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The main character in the novel is Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant. His wife is Ona Lukoszaite, also from Lithuania. Their son is named Antanas, but he dies after not too long, which is really a turning point for Jurgis. Phil Jack Duane is an experienced and educated criminal who is also "politically connected". Connor is a foreman in Packingtown, politically connected through Scully, and a man who causes much trouble for Jurgis. Mike Scully is a powerful political leader in Packingtown. There are also the members of Ona's family, each of whom play smaller parts in the story.
The story opens with the party at Jurgis and Ona's wedding in America, but soon goes 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.
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After arriving in America, they are taken to Packingtown to find work. Packingtown is a section of Chicago where the meat packing 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.
Jurgis's tough 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, and get a better job, part of the vicious cycle. Ona is not permitted to take a holiday, even for her own wedding, and the birth of her child.
After the birth of her first son, Antanas, Ona soon becomes pregnant again. She becomes very upset, but she doesn't 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 to find Connor.
After beating Connor to a pulp, Jurgis is sentenced to jail for thirty days. The judge refuses to listen to Jurgis's 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 gets 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 to a pulp a second time. Connor's political connections cause Jurgis to lose all his acquired profit. 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 him 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 ends 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 America as it is, and makes people working at the bottom look like slaves. The book mentions nothing about the benefits of Capitalism versus those of socialism, a one-sided argument..
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 Jungle is, however, more than an advertisement for Socialism and this what gained the book the most fame. It describes the horrors of the meat packing industry in great detail. People were forced to work from before sunrise to after sunset. In the meat preserving plants, the floors were never dry. The workers would catch horrible foot diseases, causing them to loose toes and even 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 loose their job. Often, the wounds would become infected, and butchers would die of blood poisoning. These are all examples of how the conditions were just flat-out horrible, and really got to the readers with the vivid descriptions.
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 slit. 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 animal existed in very poor conditions, especially the "steerly" cattle that developed boils.
Now that I have read The Jungle, I am amazed that our country survived to be the world superpower it is today. I am even more amazed that we did not all die from eating food made in such poor conditions. The novel did not persuade me to become a Socialist, but I did consider a vegetarian lifestyle. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed reading it.