’”
Jurgis goes to Bridewell, a prison even more filthy than the city prison. Jurgis is put to work, cracking stones to make gravel. One day, Jurgis goes to a room where he meets Stanislovas. Stanislovas tells Jurgis that Ona is very sick. She cannot go to work and lost her place at the factory. Marija has also cut her hand very badly and the doctor tells her that she might lose it. Because of a snowstorm, Stanislovas tells Jurgis that even he lost his job and now has to go sell papers with the other children. He tells Jurgis that the family is starving and that their landlords are threatening to kick them out if they do not pay the rent. He asks Jurgis for help, but Jurgis tells him there is nothing he can do while in jail. It will be three more weeks before he can return to them. Stanislovas leaves, taking Jurgis’s fourteen cents, and Jurgis reels and sways before going back to work breaking stone.
The time for Jurgis’s release from prison comes, but to pay off his court costs he must work in the prison for three more days. When he is released, he wanders out of the prison in the cold and snow and is immediately frozen to the bone because his fertilizer clothes are so thin. When he had been in jail he had gotten enough to eat and had been warm, but he does not remember this because he is consumed with “fear and grief” and wants only to go home and save his family.
He stops a boy on the side of the road to get directions. The boy tells him that the stockyards are twenty miles away and Jurgis begins to walk. He realizes that he is headed away from the city and stops a farmer on a cart to ask directions again. The farmer tells him that he is headed in the wrong direction. The farmer does not offer him a ride. Jurgis turns around and begins to walk back into the city. As he gets closer to the city, he sees that the snow on the riverbeds is black with soot and smoke. In the city, downtown, the people are “all hurrying breathlessly, never stopping to look at anything nor at each other.” None of them notices Jurgis.
He finally reaches the stockyards and the slums. He comes to his house but is shocked to see that it no longer looks like his house. It has been painted, and the defects have been repaired. Jurgis must brace himself when a young boy he does not recognize comes out of the house. Jurgis asks the boy where his family is, and the boy gets his mother. The boy’s mother tells Jurgis that they only recently bought the house new and that no one had lived in the house before them. Jurgis is horrified, feeling as though “his family had been wiped out of existence; as if they were proving to be a dream people, who never existed at all.” He thinks of all the sweat and toil that had gone into paying for that house, how Dede Antanas “had died of the struggle to earn” his rent, and how Ona had given up her health and youth so that they could have a roof over their head. “Jurgis could see the all the truth now.” He understands how all of society, from the companies to the lying real estate agents to the laws, works against people like him and his family.
He stumbles his way to Grandmother Majauszkiene’s house and she tells him that his family was turned out because they could not pay the rent. They now lived with Aniele Jukniene. Jurgis staggers to her house and knocks on the door. When Aniele answers, Jurgis can hear the screams and moans of Ona in another room. He enters the house to find six women huddled around a stove. One is Marija, thin and bandaged on her arm, and she tells Jurgis that he must not go up to Ona. She is in labor. Jurgis tells her that this cannot be because it is two months early, but Marija tells her the baby is coming anyway. Jurgis is once again heartbroken. The women make him wait outside, but he cannot stand it and forces his way back in. He asks the women why they do not call a doctor, and they tell him that no doctor or midwife will come and work because none of them has any money. All the women then pool together all the money they have, only a dollar and quarter, so that Jurgis can go and find help for Ona.
Jurgis goes to Madame Haupt, a midwife. She is a fat Dutch woman, wearing a “filthy blue wrapper” with black teeth. Jurgis enters her room looking “like a man that had risen from the tomb.” He begs Madame Haupt to come and save his wife, but she complains that she has not yet eaten her dinner. Jurgis tells her that he only has a dollar and a quarter to pay her. He begs with her and tells her that he will pay the twenty-five dollars that she asks as soon as he can. She laughs at him and tells him that she cannot do it for that small sum. They continue to barter, Madame Haupt telling him that she cannot work for such a small sum, but as Jurgis begins to leave her house, she stops him and tells him that she will work if he can borrow five dollars from someone. He is furious and tells her that he cannot get the money and Madame Haupt relents, saying that she cannot stand to think of anyone suffering, but that he will have to pay her the full twenty-five dollars within the month.
When they arrive at the house, Madame Haupt complains that she must climb a ladder to get to the dark attic where Ona lays. She scolds them for keeping a sick woman in such conditions. There is no real floor in the attic, only boards laid across the house’s supports. Aniele comes to Jurgis and tells him he must go away from the night. Jurgis leaves and goes to a saloon. He sits at the bar and tells the bartender that he has lost his home, that his wife is ill, and that “I’m done up.” The saloonkeeper gives him a glass of whiskey and a meal and then offers him a room for the night. Jurgis cannot sleep, however, because he is so wracked with fear and worry. He leaves the saloon at four in the morning and returns to the home.
When he arrives, there is no crying or noise. Marija tells him that there is no news yet. Madame Haupt comes down the ladder of the attic. She looks like “one of the workers on the killing-beds. Her hands and arms were smeared with blood, and blood was splashed up on her clothing and her face.” She scolds Jurgis and the other women for leaving Ona in such a bad condition. She tells Jurgis that she has called for a priest and that there is nothing she can do for the woman. She is going to be dead in a short while, and the baby is stillborn.
Jurgis rushes up to the attic and sits by Ona. He cries out for her and for a brief instant, she opens her eyes and recognizes him. She fades from him and dies. He cries out in agony, and the priest tries to comfort him, to no avail. He sleeps for only a while and then comes down. Kotrina comes in from being gone for three days selling papers, and Jurgis demands to know how much money she had made. She tells him three dollars and he demands that she give it to him. He takes the money and immediately goes to the nearest saloon where he orders a whole bottle of whiskey, telling the bartender that he wants to get drunk.
While the Christmas Eve bells symbolized a future salvation for Jurgis, that salvation has not come yet. In the opening of Chapter Seventeen, the reader sees Jurgis beginning to descend into new depths. Though he is in jail for attacking a man, Sinclair suggests that such violence is understandable, if not honorable, in the situation of poverty that Jurgis and his family find themselves. In the character of Jack Duane, however, the reader sees a new temptation for Jurgis. The seeds are planted in Jurgis’s mind for a life of crime that is not so honorable, though he still has enough of his innocence and dignity left to not act on such impulses.
A theme throughout the novel, which is apparent here, is the way in which Sinclair uses themes of American Naturalist tradition in the novel. In the American Naturalist tradition of literature, characters are driven not by any internal struggle or thought. Instead, characters lives are solely reactionary to the environment around them. They have little agency and, instead, are subject to systems of control found outside of themselves. In Sinclair’s novel, this natural world includes both nature and systems of economy, government, etc. created by human thought and activity. This is evident in the way that Sinclair describes the prisoners in Bridewell. He describes how men are born “without their consent” and are then thrust into poverty and hardship by the world around them. This Naturalist tradition is an important part of the sustained attack Sinclair wishes to wage on capitalist systems of economy.
Sinclair’s descriptions of Jurgis’s time in prison are another example of the ways in which Sinclair uncovers the unspoken injustices of “normal” society. Sinclair does not use much explicit irony in the novel since he attempts to maintain a political and social seriousness to the work, but the reader is allowed to make inferences about the ironic nature of society. Bridewell Prison is such an example. Though prison life is harsh, Jurgis is given food, clothing, and a place to sleep inside from the cold. Prison, thus, offers a better life than does the world outside.
Perhaps the most wrenching scene in the novel is Ona’s death. Sinclair makes the connection here between the horrors of the killing beds and the horrors of natural life forced upon the residents of Packingtown. It is in this scene, following Jurgis’s moment of understanding of the way in which the natural world destines some people for lives of poverty, where Jurgis understands and comes to hate the natural systems of the world. Jurgis comes to understand the “horrible nature of nature.”
Critics have used this scene in the novel to argue for Sinclair’s gynophobic tendencies in the novel. The obesity, smell, and bad teeth of Madame Haupt symbolize the distaste for the female body. In the birth room, Ona’s body, which had been slowly breaking down since her last experience of childbirth, is tormented and broken completely. The blood on Madame Haupt suggests the horror of childbirth and the indecency of the natural bodily functions of the woman.