Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Chicago

*Chicago. Midwestern American city to which many immigrants, mostly eastern European, flocked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to find work in the meat-packing industry. A major railroad terminus, Chicago had a brisk economy, but its wealth was unevenly distributed. The captains of industry exploited the workers, who worked under appalling conditions for paltry wages, swelling the owners’ bank accounts.

*Lithuania

*Lithuania. Small eastern European country on the Baltic Sea from which Jurgis Rudkus, the novel’s protagonist, emigrates hoping to find a better life in the United States. Early chapters of the novel contain flashbacks to Jurgis’s life in Lithuania that reflect the environment from which he has come.

Packingtown

Packingtown. Industrial area in Chicago where meat-packing houses are concentrated. Workers in Packingtown typically live nearby in run-down dwellings. Noxious smells from the meat-processing factories fill the air, and Packingtown’s sewers often overflow, sending streams of polluted water into the streets. In one such overflow, Jurgis’s young son drowns.

In 1904, Sinclair gained firsthand experience with such conditions after being sent by a socialist newspaper to investigate Chicago’s stockyards and packinghouses. He spent seven weeks living among workers in the packinghouses, after which he wrote The Jungle. While trying to touch the hearts of Americans, he also touched their stomachs by accurately reporting the deplorable sanitary conditions in meat-processing plants. After President Theodore Roosevelt read The Jungle, he pressured Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

After his arrival in Chicago, Jurgis tours Durham’s plant and marvels at the efficiency of the operation and at its assembly-line, not realizing the dehumanizing effects that such efficiency can create. Later, he takes a job in Brown’s meat-packing plant, an assembly-line killing field much like Durham’s. He is assigned to the killing beds, the most dehumanizing place in the packinghouse to work—the place where stunned animals are brought by conveyor belts to be killed and gutted. The killing beds symbolize what the packing-houses do to humans who work in them: They destroy them, killing their spirits, exploiting them, and discarding them when they cease to work up to speed.

Jurgis’s house

Jurgis’s house. House that Jurgis buys for his family. He buys the house thinking it is new, but it is actually only freshly painted after it has been lived in by five other families. To buy the house Jurgis takes out a heavy mortgage but does not understand that his loan requires payment of interest. Like the house’s five previous owners, Jurgis loses the house when he cannot make his payments. Like America generally, the glittering house is a sham that sinks Jurgis’s family deeper into ruin.

Saloons

Saloons. Chicago’s neighborhood saloons provide their customers with both warmth and free lunches that come with their drinks. Many of the hard-working immigrants in Packingtown are also hard-drinking. In winter, when piercing winds howl through Chicago’s streets, workers flood into neighborhood saloons, which represent safe and comforting sanctuaries into which alienated, disenchanted workers can retreat.

Bridewell

Bridewell. Jail in which Jurgis serves a term after being convicted of assault on his foreman, Phil Connor, after learning that Connor is involved with his wife. Later, Jurgis is again sentenced to Bridewell, this time for assault on a bartender who has cheated him. In Bridewell, Jurgis meets Jack Duane, a safecracker who befriends him, paving the way for Jurgis to join the union and involve himself in politics.

Great Plains

Great Plains. After losing his wife, his son, and his home, Jurgis hops a freight train for the tranquility of the plains to assuage his sorrows and reflect on the futility of his life. There he spends a summer moving from place to place, taking whatever jobs he can find. The wholesome rural atmosphere restores him, but after he returns to Chicago, his life reverts to its previous hell.

Union hall

Union hall. Meeting place in which Jurgis finds new direction in his life. During the first union meeting he attends there, he falls asleep when the speaker talks about matters unrelated to his own problems and he is ejected from the hall. The next night, however, when the speaker begins addressing problems of Chicago’s working poor, his speech energizes Jurgis.

Hind’s Hotel

Hind’s Hotel. Chicago hotel in which Jurgis works as a porter. There he comes into contact with socialists and political activists who take rooms there. This job marks another significant turning point in his life.