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The Jungle | Plot Summary

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Summary

The Jungle follows Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, through his disillusionment with the American Dream after working as an exploited laborer in Chicago's meatpacking district. Jurgis and his family arrive in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century eager to start their lives in the land of opportunity. Naïvely, they believe that with hard work and sacrifice, they can create a bright future for their family. After quickly finding work in the meatpacking district, the optimistic family buys a house, which they believe to be brand new, and begin furnishing it. Soon after, Jurgis and his fiancée, Ona, decide to get married. Even though they've been struggling to save money, they opt to follow Lithuanian customs and hold a lavish reception, which serves as the novel's opening chapter. This wedding leaves them in crippling debt just before winter hits. After the holiday rush, many factories close, and those that stay open—like the killing beds for livestock where Jurgis works—cut their hours.

Suddenly, the family finds that they have spent their savings and have too little income to survive. They begin making sacrifices. First the women, who had been home caring for the children, must find jobs. Then the children must leave school and find work. Their family begins to crumble as sickness and death strike: Jurgis's father dies, Jurgis himself is injured, and many of the children are sick and traumatized by the horrible conditions they are forced to endure. Still, the family remains steadfast. They believe that if they can just work a little harder and save a little more, they'll be able to crawl out of their financial hole. Unfortunately, everywhere they turn dishonesty, corruption, and exploitation snatch what meager savings they manage to accumulate. The heartless factory owners work their laborers to the bone and discard them when they are too weak to work, knowing that these workers can always be replaced by the next wave of immigrants to Chicago.

Things go from bad to worse for the family when Ona becomes pregnant again. She had always been emotionally fragile, but now she breaks down in fits of hysteria. After she fails to return home after work one evening, Jurgis discovers that Ona has actually been working as a prostitute downtown, exploited by her boss, Connor, who has been raping Ona and forcing her into a brothel. When he learns this information, Jurgis explodes with rage and attacks Connor. He is sent to jail for 30 days, during which time his family must survive without his income. When he is released, the family has lost their home and Ona dies miserably in childbirth. The only joy that remains in Jurgis's life is his son, baby Antanas. Jurgis finds more work, first in a farm equipment plant and then in the ironworks, but he loses the first job in a shutdown and walks away from the second when his son dies—little Antanas drowns in the flooded street outside their home. Desolate, Jurgis abandons his family and lives as a vagrant, traveling freely through the countryside and spending whatever money he manages to make on his own pleasures.

Upon returning to Chicago in the winter, he finds a job but again loses it to injury. He winds up in jail again, where an old friend introduces him to Chicago's criminal underworld. He becomes involved in vote rigging and union busting, and he lives relatively comfortably until he has another run-in with Connor, who has politically influential friends. Jurgis is forced to flee Packingtown. Near the end of the novel, he has lost everything—his family, his home, his job, his savings, and his humanity. Destitute and begging on the streets, he chances upon a socialist meeting. The political message enraptures him, and he becomes a disciple for the cause. He quickly finds work in a hotel with a socialist owner and is once again filled with hope for his future.

The Jungle Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Jurgis, family arrive in Chicago to work in stockyards.

Rising Action

2 Family buys house, depleting their cash and credit.

3 Jurgis and Ona's wedding reception leaves them in debt.

4 Family faces various injuries, job losses, and deaths.

5 Ona is raped; Jurgis attacks Phil Connor.

6 Jurgis is released from jail; Ona dies.

Climax

7 Little Antanas drowns; family loses its home.

Falling Action

8 Jurgis lives as a tramp before turning to crime.

Resolution

9 Jurgis discovers socialism as cure to suffering.

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