There are many characters in The Jungle. These characters vary widely in their professions, social status, and economic status. The main character in the novel is a Lithuanian named Jurgis Rudkus. His wife is Ona Lukoszaite, also a Lithuanian. Their son is named Atanas. Mike Scully is a powerful political leader in Packingtown.
Phil Connor is a foreman in Packingtown, “politically connected”, and a man who causes much trouble for Jurgis. Jack Duane is an experienced and educated criminal who is also “politically connected”. A man called Ostrinski is a half-blind tailor who teaches Jurgis about Socialism. There are also the members of Ona’s family, each of whom plays minor roles in the story.
The story opens with the feast at Jurgis and Ona’s wedding in America but soon flashes back to the time before they left Lithuania. Jurgis met Ona at a horse fair and fell in love with her. Unfortunately, they were too poor to have a wedding, since Ona’s father just died. In the hopes of finding freedom and fortune, they left for America, bringing many members of Ona’s family with them.
After arriving in America, they are taken to Packingtown to find work. Packingtown is a section of Chicago where the meatpacking industry is centralized. They take a tour of the plant and see the unbelievable efficiency and speed at which hogs and cattle are butchered, cooked, packed, and shipped. In Packingtown, no part of the animal is wasted. The tour guide specifically says, “They use everything about the hog except the squeal.”
Jurgis’ brawny build quickly gets him a job on the cattle-killing beds. The other members of the family soon find jobs, except for the children. They are put into school. At first, Jurgis is happy with his job and America, but he soon learns that America is plagued by corruption, dishonesty, and bribery. He is forced to work at high speeds for long hours with low pay, and so is the rest of the family. He is cheated out of his money several times. The children must leave school and go to work to help the family survive. This means they will never receive the education they need to rise above this. Ona is not permitted to take a holiday, even for her own wedding.
After the birth of her first son, Antanas, Ona soon becomes pregnant again. She becomes very upset, but will not tell Jurgis why. After she fails to come home one night, Jurgis confronts her. She breaks into tears and tells Jurgis that a foreman named Connor has forced a sexual relationship on her. Jurgis curses her and runs off the find, Connor.
After beating Connor up, Jurgis is sent to jail for thirty days. The judge refuses to listen to Jurgis’ story seriously. When Jurgis is released, he finds that his family has moved to an even poorer neighborhood, and Ona is in labor at that very moment. Neither the baby, nor Ona, who went into labor two months early, survive. Jurgis pulls himself together for the sake of Antanas and gets a job. When Antanas drowns in the mud-filled street, Jurgis gives up on Packingtown and his family. He hops aboard a passing train, and leaves Chicago.
Jurgis enjoys a “hobo” life, wandering across the country. When winter comes, he is forced to return to Chicago. He gets into a fight in a bar and is sent to jail. In jail, he meets Jack Duane, an experienced criminal. After being freed from jail, Jurgis and Duane team up in a luxurious, but risky life of crime. Jurgis learns about the connections between criminals, police, politics, and big business. He becomes a member of this complex network and moves into politics. He runs into Connor again and beats him up again. Connor’s political connections cause Jurgis to lose all his acquired profits. Jurgis is back to wandering the streets.
To keep warm, Jurgis walks into a Socialist meeting. After the meeting, he is introduced to a man named Ostrinski, who teaches Jurgis about Socialism. Jurgis agrees completely with the political party’s ideals and becomes an active member. As the story ends, the results of an election are being received. The novel concludes on a positive note, showing that the Socialist party made significant progress all across the country.
The Jungle is a novel that casts an evil light on America, business, and politics. It promotes the concept of Socialism, emphasizes corruption in our society, and makes wage-earners look like slaves.
Jurgis and his family moved from Lithuania to America, expecting a better life. Instead of telling a story about their success through hard work and dedication, Upton Sinclair tells a story about how they were cheated before they even got off the boat. During the passage to America, an agent appeared to be helping them but was really cheating them. After arriving, they were constantly cheated out of their money. The house they bought was a total fraud, full of hidden expenses. Many members of the family were able to get jobs only through bribery. Ona was exploited by Connor, who threatened to have her, Jurgis, and the rest of the family if she refused the relationship.
When Jurgis left Packingtown, he lived by thievery, selfishness, and bribery. When Jurgis switched to this amoral lifestyle, he finally became successful. The foreman of Packingtown also lived by corruption. They fired union members, cheated people out of their pay, and required “gifts” before hiring people. When a foreman’s boss learned of this, he required “gifts” from the foreman to keep quiet. The police were also corrupt. They let robbers go, and demanded a percentage of what the robbers had taken. The politicians placed friends on the city payroll, accepted bribes from criminals, and bribed the police to avoid arrest.
In the book, anyone who earned a living through honesty and hard work was trapped in poverty. Anyone who lied and cheated to make a living was wealthy. This was the way the Capitalistic society was presented in the book. It showed that a hard worker was not rewarded, and was disposed of when he/she became a burden. The book portrayed an honest, hardworking lower class, and a dishonest, lazy upper class. No middle class was described.
Toward the end of the book, Upton Sinclair shows the reader how to solve Capitalism’s problems: replace it with Socialism. The Socialist party is promoted as an international political party that will solve all of the world’s problems. Every member of the party was told about the “Socialist revolution”, when the entire planet would become Socialist. Not once does the book mention the possibility of failure. It even claimed Socialists would control the country by 1912.
The Socialists despised the concept of competition. They considered the commercial world to be the essence of corruption. The goal of the Socialist party in The Jungle was to end the corrupt and powerful Beef Trust.
The Jungle is more than an advertisement for Socialism. It describes the horrors of the meatpacking industry in great detail. People were forced to work from sunrise to after sunset. In the meat reserving plants, the floors were never dry. The workers would catch horrible foot diseases, causing them to loose
toes and eventually entire legs. The butchers would be forced to move at a blinding pace, often cutting themselves and others. They would still have to work though, or lose their job. Often, the wounds would become infected, and the butcher would die of blood poisoning.
The book discusses all the things that were being shipped out to the civilized world as “meat”. Sausages were not really made out of sausage meat. They were mostly composed of “potato flour”; an odorless and tasteless potato extract with almost no food value. There were the cattle that had been fed “whiskey malt”; the refuse of breweries, These animals would become “steerly”, or covered with boils.
“It was a nasty job-killing these, for when you plunged your knife into them they would burst and splash foul-smelling stuff in your face.” According to law, diseased meat could not be sold out of the state. However, there were no laws restricting its sale inside the state. As a result, the tuberculosis-infected hog meat never left Packingtown. It was sold to the meat workers at inflated prices.
Another thing that shocked me while reading the novel was the cruelty to animals. The animals were packed in freight cars, and shipped across the country. Many of them died on the trip.
Once reaching Packingtown, each hog had a chain fastened around its leg, was hoisted into the air, and carried into a room where its throat was split. When the cattle reached Packingtown, they were stunned by electric shock and dropped onto a conveyor belt, where a man with a sledgehammer pierced their skulls. These animals existed in very poor conditions, especially the “steerly” cattle that developed boils.