With two family members working in the cannery and the sausage making plant, the family sees all of the tricks that the packing industry uses to sell meat. The industry is especially good at manipulating spoiled meat so that it does not smell or look spoiled so that it can be sold. They pump meat full of pickling chemicals to rid it of its smells. They remove the bone from a ham, along with its rotted meat, and replace it with a hot piece of iron. They stop labeling meat as One, Two, or Three Grade and instead label it all as One Grade. They use “everything of the pig except the squeal,” and they find new ways to market and sell each part. Teta Elzbieta’s factory is especially bad. Rats are a problem in the storage sheds, and the men that work there put out poison bread. When the rats die, they often end up in the piles of meat. There are other things that go into the sausage as well, too horrible to name. Every few months, men are hired to clean out the waste barrels of spoiled meat, trash, rusty nails, and other things. It is “taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.”
Soon, Elzbieta sinks into torpor. She and Ona become silent most of the time, too tired to speak. They are both sick and miserable from their work. They are “so numbed that they [do] not even suffer much from hunger.” Often, they remember what life had been like before, and their souls cry out in agony. They had dreamed of freedom in America, but now they cannot even see their child grow up to be strong. Ona sometimes cries about it at night, but Jurgis is tired and cross. She learns to weep silently.
Jurgis becomes addicted to alcohol. He struggles with wanting to drink although he knows that he must bring every penny he can home with him. He has a drink with his meals, sometimes, and it makes him happy and allows him to loosen some of his burden. When he drinks, “his dead self would stir in him, and he would find himself laughing and cracking jokes with his companions - he would be a man again, and master of his life.” He grows to resent his married life and his family, for they keep him from being able to drink more. He wishes that Ona would drink so that they could “escape from the horror.” Soon, “nearly all the conscious life of Jurgis consisted of a struggle with the craving for liquor.”
Little Antanas is the least unfortunate member of the family. He is able to bear his sufferings and is healthy. He has so much strength and energy that his mother cannot handle him and cannot give him enough food. Only Jurgis can calm the child. Antanas soon gets sick with the measles and his crying and wailing are terrible. The family, however, is too tired to care for him, and since children do not often die of the measles, they simply let him cry until his disease passes. Ona’s work is slowly killing her, and Jurgis thinks to himself that workingmen should not marry and have families because their women become too hysterical to manage.
Ona continues to go through great crisis, which leaves her eyes looking “like the eyes of a hunted animal.” Jurgis does not give any more considerable worry to Ona’s situation, simply living “like a dumb beast of burden, knowing only the moment in which he was.” In the late fall, the packinghouses become very busy in preparing meat for the Christmastime season. All the workers work long shifts in order to keep their places and add some small sum to their income. All of the members of the family start work at seven in the morning, get a short break for lunch at noon, and then work until ten or eleven at night without another break or bite to eat. They arrive home at night too tired even to take off their clothes to sleep.
One morning, a few days before Thanksgiving, Marija wakes Jurgis with a fright. Ona did not come home the evening before. There was a snowstorm, and everyone is worried that Ona is freezing outside in the cold. Jurgis goes to the yards and finds Ona’s part of the factory. He is told that she turned in her time card the night before and left. Fifteen minutes after seven, Jurgis finally sees Ona arriving for work. He rushes out to meet her, glad to see her alive but anxious to find out what had happened. She tells him that she had to go home with her friend Jadvyga the night before because she had been so tired. She was afraid because she knew he would worry. Jurgis is happy that Ona is okay, and he leaves her to her work and goes to the fertilizer factory.
A month passes and, a few days before Christmas, Teta Elzbieta and Marija arrive home at midnight with the shocking news that Ona is once again missing. They worry that it could be serious this time. Jurgis tells the worried women that she is fine and probably staying at Jadvyga’s house. He goes back to sleep. The next morning, however, he wakes early and goes to Jadvyga’s house to check on Ona. The family there tells him that Ona is not there, nor had she ever stayed with them. Jurgis cannot believe this news or the fact that his wife had willfully deceived him. He goes to the factory and finds one of Ona’s floor bosses. The man says that there must have been a mix-up with the cars and that maybe she had gone downtown. Jurgis is sure this is not the case and he notices some sly glances between the workers.
Jurgis walks down Ashland Avenue towards his house when he thinks that he spots Ona’s “rusty black hat with the drooping red flower” on one of the streetcars. He runs alongside it and watches as Ona exits the car and makes her way into their house. When Jurgis enters, Elzbieta tells him to be quiet because Ona is sleeping. She tells him that Ona was lost the night before and had only come home that morning. Jurgis knows that Elzbieta is lying to him and he opens the door and goes in to confront Ona.
When Ona starts to explain what happened, Jurgis stops her and tells her that he knows she is lying. She tries to grab onto him, but he moves and lets her fall to the floor, where she goes into a sobbing fit of anguish, shaking and coughing. She yells out, her voice rising into “screams, louder and louder until it broke in wild, horrible peals of laughter.” Jurgis yells at her to stop and answer him. She begs him to believe her and have faith that she is doing the right thing for the family.
She tells him that she has been downtown at one of the brothels. Her floor boss, Connor, had taken her there telling her that if she did not go he would ruin her and her family and make sure they never worked again. Mrs. Henderson hates her, so they devised a plot. Connor offered her money. He begged her, threatened her, and told her that he loved her. Finally, he told her that she had to come and took hold of her one night in the factory and raped her. Then he began making her come to the brothel.
Jurgis becomes furious and walks out of the house. He runs to the street and catches a streetcar. He stands on its platform, “waiting, waiting, crouching as if for a spring.” When he arrives at the factory, he finds Connor loading packages onto a truck. He jumps on him and begins to beat the man. He bites his cheek, tearing part of it off. He smashes Connor’s head against the floor. A whole team of men comes and pries Jurgis off Connor. They take him to the company police station until a patrol wagon comes to take him away.
Jurgis goes to prison. He is kicked by a policeman on his way to his cell but is not surprised at this. He knows that the police in Packingtown can be brutal. When he arrives in the holding cell, he sits down “like a wild beast that has glutted itself; he was in a dull stupor of satisfaction” because he had beaten Connor so well. That feeling of satisfaction soon leaves, however, and he is confronted with the reality of his situation. He remembers Ona and his family and now realizes their situation.
That night, Jurgis is overcome with the memories of his past. He stretches out his arms “to heaven, crying out for deliverance from it,” but deliverance does not come. He curses himself for letting Ona work in such a place, even though he had heard the stories and knew the realities of such places for women like her. He knows that even though she might forgive him, she “would never look him in the face again, she would never be his wife again” because of the shame she now feels over the incident. Jurgis toils in his mind over the poverty that his family now faces. He wonders if they will be evicted, thrown out in the streets to die. He thinks only of the worst possibilities.
Jurgis is picked up in the morning by a police wagon and driven to a makeshift courtroom. Jurgis goes before Justice Callahan, one of the bosses of Packingtown’s political machine. The Justice gives him a $300 bond, but since Jurgis has no way to pay it, he is led away by the police. He is made to take a bath and taken to a cell with two bunks, each one infested with fleas and rodents. At night, Jurgis paces up and down “like a wild beast that breaks its teeth upon the bars of its cage.” He sometimes flings himself against the walls and beats them with his fists.
At midnight, there is a loud outburst of bells from the town’s church steeples. Jurgis remembers that it is Christmas Eve. He flashes back in his mind to Lithuania and to times of celebration. Jurgis realizes that even in Packingtown they had not forgotten the vision of the Christ child and that “some gleam of it had never failed to break their darkness.” He remembers all of the shoddy, yet happy Christmases that the family had shared in Packingtown. However, Jurgis’s thoughts soon turn to despair once again. He realizes that the Christmas bells are not ringing for him. “He was of no consequence -- he was flung aside, like a bit of trash, the carcass of some animal.” A fury is awakened in Jurgis. He understands now that justice is a lie and that all of society was “tyranny, the will and the power, reckless and unrestrained!” They treat him and his family worse than they treat the animals at the packinghouses. In these midnight hours, Jurgis feels “the beginning of his rebellion, of his outlawry and his unbelief.” He declares all of society his enemy. The chapter ends with a poem: “The vilest deeds, like poison weeds, / Bloom well in prison air; / It is only what is good in Man / That wastes and withers there.”
Although The Jungle was one of the most popular books of the early twentieth century, it did not necessarily bring about the kind of change that Sinclair hoped to persuade people was needed in American politics. Sinclair wrote the novel as a diatribe on the evils of capitalism. He argues through the story of Jurgis and his family that socialist economic policies will help cure the ills of American society.
It was such scenes as is found in Chapter Fourteen, however, that actually captured the American public’s imagination. The horrifying descriptions of the meat packing process created a public outrage and President Theodore Roosevelt, as well as Congress and other elected officials, were forced into passing sweeping reforms of the American food industry. These reforms, however, did not specifically address the themes that Sinclair brings to light in the novel, that of unjust working and social conditions.
Jurgis’s drinking problem becomes a commentary on the breaking apart of traditional family roles. While saloon life and alcohol consumption are secondary topics of criticism in The Jungle, they do offer a brief glimpse at what Sinclair saw as a motivating factor in destabilizing family life and human relations. Saloons of this period played important roles of political and economic function. They were masculine spaces and, as is exemplified by Jurgis’s experience, often became second homes for men. In this way, traditional patriarchal family life loses its sense of purpose and is another victim to mechanisms of Social Darwinism. Family life becomes a burden; men seek to become lost in their own individual suffering.
In Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen, Sinclair uses language that exemplifies the meaning of the book’s title. In the novel, the idea of “jungle” means several different things. In this chapter, the reader begins to see that one meaning is the issue of the devolving of characters. In several instances, Sinclair gives Ona and Jurgis animalistic traits. Ona is like a hunted animal. Jurgis, when going to attack the foreman that has raped Ona, acts like a tiger, and when he is imprisoned, he acts like an animal in a cage. The social atmosphere of Packingtown has created characters that now know they must kill or be killed. In this way, the “jungle” is society framed in the terms of natural selection.
The Christmas Eve scene that takes place while Jurgis is in prison is one of several “awakening” scenes in the novel. This first awakening is a kind of spiritual awakening. Christmas Eve is symbolic of Jurgis’s transformation. Just as the birth of the Christ child is a symbol in Christianity of the promise of mankind’s salvation, this scene in prison acts a kind of promise for Jurgis’s future salvation. Jurgis does not yet have the intellectual tools to address his situation -- that will be a future awakening -- but this scene allows him to gain an understanding of the way the particular injustices of society work to repress him and his fellow workingmen.