There are many problems that the Jurgis family faces in The Jungle. First of all, they cannot speak English so they are dependent upon the kindness and honesty of others; secondly, they are completely disorientated as they have no understanding of this new country and urban area that they are in; thirdly they are poor and must accept whatever work they can, and they are unable to afford medical care or stay home to heal; fourthly, they are living in a very corrupt area.
Since the main focus of Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel is to focus upon the evils of the meatpacking industry, the narrative more closely follows on the life of Lithuanian Jurgis Rutkus, who begins as a robust young man with idealism. He takes a job in the stockyards of Chicago and works long hours standing in water and blood.
...it was the first time that he had ever had anything to do which took all he had in him....there was never one instant's rest for a man, for his hand or his eye or his brain.
When his father returns one night saying that a man offers him a job but he must pay this foreman one-third of his wages, Jurgis asks a friend who has been in Chicago for a while; his friend tells him such a deal is graft. He explains that this is common: "...bosses grafted off the men, and they grafted off each other."
Jurgis begins to realize why some of his countrymen laughed at him for wanting to come to America. His disillusionment continues after he and his family purchase a house, only to learn that they are merely renting it until it is paid for. The lawyers that they consult are in collusion with the agents who have sold it, so there is no hope for the family. Later, after Jurgis is injured at work and put in jail for attacking the boss of his wife Ona because he forced her to copulate with him or he would make certain that no one in her family could get a job in Packingtown. While he is in jail, Jurgis realizes that he eats and lives more comfortably than when he was out. Also, while he is in jail for his crime and for the court costs, the family loses the house because they cannot make the payments. When Jurgis finally gets out, he has trouble finding his family and then learns that Ona has gone into labor early. Tragically, both the baby and Ona die.
Jugis just works for his son after this. He is blacklisted in the meat business, but he finds work at Harvester until it suddenly closes its doors. After this, Jurgis begins drinking and loses all faith in the American Dream, When his baby boy dies from drowning in the muddy street, Jurgis runs away, having lost all faith in life, as well. He wanders across Illinois into Missouri, working for food or helping at harvest time. But, he does not save any money. Finally, he returns to Chicago and becomes involved in crime with a Jack Duane whom he meets on a second visit to jail. Later on, he becomes involved with the political corruption of Chicago, and he gets hired with no problem because he assists with elections and such. After Jurgis is a "scab" while a strike goes on, he realizes that he is yet being exploited in the urban jungle, and he begins to hate himself for working against the unions, which then were trying to protect workers. Things take a bad turn and he finds himself in jail again after attacking Connor a second time. When he is released, Jurgis begs on the street. He runs into a woman he knows and asks about the rest of his family only to find Marija working as a prostitute. The oldest son of Elzbieta, Ona's stepmother, Stanislovas dies a horrific death after he is locked in a factory overnight, having been eaten by rats.
Before returning to work, Marija gives Jurgis a quarter and he searches for a job. Exhausted and disappointed, he goes into a political meeting that offers him rest; however, he falls asleep and begins snoring. A kind woman awakens Jurgis and brings him the message of socialism, but he is skeptical because he knows first-hand what goes on in the political world. Nevertheless, as Jurgis later embraces the philosophy, there are more and more people voting for socialism and he begins to regain his hope for a better life.