Jurgis Rudkus (YOHR-gihs RUHD-kihs), a Lithuanian immigrant overflowing with the American dream of self-made success. Jurgis arrives in the United States determined to succeed; nothing in his life works out, however. When things go against him, he vows only to work harder, and he is not given to complaining. He delays his marriage for sixteen months in order to buy a house and provide for his wife’s family. When he injures his ankle in the killing beds of a meatpacking plant, he has to miss work because of his injury and is fired. He takes a lesser job in a fertilizer plant, where his pay is poor and conditions are even worse than in the meatpacking plant. His wife secretly becomes a prostitute in order to help support the family. When Jurgis learns of this, he beats Phil Connor, who encouraged her to become a prostitute. The beating results in Jurgis’ imprisonment for a month. When he is released, he finds to his horror that his house has been repossessed, as has all his furniture, even though both were almost paid for. He finds his family just in time to see his wife die after a miscarriage. His small child soon drowns in rainwater on the unpaved streets of Packingtown. Utterly disenchanted, Jurgis rides the rails into the countryside, where he finds itinerant work in the fields. He sinks into a life of drinking and whoring but is soon revolted by his own depravity. He returns to Chicago and finds a job building tunnels beneath the city. Finally, when Jurgis discovers socialism, he becomes politically active, but never to the point that he really succeeds because success, in the author’s eyes, is impossible for wage slaves such as Jurgis who are beholden to their capitalist employers.
Ona Lukoszaite (OW-nah lew-kah-SAHT-ee), the Lithuanian woman whom Jurgis marries and whose eleven-member family he tries to help. Ona, a quiet, ethical woman, bears the couple’s first child. Because she must return to work almost immediately after childbirth, she suffers problems with her reproductive organs that plague her through the rest of her life. When Jurgis falls on hard times, Ona reluctantly becomes a prostitute in order to keep her family afloat financially. After Jurgis is imprisoned for beating her pimp, Ona is evicted from the house on which they have been making payments and finds herself in a desperate situation. By the time she and Jurgis are reunited, Ona is in the midst of a miscarriage that results in her death.
Antanas Rudkus the First
Antanas Rudkus the First (an-TAN-as), Jurgis’ father, who dies shortly after Jurgis’ marriage to Ona. Jurgis can provide him with only the cheapest available funeral, which nags at his soul.
Antanas Rudkus the Second
Antanas Rudkus the Second, Jurgis and Ona’s son, who dies in childhood by drowning in a pool of water on an ill-drained, unpaved street in Packingtown.
Marija Berczynskas (MAH-ree-ah behr-ZEHNS-kahs), Ona’s cousin, who works in a bordello. She tries to get Jurgis to see that Ona’s taking up prostitution was the best (perhaps the only) way to save the family, an argument that Jurgis cannot accept.
Freddie Jones, the son of a rich, capitalist meatpacker whose life convinces Jurgis that wealth results in banality, venality, family disintegration, and general unproductiveness.
Phil Connor, the man who lures Ona into prostitution, for which Jurgis beats him. While Jurgis is organizing a strike against the meatpackers, he runs into Connor and beats him a second time, resulting in a second imprisonment.
Lucas, an itinerant evangelist who is convinced that the socialist revolution will have strong roots in Christianity and in the leadership of a scientific revolutionary from Sweden named Schliemann.