The Jungle Plot Summary
Jurgis Rudkus and his family come to America from Lithuania to seek their fortune. They arrive in Chicago's stockyards district, where the gigantic meatpacking plants operate, and find employment performing various tasks in the slaughterhouses. Quickly, the family realizes that their dreams of America and its wealth were painfully far from reality. Instead of being a land of promise, it is a land of interminable toil and poverty. The workers at the meatpacking plants are poorly paid, overworked and subject to unfair labor practices and dangerous working conditions. What's more, the stockyards neighborhood is a pit of poverty and squalor, with rat-infested boarding houses, a smoldering garbage dump on one end of the yards, and a large sewage pit on the other end. Jurgis's family finds that they all must work to survive, including Jurgis's dying father, his pregnant wife, her cousin, her uncle, and her stepmother's children.
All of the family members who work in the slaughterhouses see the unbelievable filth in the factories where the meat is processed and the sickening secrets of meatpacking. Diseased cattle and hogs are processed for consumption, as well as pregnant cows and their fetuses. The sausages are made of a random mixture of animal parts, as well as the dirt, rat carcasses and poison scooped up off the floor. The corruption within the plants runs thick, with bosses demanding "gifts" of money from their workers, and grafting off those in the hierarchy of management.
After a series of tragedies, including a stint in jail for Jurgis, the death of his wife Ona and baby son Antanas, Jurgis flees to the countryside, leaving the rest of the family behind. Once he's away from Chicago, he becomes a transient. He returns to Chicago where he finds himself penniless and starving. He begs on the streets, gets into rows in saloons and is in and out of jail. During one of his visits to jail, he meets a con man named Jack Duane who initiates Jurgis into a life of crime. As a criminal, Jurgis learns about the corruption in city politics, in various industries such as steel and horseracing, in the packing-plants and even in the Chicago police force. Everyone, it seems, is crooked. The elections are fixed and Democratic and Republican Party members pay men for votes. Jurgis even helps out a candidate by bribing fellow workers at the meatpacking plant and offering them money for their votes. After another scrape and some more jail time, Jurgis wanders the streets of Chicago, begging and trying not to starve. He stumbles into a Socialist party meeting and is instantly transfixed by the speaker. He is introduced to a party member named Ostrinski who teaches him the tenets of Socialism. Jurgis is transformed by what he learns: finally there is an explanation for his suffering, and even a way to change it! Capitalism, he learns, is the bane of society, constantly keeping the common worker in poverty while enriching the wealthy. Jurgis finds a job at a hotel run by a Socialist and finds himself obsessed with Socialism. He runs into an old friend who tells him Ona's cousin Marija is living in a whorehouse, working as a prostitute. He finds her addicted to morphine and quite sick and cannot convince her to leave. She tells him to find the rest of the family and he does, supporting them with the money he makes at the hotel. The novel ends with a Socialist polemic supporting the movement and promising that the party will become stronger as time passes and, in the end, will "take Chicago."