There are many characters in The Jungle. These characters vary widely in their professions, social status, and economic status. The main character in the novel is a Lithuanian named Jurgis Rudkus. His wife is Ona Lukoszaite, also a Lithuanian. Their son is named Antanas. Mike Scully is a powerful political leader in Packingtown. Phil Connor is a foreman in Packingtown, politically connected (through Scully), and a man who causes much trouble for Jurgis. Jack Duane is an experienced and educated criminal who is also politically connected. A man called Ostrinski is a half-blind tailor who teaches Jurgis about Socialism. There are also the members of Onas family, each of whom play minor roles in the story. The story opens with the feast at Jurgis and Onas wedding in America, but soon flashes back to the time before they left Lithuania. Jurgis met Ona at a horse fair, and fell in love with her. Unfortunately, they were too poor to have a wedding, since Onas father just died. In the hopes of finding freedom and fortune, they left for America, bringing many members of Onas family with them.
After arriving in America, they are taken to Packingtown to find work. Packingtown is a section of Chicago where the meat packing industry is centralized. They take a tour of the plant, and see the unbelievable efficiency and speed at which hogs and cattle are butchered, cooked, packed, and shipped. In Packingtown, no part of the animal is wasted. The tour guide specifically says They use everything about the hog except the squeal, (The Jungle, page 38).
Jurgiss brawny build quickly gets him a job on the cattle killing beds. The other members of the family soon find jobs, except for the children. They are put into school. At first, Jurgis is happy with his job and America, but he soon learns that America is plagued by corruption, dishonesty, and bribery. He is forced to work at high speeds for long hours with low pay, and so is the rest of the family. He is cheated out of his money several times. The children must leave school and go to work to help the family survive. This means they will never receive the education they need to rise above this. Ona is not permitted to take a holiday, even for her own wedding.
After the birth of her first son, Antanas, Ona soon becomes pregnant again. She becomes very upset, but will not tell Jurgis why. After she fails to come home one night, Jurgis confronts her. She breaks into tears and tells Jurgis that a foreman named Connor has forced a sexual relationship on her. Jurgis curses her and runs off to find Connor.
After beating Connor to a pulp, Jurgis is sent to jail for thirty days. The judge refuses to listen to Jurgiss story seriously. When Jurgis is released, he finds that his family has moved to an even poorer neighborhood, and Ona is in labor at that very moment. Neither the baby, nor Ona, who went into labor two months early, survive. Jurgis pulls himself together for the sake of Antanas and gets a job. When Antanas drowns in the mud-filled street, Jurgis gives up on Packingtown and his family. He hops aboard a passing train, and leaves Chicago.
Jurgis enjoys a hobo life, wandering across the country. When winter comes, he is forced to return to Chicago. He gets into a fight in a bar and is sent to jail. In jail, he meets Jack Duane, an experienced criminal. After being freed from jail, Jurgis and Duane team up in a luxurious, but risky life of crime. Jurgis learns about the connections between criminals, police, politics, and big business. He becomes a member of this complex network and moves into politics. He runs into Connor again, and beats him to a pulp a second time. Connors political connections cause Jurgis to lose all his acquired profit. Jurgis is back to wandering the streets.
To keep warm, Jurgis walks into a Socialist meeting. After the meeting, he is introduced to a man named Ostrinski, who teaches Jurgis about Socialism. Jurgis agrees completely with the political partys ideals, and becomes an active member.