The most heart-breaking scenes in The Jungle for me are the scenes when the family first gets swindled into buying their home, believing that it is a high-quality, new edifice, and later when they discover that the house is part of a real estate scam that exploits immigrant meat packers.
Sinclair explains, “Cheap as the houses were, they were sold with the idea that the people who bought them would not be able to pay for them. When they failed...they would lose the house and all that they had paid on it” (55). The house company could then re-sell the house to another desperate, naive immigrant family that would also lose the house. The cycle would continue, enriching the exploitative landlords, and causing the financial ruin of the Packingtown families. Worse than the swindle—four families had lived in and left the house before Jurgis’ family, the house was “unlucky” (56). One member of each of the four families developed tuberculosis and died. This was apparently common in these ramshackle houses—if you slept in a “particular room...[you] were good as dead” (57).
Between the poor-quality construction, the use of toxic/hazardous materials (what else could cause severe respiratory problems in every single family that occupied the house?), and the deceptive advertising that lured Jurgis’ family into the scam, these scenes are incredibly difficult to read. The family’s experience with the house demonstrates all of the vulnerability and naiveté of the immigrant community in Packingtown. I have no doubts that these kinds of exploitative housing practices and other scams abounded at the turn of the century.