Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 630 words.)
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Themes and Characters
Before the publication of The Jungle, Sinclair commented in the Appeal,a Socialist journal, that his novel would "set forth the breaking of human hearts by a system which exploits the labor of men and women for profits. It will shake the popular heart and blow the roof off the industrial tea-kettle." Critics have generally viewed his success in this plan as at least as mixed as his metaphor. Breaking human hearts requires more skill in characterization than Sinclair possessed, but in blowing roofs he succeeded most admirably. Concerned with all the evils suffered by wage earners under a capitalistic system and what he saw as the certain lessening of those evils under socialism, Sinclair picked as his subject an industry to whose callousness and dangers the public had already been alerted by several previous investigators. The thought that the canned meat products they regularly consumed might contain rat parts proved of more immediate concern to most readers than the adventures of a fictional Lithuanian immigrant. Sinclair himself later remarked that the packing house episodes quite took over the novel and moved the setting into position as a central theme. In effect, the reader's turning stomach overshadows the protagonist's breaking heart, and Sinclair is left to insert the idea of "salvation through socialism" unconvincingly into the book's didactic closing chapters. Still, Sinclair's novel fired at many targets in the jungle of social ills, and that...
(The entire section is 485 words.)
The Jungle chronicles the American dream as experienced by the Lithuanian immigrant family of Jurgis Rudkus. At first admiring of the capitalistic system and confident of his ability to use it to the fulfillment of the American dream, Jurgis is made to realize by a series of tragedies that if there is control in human existence, it rests not with the individual but with an economic system directed by a very few. This discovery finally leads Jurgis to the socialist movement and a new sense of hope. Sinclair, with a journalist's eye for precise detail, quite explicitly depicts the catastrophes that befall his protagonist and the unfortunate members of the Rudkus family: the father's death, Jurgis's wife's prostitution and death in miscarriage, the repossession of the ramshackle family home, the young son's drowning, Jurgis's prison experience.
Yet only occasionally does a scene capture a sense of real human life. For the most part, the characters are acted upon. They exist as tangible evidence of the powerful existence of an abstraction, the capitalistic system. Jurgis is less believable for his conversion to socialism, which is only introduced by Sinclair's straightforward explanations rather than by the kind of graphic examples that lead to disillusionment with the capitalistic environment. The Jungle teaches very little about the human character; it reveals a great deal, however, about the societal forces that affect character.
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Ona's cousin, an orphan, Marija decided to join the family in coming to America just before they left on their journey. She is a big, strong, loud woman who just starts to find happiness in her courtship with Tamoszius Kuszkeika when the canning factory that she works in shuts down after the holidays, when the demand is slow. When she attends a union meeting, Marija is not too shy to stand up and complain about the way she has been treated, even though the meeting is conducted in English and she only speaks Lithuanian. When the cannery starts up again, Marija is fired almost immediately: she says that it is for belonging to the union, although others know that she has also been arguing with her boss. The only place she can find work is in trimming the meat of diseased cattle, at half the pay she was making before. While Jurgis is in jail, it is reported to him that Marija has gangrene from a cut she received at work, and that the company doctor says she might have to lose her hand. She survives that injury, though. Near the end of the novel, Jurgis runs into a friend who tells him where to find Marija, whom he has not seen in over a year. She is living and working in a house of prostitution and supporting Teta Elzbieta with the money that she makes. Jurgis offers to make enough money to allow her to move out, but Marija explains that she really does not mind the life of a prostitute and that she is bitter about the way that people are taken advantage of in legal...
(The entire section is 320 words.)
Jurgis' old father ("Dede" means "Grandfather" in Lithuanian) had one other son in Lithuania, but he went into the army ten years before the novel began and was never heard from again. After they move to America, Jurgis does not want his father to work, but Antanas is still in the habit of working hard for many years, and he would not feel good about being idle while the rest of the family is struggling so hard to pay the bills. He has trouble finding a job because no one wants to hire an old man who is incapable of much physical labor, but, by agreeing to pay one-third of his salary to a man with business connections, he is hired as a "squeedgie man" at the Durham factory. There it is his job to push around brine on the floor of the room where beef is pickled. The pickling solution leaks through his boots and infects a sore on his foot, but Antanas stays at his work until one day he collapses on the floor, and two fellow workers have to carry him home. As he lies in bed, sick, Jurgis hires a worker to come to the house and tell him that Durham's is holding his job until he is well enough to return, although it is not true. Antanas dies a few days later.
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Jurgis is the protagonist, or main character, of this story: after the extended wedding scene which introduces all of the characters, the narrative stops on Jurgis and stays with his experiences throughout the book. In the beginning, he is a tall, strong young man, although by the novel's end a few years later his health is ruined by his experiences. Jurgis comes from Brelovicz, "The Imperial Forest," in Lithuania, which is where he met Ona and fell in love with her. In America, he initially feels that his salary, along with the rent paid by relatives in his house, should cover the family's expenses, so that his elderly father and petite bride will not have to go to work. When expenses mount, Jurgis' first reaction is, "I shall have to work harder." He soon finds that circumstances will always rise to keep him from addressing problems with hard work alone. When the demand for beef slackens, Jurgis' hours are cut, and when he injures his leg at work, he has to stay home and let it heal, or he will be crippled forever. When his leg heals, the only job Jurgis can find is in the fertilizer plant, where the smell of chemicals and animal remains permeates his skin so badly that the stench is on him for months after he leaves. After assaulting the man who raped Ona and forced her into prostitution, Jurgis goes to jail: while he is there, the bank forecloses on his house, and the day he is released Ona dies during childbirth. With the help of a social worker, Jurgis lands a...
(The entire section is 555 words.)
Ona is very small and young when she comes to America. Although the book opens with her wedding to Jurgis, the next chapter tells the reader what happened before the wedding: they were actually not married until more than a year after arriving. Jurgis waits before marrying her because he wants to own the house Ona will live in and have a job so he can provide for her. She does not have a very striking role in the story, but Ona's function in the novel is important: she is an emblem of decency, and she provides Jurgis with a reason to struggle against the corruptive elements of poverty while she is alive (a function that is carried over after her death by little Antanas, their child). His love for her is so strong and pure, and she is so small and frail, that when the snow is high he carries her to work at the factory in his arms. After the birth of little Antanas, Ona develops "womb-trouble," and she is ill all of the time, although she is unwilling to admit this to Jurgis. Ona works in the cellar at Brown's, sewing casings on hams. When she is carrying their second child, Ona begins having fits of hysteria, coming home at night crying and shuddering. One snowy night she does not come home at all, explaining that she stayed with a friend, and when it happens again Jurgis confronts her and finds out the truth. The boss of her department, Connor, forced her to have sex with him, she explains, and then he forced her to work downtown as a prostitute by threatening not...
(The entire section is 310 words.)
Connor is the boss of the ham packaging department that Ona works in. When Ona is pregnant with her second child, Connor tries seducing her, and then rapes her one night when everyone else is gone. Then, with a combination of threats and promises, he convinces her to work as a prostitute at the house run by her forelady, Miss Henderson. When Jurgis finds out, he goes to the plant, beats Connor, and is sent to jail. Later, after finding success in politics, Jurgis runs into Connor again and again attacks him, only to find that his political connections cannot help him out of trouble because Connor's political connections are stronger.
See Antanas Rudkus
Jurgis meets Duane when he is in jail for beating Connor up. Duane takes a liking to Jurgis, and offers to help him make money, but Jurgis is not interested in illegal activity. Later, after Jurgis runs into Duane the second time he is in jail, he is eager to earn money, no matter what it takes. He finds Duane when he is released, and together they mug a man and leave him with a concussion, freezing on the street. He introduces Jurgis to a high-moneyed life of crime, and to other criminal connections.
Tommy Hinds is a hotel owner, and, although Jurgis does not know it when he applies for a job as the hotel's porter, he is also one of the state's most prominent Socialists. He hires...
(The entire section is 1129 words.)