Oil! Summary

Oil! By Upton Sinclair is a 1927 novel about the American oil industry during the early decades of the twentieth century and its impact on society.

  • James Alfred Ross becomes a wealthy oil magnate through the acquisition and development of oil fields in Southern California.
  • Ross’s son, Bunny, helps him in his business ventures but becomes increasingly drawn to socialist and pro-labor ideas, largely through his friendship with Paul Watkins.
  • The novel traces Ross’s increasing corruption and Bunny’s ethical and intellectual conflicts as he comes of age and must decide between his father’s legacy and his burgeoning ideals.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1017

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The novel follows Bunny, the son of oil magnate Arnold Ross, as he comes of age and of conscience, struggles to choose between his personal relationships and his moral beliefs, and wrestles with the contradicting social forces and positions of his time, as well as the grave consequences of the developing petroleum economy.

At the beginning of the novel, Bunny and his father travel to Beach City to sign an oil lease, which involves the acquisition of a neighborhood lot from a group of residents. During the meeting, a voice calls out to Bunny from outside the house; a runaway boy named Paul Watkins asks to be let into the house through the back door to borrow a bit of food from his aunt. They talk, and Paul’s poverty, religious upbringing, and unusual attitude towards money leave a huge impression on Bunny.

Bunny convinces his father to take a recreational trip to Paradise, where the Watkins family resides. They discover nearby traces of oil and they buy up the lots. Upon discovering that Ruth Watkins is sometimes beaten by her father for blasphemy, Bunny asks his father to step in. His father fabricates a religious revelation to the family and claims that Paul is a prophet. Eli Watkins, their resident prophet, objects in envy and claims that he is the real prophet of the new revelation. Paul returns, now self-educated and with a distinctly pro-labor perspective; Eli, for his part, has turned into a local celebrity as a prophet of “the Third Revelation.”

To build proper roads needed to transport the materials for the oil derrick, Ross starts bribing local politicians, which provokes Bunny’s moral curiosity. Ross argues that such bribery is necessary to be effective in real business. Later in the year, an oil worker named Joe Gundha falls to his death at the drill site, and the body has to be pulled up. Later on, they strike oil and create an oil geyser, which catches on fire, creating a torrent of flames over the large surrounding area. Ross rushes to procure dynamite and use it to seal the hole.

A year later, Paradise is industrialized, and Ross’s oil workers establish a union and go on strike. Ross expresses personal sympathy towards his own workers but explains that he cannot afford to cross other big businessmen by siding with laborers. The strike is depicted on the news in a negative light, which disgusts Bunny.

In the background, World War I has become a profitable business for suppliers of oil. Paul is enlisted in the army, while Bunny is kept safe by his father’s influence. The next time they encounter Paul, he expresses sympathy for the Bolsheviks, which they find shocking. Paul argues that their situation is similar to the strike in Paradise, where newspapers and all other propaganda made every attempt to paint laborers negatively. Bunny decides to enlist in the military despite his father’s protests. Nevertheless, his father’s influence lands him in one of the safer positions in the military. Meanwhile, Ross finds a business partner, a man named Vernon Roscoe. After the war ends, Paul does not return, instead remaining in Siberia.

Bunny receives a letter from one of Paul’s war comrades, Jeff Korbitty, about atrocities being carried out in Siberia by American soldiers. Bunny tries to bring this to a congressman’s attention, which only causes problems for Jeff. As more of the public become skeptical of the persisting military station in Siberia, the troops are withdrawn, and Paul is returned home.

Bunny enters university and falls into a group of social outcasts with similar social ideas: Rachel, Peter and George. They publish a newsletter about the socialist Harry Seager, and the publication is confiscated and destroyed by school authorities.

At various points in the story, workers and socialists are taken as political prisoners, and Bunny always makes it a point to either bail them out or to find a way for them to be forced free. Bunny briefly considers separating financially from his father in order to experience the life of an average worker, but his father suddenly falls ill and then bribes him to stay. Bunny uses the money to start a small weekly paper with Rachel.

Bunny overhears Vernon and Ross’s plans to buy the United States presidency, and Ross asserts that it is a necessity. They fix a senator in the cabinet and arrange the acquisition of naval oil leases. When the congress changes, an investigation is called. Ross and Vernon are forced to flee the country, and Bunny follows; all the while, Ross’s health continues to deteriorate. In Paris, Ross meets a spiritualist named Alyse who claims to be able to communicate with spirits, which Ross finds comforting, and they end up marrying. Meanwhile, Paul returns from Moscow with a conviction to teach young American workers about the Bolsheviks.

Not soon after, Ross passes away and Bunny is swindled of a large portion of his inheritance by Vernon and Alyse. Nevertheless, he plans to use his money to contribute to the labor movement and establish a labor college for workers. While scouting for an adequate site, Bunny reveals his feelings for Rachel and then asks her to marry him. She accepts, and they share the news. Upon hearing about it, Paul’s sister Ruth convinces them to listen to Paul speak at a labor meeting. However, before they can enter the venue, the meeting is raided by thugs that brutalize the attendees. They find Paul laying with a cracked skull.

In the hospital, Paul is watched over by Ruth. Bunny is wracked with guilt. Though unconscious, Paul starts speaking in Russian, and they figure out he is reciting revolutionary phrases he had learned in Moscow. When he passes away, the communists wish to throw him a red funeral, but Eli intervenes and buries Paul under Christian rites instead, proclaiming that Paul had returned to Christianity. After the funeral, Ruth begins wandering around the hills, and her body is later found at the bottom of one of the oil wells.

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