Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a novel that follows a penniless Lithuanian family surviving in Packingtown, the meat-packing district of Chicago, underlines the stark gender divide in destitute environments. Ona Lukoszaite, a meek and frail teenager, serves as the novel’s prime archetype of the distinctive ways that women suffer in poverty. Corrupt and patriarchal capitalist structures, which in turn create destitution, force Ona to sully and perverse her own femininity in order to survive; Ona defiles her own femininity by performing physically strenuous labor and unwillingly prostituting herself. For the purposes of this essay, femininity will be defined as the traditional prototype of the woman. Femininity is characterized by weakness, submissiveness, emotion, and a maternal nature not usually found in the advertised prototype of a man. Ona’s environment ultimately punishes her for her need to meddle with her femininity by expediting her physical and mental deterioration and deeming her tainted for her “corrupt morality.” Thus, through the characterization of Ona, Sinclair indicates a vicious circle for women in impoverishment: a poor woman must defile and pervert her own femininity to survive in a demanding capitalist system, but, in doing so, she will inevitably mentally and physically deteriorate because of her less masculine form and mental and emotional incapability – a Catch-22.
At the beginning of the novel, Ona is characterized as remarkably pure, docile, and evidently not fit to do exacting labor. These traits are consistent with the archetype of traditional femininity. When Ona and Jurgis Rudkus, her husband, wed in a traditional Lithuanian ceremony, Ona, clad in a “conspicuously white” dress is overcome with emotion. Sinclair describes Ona as wearing a “muslin dress, conspicuously white,” and “new white cotton gloves upon her hands, and as she stood staring about her, she twisted them together feverishly” (2). Frequent mention of the color white evokes a feeling of cleanliness, which signifies chastity or purity. Therefore, Ona’s “conspicuously white” and “new white” gloves emphasize Ona’s innocence and initial moral righteousness. However, despite Ona’s virtue, she is evidently shaken and frightened; at the wedding “her lids trembled, and her otherwise wan little face was flushed,” “she twisted them [her gloves] together feverishly,” and “it [the wedding] was almost too much for her – you could see the pain of too great emotion in her face, and all the tremor of her form” (2). Ona’s clear fear throughout the ceremony further highlights her timid and apprehensive nature, which in turn underlines her submissiveness and femininity.
Furthermore, Ona’s inability to control her emotions and her physical reaction to situations that scare her are stereotypically feminine traits. Sinclair’s description of Ona’s body at the wedding like “wan little face” and “all the tremor of her form” paint pictures of Ona being physically small and frail, as well. Her small body and the fact that her emotions were “almost too much for her” foreshadow Ona’s inevitable hardships in the physically arduous factory workspace. Her physical frailty does not go unnoticed by others: Jurgis “would not have Ona working—he was not that sort of a man, he said, and she was not that sort of a woman” (51). However, Jurgis’ insistence on protecting Ona and upholding traditional gender roles is soon sullied when Ona must work to keep the family afloat. Ona must sacrifice for the family now, although “she was so sensitive—she was not fitted for such a life as this” (88). By being forced to do taxing physical labor, which is innately for those more muscular or masculine, Ona is defiling and degrading her own fragile femininity. However, again, she must do so to survive. The initial characterization of Ona as innocent and delicate exemplifies her femininity, and makes her even more vulnerable to the toiling nature of penniless factory life, which is especially conducive to the masculine.
Ona’s environment punishes her for defiling her own femininity in working in a physically demanding factory system fit for the masculine. She suffers from physical ailments and mental hysteria because of her laborious work. After Ona gives birth to her first child while maintaining a fulltime work schedule, Sinclair describes her as “visibly going to pieces. In the first place, she was developing a cough, like the one that killed old Dede Antanas… She would have frightful headaches and fits of aimless weeping; and sometimes she would come home at night shuddering and moaning” (170). The Taylorist system of Packingtown, dependent on the brute force of men, coerces Ona to slowly break her physically incapable body. Ona is not fit for such work purely because, in Sinclair’s eyes, she is physically feminine. Her body is simply not able to handle as much as men and more masculine women, as evidenced by her deadly cough, headaches, shudders and moans. Furthermore, Ona is viscerally mentally affected by the struggles of Packingtown in a particularly feminized way. She would “fling herself down upon the bed and burst into tears. Several times she was quite beside herself and hysterical…It was the life she had to live, the accursed work she had to do, that was killing her by inches. She was not fitted for it – no woman was fitted for it, no woman ought to be allowed to do such work” (170). Jurgis would also catch Ona’s eye, “and it seemed to him like the eye of a hunted animal; there were broken phrases of anguish and despair now and then, amid her frantic weeping” (171). Describing Ona as “hysterical,” a word with a very female-baiting history, coming from the Latin hystericus meaning “of the womb,” and her weeping as “frantic” emphasizes the feminine nature of Ona’s mental deterioration. In Sinclair’s eyes, Ona’s overwhelming emotions make her too mentally weak for the “accursed work she had to do,” so much so that it is “killing her.” The comparison of Ona to a “hunted animal” also conveys that Ona is vulnerable to being taken advantage of or suffering from her physical and mental weakness. The impairing of traditional femininity – Packingtown demanding that women work to help feed their families – is the underlying cause of Ona’s unpredictable emotions, outbursts and madness and vulnerability to the American capitalist system. Thus, Ona is stuck in a predicament; she must abandon her own sense of femininity and do work that “no women was fitted” for, but when she does so, her womanliness is the cause of her physical and mental decline. Her body is not fit for such work, and she is not mentally capable to handle the hardships of factory life and child birth.
The seduction plot between Ona and her boss Phil Connor, who rapes Ona and bullies her into prostitution, exemplifies how Ona’s required perversion of traditional femininity ultimately leads to her downfall. After Jurgis discovers Ona’s connection to Connor, “it was as if he had struck a knife into her. She seemed to go all to pieces… with a cry of anguish, she tottered forward, stretching out her arms to him. But he stepped aside, deliberately, and let her fall… There came one of those hysterical crises that he so often dismayed him. Ona sobbed and wept, her fear and anguish building themselves up into long climaxes. Furious gusts of emotion would come sweeping over her, shaking her as the tempest shakes the trees upon the hills; all her frame would quiver and throb with them—it was as if some dreadful thing rose up within her and took possession of her, torturing her, tearing her” (179). Again, Ona’s hysteria and uncontrollable emotional outbursts indicate her supposed mental weaknesses, a trait present in an archetypal female character. However, Ona’s emotional eruption is different compared to her outbursts when due to excessive work. Despite the fact that she is forcibly raped and put into prostitution, she is now guilty of perverting her own femininity. Her “furious gusts of emotion” are more violent and “some dreadful thing,” most likely guilt or shame, takes control and tears at her body, a more visceral and painful description than given in her previous meltdowns.
Although Ona feels shame for her relationship with Connor, Sinclair indicates that this is not at the fault of the many women similar to Ona. Sinclair writes about prostitutes in Packingtown: “Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers; under such circumstances immorality was exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it was under the system of chattel slavery” (129). Sinclair recognizes that systematic and structural features of the capitalist system force Ona into prostitution. Again, she must pervert her own femininity because the system requires it of her. Thus, the demanding capitalist system is mostly at fault for her mental and physical demise. Ona is forever a “damned soul” purely for the fact that Ona has perverted traditional femininity by prostituting herself and copulating with her boss.
In Packingtown, which is completely dependent on the brute force of the masculine, femininity is a disadvantage. In this sense, Ona was doomed from the start. As a prototype for traditional femininity, Ona is too weak and too emotionally volatile. However, in order to survive, she must defile and pervert this sense of femininity, resulting in even more mental and physical deterioration. As if to drive this point home, Sinclair has Ona painfully die from child birth, emphasizing the fact that Ona’s womanliness was the cause of her eventual demise. Ona’s death by child birth signifies the inability for Ona to return as an archetype of traditional femininity. Because she has tainted and defiled her own femininity through hard labor and prostitution, she cannot perform in a traditional feminine role as a mother.