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

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1017 words.)

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