The Jungle begins with Marija Berczynskas overseeing and organizing a wedding ceremony in the ‘back of the yards’ in Chicago. She is Lithuanian and today her cousin, Ona Lukoszaite, has just married fellow Lithuanian Jurgis Rudkus. Ona is not quite sixteen and the readers are told her new husband is able to carry a two hundred and fifty pound quarter of beef without staggering, but he is as ‘frightened as a hunted animal’ at the wedding celebrations.
A ‘charming informality’ is one of the characteristics of this celebration, but it is a law (transplanted from Lithuania) that no one leaves hungry. Ona’s stepmother is Aunt Elizabeth, and is referred to as Teta Elzbieta, and she and other women bring masses of food through to the guests.
There is also music being played and this transforms the place from a saloon ‘to a fairy place, a wonderland, a little corner of the high mansions of the sky’. The violinist is Tamoszius Kuszleika and he later gets engaged to Marija. Ona is spared from crying too much (with happiness) by listening to Marija teach the musicians a song they do not know. She is described as a powerful woman who works in a canning factory handling fourteen-pound cans of beef.
Following this, Antanas (Jurgis’s father) gives a speech. He is sixty years old, but looks eighty. He and the rest of the family have only been in the United States for six months, but this is already affecting him adversely. He works in the pickle rooms at Durham’s and this is damaging his chest.
The music begins again and the guests dance along. The older ones wear some item of clothing that is from their homeland, but the younger people avoid doing this. These younger people have assimilated more than their elders. Some of the dancers are described, such as Alena Jasaityte. She is the ‘beauty of the evening’ and paints cans all week in a factory.
The next event is one of the most important of the evening. This is the acziavimas, which is a three or four hour uninterrupted dance and each guest dances and leaves money for the bride and groom. The wedding costs two even three hundred dollars and this is more than a man’s wages for a year. The vesilija is a form of compact where the guests eat and drink as much as they desire, but also give the married couple money. This tradition is changing in the ‘new country’, though, and some are leaving without donating anything. Jurgis says not to worry as he will work harder to pay the bills for the wedding.
Chapter Two begins by explaining how Jurgis is still young and optimistic, and talks lightly about work. He is also naïve and has never lived in a city before. He met Ona and her family in Lithuania and her father initially refused him permission to marry her. Jurgis went back to see her a year later to ask again only to find her father had died and the family were now impoverished. This family now consisted of Ona, Teta Elzbieta, her six children and Ona’s brother Jonas. They all believed that coming to the United States would give them freedom and more opportunities. Before they set off, and at the last moment, Marija also decides to join them.
When they arrive in the Packingtown district in Chicago, the smell of the stockyards greets them first. They are almost penniless once they reach here after being taken advantage of in New York (as they are clearly immigrants and know no English). They all stay at Aniele Jukniene’s home as she takes in lodgers. This is already overcrowded and ‘unthinkably filthy’. There are lots of children in the area, but no school and there is a fetid odor because this part of town is built on the city dump. Despite these conditions, Ona and Jurgis look out at Packingtown in awe.
In Chapter Three, Jokubas, a fellow Lithuanian who runs a delicatessen, shows them around the area. The cattle pens alone take up half of a square mile. He takes them to Durham’s and shows them a room where hogs are killed and the sound of their pitiful shrieks is given in detail. Their deaths are also depicted; a chain is attached to one of their legs and they are swung on this chain before being killed. The factory is described as such: ‘It was porkmaking by machinery, porkmaking by applied mathematics.’ The narrative continues to describe the unpleasant conditions and how the inspectors are lax in checking the hogs for tuberculosis.
Descriptions then ensue of the killing of cattle and of how nothing of the animals is wasted at Durham’s. They are thought to furnish food for thirty million people. At this early time in the narrative, Jurgis thinks the workers should be grateful to have positions with such a company and is described as guileless.
His first work is with Durham’s rivals, Brown’s. The bosses quickly choose him when he first waits for work, because he is young and has a large stature. Because of his naivety, he is unable to see that he is lucky to have been picked.
Chapter One begins with the marriage of Ona and Jurgis and from Chapter Two to Chapter Seven the narrative takes the readers back to explain how the families arrived and settled in the United States, and how they saved for the wedding to take place.
Chapter One is primarily concerned with describing how Ona and Jurgis are marrying in a traditionally Lithuanian way, and how these customs are being eroded for the worse in this new country. In the United States, the guests are less willing to pay after eating and drinking as much as possible. By beginning in such a way, the novel emphasizes immediately how the United States is having a detrimental effect on earlier traditions and how the cracks in the family’s American Dream are beginning to appear after being in this country for only a few months.
Chapters Two and Three trace back to six months ago to when Jurgis and his father and Ona and her family came to the United States with hopes for a better future. The narrative is careful to reiterate how they innocently presumed that life would improve. This is most evident in the depiction of the central character, Jurgis, who at this early time still believes that he will be treated fairly. He is depicted as honest and willing to work, and it is also evident that he is naïve in the practices of the packers (the firms who kill the animals and produce the meat and by-products). He is in awe of companies such as Durham’s and Brown’s and is unable to see that he has only been chosen to work because of his age and build and neither of these advantages will last long with the hard work he has to undertake.
The Jungle: Novel Summary