What are some features of Sinclair’s style? In what ways is it merely factual, and in what ways novelistic? How does the narrator intervene in the text?
The novel’s style has been called journalistic; to what extent to you think this is an accurate description? Which parts are most interpretive?
Why do you think the author sets the opening scene at a Lithuanian wedding? What does this scene seem to reveal about the Rudkus family's habits, social ties and values?
What do we later come to know about the participants, and their fates?
How would you describe the plot of the first half of the novel? Are all the details plausible? (description of bodies falling into vats and being ground up as meat is the only portion for which no actual antecedent has been found)
What do we learn of the family’s history and motives for emigrating to the new world? Have they been accurately informed of what they will encounter? Why do they choose Chicago as home?
What are some of their initial difficulties in establishing themselves in Chicago? What forms of innocence or naivete do they show in facing their new environment?
Why do you think Sinclair describes the family’s initial tour of the area? Jurgis’s first tour of the meatpacking factory?
How is the work of the meatpackers described? What seem to be the consequences of complete division of labor?
What factors render the Lithuanian family vulnerable? Could any of these have been prevented?
Which of their difficulties are initially most overwhelming? What problems overtake them in the long run?
Who is the novel’s protagonist? What is the effect of the use of a compound protagonist? What is added by the fact that they often respond as a group?
What do we learn of the character of Jurgis Rudkus? Why do you think Sinclair chose to endow the book’s main character with these qualities?
Are the characters carefully differentiated? Would it have helped or hindered the novel to accomplish its purposes had there have been more psychological development? More details about Lithuanian culture?
In the first half of the novel, how do the family members behave toward each other? What helps them survive? What do we learn of Ona? Marija? Elzbieta? Jurgis’s father? the children? the prospective suitor Tamozius?
What difficulties do the Rudkus family encounter when they seek to buy a house? What is the condition of the house? What are the effects of its lack of sewage?
To what sales practices do they fall victim, and what hidden fees are they assessed? Why aren’t they able to build equity in their home?
Which of the obstacles they face do you think would not now occur in contemporary United States?
The immediate effect of this novel was to assist in passage of Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. What had Upton Sinclair hoped would be its result?
This novel was originally rejected by more than one publisher; why do you think it was turned down, and what qualities may have helped it to become a best seller of its time?
What tasks does Jurgis perform at the meatpacking factory? What causes him to lose his job?
What causes Ona’s health to decline as she nears her second delivery? With what temptation does Jurgis struggle, and what effect does this have on his family?
What traumatic events lead to the dissolution of the Rudkus family? What happens to Ona in her workplace? What threats does Connor use to persuade her to consent to his advances?
Why do you think this incident was included in the novel?
How does Jurgis react to the news of his wife’s degradation? Does he intend to murder Connor?
What are some of the consequences of his actions? (family loses his income and their home, Ona cannot afford medical attendance)
Does Jurgis regret what he has done? Is the reader expected to blame him for the violence of his actions?
What do we learn about the police and the prison system from his time in jail? Is he granted a fair trial? What conditions does he face? Whom does he meet in jail, and with what later consequences?
After the Rudkus family is evicted, what becomes their fate? Under what circumstances does Ona die? What kind of help with her delivery has she had?
How does Jurgis respond to her death? Why can’t he work in the meatpacking or fertilizer factories as before, and what forms of employment is he able to get? What effect does his have on his family life?
Under what circumstances does Athanas die? Do these intensify the pain of his loss? What effect does the death of his son have on Jurgis? On the others?
In the second half of the book, what are some of the circumstances and events which weigh Jurgis down?
What types of jobs does he assume, and with what financial results in each case? Is this portion somewhat different than the earlier sections?
What do you think was Sinclair’s purpose in placing his character in so many quite radically different situations?
What do we learn about the life of the rural underclass from his tramps on the road? Why doesn’t Jurgis accept the jobs he is offered? Why doesn’t he save his salary? What prompts his return to Chicago?
What do we learn from observing Jurgis’s time as a thief? From his political career? His period as a scab and foreman?
Do his actions during this period seem consistent with his earlier character? Are these shifts the results of flaws in characterization, or are they to be seen as the result of his experiences?
What does Jurgis learn about the fate of Marija, Elzbieta, and the latter’s children? Of Tamozius? What saddens him about their situations/fates, and how does he try to help?
What do you make of the incident in which he encounters Jones’ son and visits the latter’s wealthy home? Of the theft of his first and only hundred dollar bill?
What is different about this second encounter with the police and jail?
What circumstances lead to Jurgis’s conversion to socialism? Why do you think he responds to this message? How does his new set of associations change his life?
What does he do for his new cause?
The final sections of the book present actual figures and events in the socialist movement of the time (e. g., a visit by Eugene V. Debs, the description of a recent election in which the socialists elected a representative to the legislature from Packingtown).
Does the ending of the book seem consistent with its prior content or plot? If not, how might it have been improved? (e. g. should this novel have been a tragedy? How might the conversion ending have been integrated with the prior plot?)
Whether novel, dystopia, or argument, do you think this was a good book? Which aspects of its portrayals and observations seem most memorable? (effects of poverty enter every aspect of life) Which seem most relevant to our time?