The Jungle | Study Guide

Upton Sinclair

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The Jungle | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

The novel opens with scenes of an immigrant wedding reception in the Chicago meatpacking district during the early 1900s. Throngs of wedding guests arrive at the bar for free food and drink to celebrate the wedding of 16-year-old Ona Lukoszaite and her new husband, Jurgis Rudkus. The party is orchestrated by Ona's cousin, the fierce and determined Marija Berczynskas. Marija works tirelessly to ensure there is enough food for the many guests, and that everyone enjoys the dancing and celebration.

The couple has hired Tamoszius Kuszleika, a fiddle player, and two other musicians as the evening's entertainment. After a few speeches are given, including a solemn speech from Jurgis's father, Dede (Grandfather) Antanas, it is time for the evening's main event: the acziavimas—a traditional Lithuanian dance in which all male guests dance with the bride before depositing cash into a hat to cover the evening's expenses and give the couple a bit of money to build their future. However, few men follow the tradition; many simply leave without making a donation. Marija is furious and Ona is devastated. The debt they have incurred for the party is crippling. On top of it all, they are swindled by the bar owner who has been keeping a tab of their expenses. As the evening comes to a close, Jurgis and Ona leave the party without a farewell, stepping over sleeping drunks in the early morning hours. Ona hasn't been given any vacation time from her job, and despite the massive debt of the party, Jurgis tells her not to go to work the next morning. "I will earn more money," he tells her confidently. "I will work harder."

Analysis

Sinclair wrote The Jungle to condemn the evils of capitalism, and his motivation is clear in even these first scenes. All in the wedding party are overworked Lithuanian immigrants who came to America in pursuit of the American Dream. Some, like Jurgis (the groom), are naïve enough to believe that hard work will pay off. Some of the details of the wedding, however, foreshadow the problems that the novel will later fully expose. Jurgis's father Antanas, after only six months in Chicago, looks 20 years older than he is, due to his grueling job in the pickle room. The wedding itself also creates problems for the novel's central figures. Jurgis and Ona are depending on the Lithuanian money-giving tradition to cover the cost of the party. Unfortunately, most of the guests are simply too poor, overworked, and depressed to give them anything, so the couple is left with a crippling debt. The barman's debt is particularly galling, because he is "in with all the big politics men in the district," and therefore no one can challenge his bill. This is the novel's first hint at the pernicious role of the Democratic-run political machine that will come up throughout the novel.

The wedding debt is just one in long line of unexpected expenses the couple has been hit with since moving to America. For example, they were exploited by policemen in Lithuania, border agents in New York, and those who work in collusion with motels to rent rooms at exorbitant rates. Despite Jurgis's naïve vow to simply "work harder" to make up the lost sums, it's clear from the outset that no matter how hard he works, Jurgis will never get ahead.

Another major note struck in this chapter is that the younger Lithuanians are moving away from the traditions. It's the young men who come, eat and drink, then throw someone's hat out the window and escape from having to pay by fetching the hat. The fading of traditions is an early sad note: what once held them together is being tossed aside for "new, modern ways" which seem to equate to getting something for nothing. The traditions for the wedding scene, with the sentimental songs and dances, provide a glimpse into what is going to be lost. The sacrifice of culture puts everyone in harm's way.

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Questions for Chapter 1

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