The Jungle

The Jungle Summary and Analysis of Chapter 1


A wedding ends at four o’clock in the afternoon, and Marija Berczynskas prepares for the festivities that follow. She is in charge of the entire wedding day activities, the veselija, and she uses her “broad shoulders” and “tremendous voice” to make sure everyone is in the correct place at the correct time. When a carriage driver “develop(s) a will of his own,” Marija puts him in his place and makes sure the festivities continue. The wedding party drives down Ashland Avenue, located in the “back of the yards” in Chicago, and gathers in the community hall for music and food. The party celebrates the marriage of Ona Lukoszaite and Jurgis (pronounced Yoorghis) Rudkus. Though Jurgis “could take up a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound quarter of beef and carry it into a car without a stagger,” the wedding and the party leave him “frightened as a hunted animal,” and he stands nervously in a corner. The guests, all of Lithuanian heritage and ancestry, gather in the community hall with a “charming informality.”

The room is filled with food. In the kitchen, women work over stoves and steaming pots. They rush “hither and thither” with platters and bowls of duck, potatoes, ham, sauerkraut, and rice. There is an open bar in the back of the hall. Jurgis is cajoled into sitting next to Ona at the wedding table and the feast begins. While they eat, a group of musicians, led by Tamoszius Kuszleika, begins to play. Tamoszius, a small man who works on the killing lines by day and teaches himself violin at night, is also “an inspired man.” He stamps his feet and moves his entire body while he goads his companions into following him in his music. The band’s other two members are not as enthusiastic as Tamoszius but they dutifully play their parts “from four o’clock in the afternoon until nearly the same hour next morning,” while each earns a dollar an hour.

The bride, Ona, is too excited to eat and cries when Tamoszius Kuszleika plays a traditional Lithuanian wedding song. She almost jumps up and runs out of the room, but Marija saves the moment by leading the band in a song about two departing lovers. Marija is a strong woman who lifts fourteen-pound cans for a living. Jurgis’s father, Dede Antanas, stands up to give a speech that he has written for the occasion. It is a sad speech, not only because Dede Antanas is very sick with a persistent cough, but also because he believes he will die soon and leave his family. As the last diners finish, all of the chairs and tables are moved, and dancing begins, the “real celebration of the evening.”

Tamouszius Kuszleika begins his elaborate dancing and playing, and the wedding guests pair off. The young people do the “two-step,” and the older people perform old Lithuanian dances. Both the dancing and the attire differs between the generations. The older people wear waistcoats and stomachers, while “some of the young men you would take to be Americans, of the type of clerks, but for the fact that they wear their hats in the room.” The dancing is contagious, and soon everyone joins in some fashion. Jadvyga Marcinkus and her fiancé of five years, Mikolas, dance “as if he would carry her away.” Mikolas is a beef-boner, which is dangerous work because “your hands are slippery, and your knife is slippery, and you are toiling like mad...Then your hand slips up on the blade, and there is a fearful gash.” Mikolas has had several of these cuts, one of which caused a deep infection. He lost his job after a seven-month absence and stood in line for six months before being hired on at another company. Because Mikolas has his mother, brothers, and sisters to support, he and Jadvyga cannot afford to marry.

The dancing closes with a flurry of twirling and spinning and the guests prepare for the night’s great event, the acziavimas. In this four-hour ceremony, the entire wedding party gathers around the bride in a circle. Each man in the room has the chance to dance with Ona for as long as he wants. At the end of the dance, the man goes to Ona’s stepmother, Teta Elzbieta, and drops a sum of money into a hat. It is understood by everyone that the wedding feast could cost as much as three hundred dollars, “more than the year’s income of many a person” in the room. Each person gives, however, because “they cannot give up the veselija,” and to do so would “acknowledge defeat.”

The ceremony continues for hours. When the musicians tire and begin to sit back and rest, Marija Berczynskas is immediately on them, reminding them that they are being paid to play and that they must continue. Only young Sebastionas, a small boy who is hurt by a slamming door, can draw her attention away from the wedding festivities. In the corner of the room, Teta Elzbieta and Dede Antanas have a nervous conversation. Customs in this new world are changing. Many of the young men come to the festivities, eat, drink, and then leave without paying their due to the family. Some sneak out; others walk out boldly, daring the family to make them pay for their share of the party. Ona stands in terror, thinking of the massive bills that will come due. Everything costs money, especially the saloonkeeper, who provides the beer and liquor and who is a cheat. Many of the older people pay more than their share. Jokubas Szedvilas pays five dollars even though he recently mortgaged his delicatessen store to pay his overdue rent. Old Mrs. Jukniene gives all the profit from the few chickens she keeps, even though her children must dig through the trash to find scraps to feed them. Jurgis comes to Ona to reassure her that he will work harder to pay the bills. It is a refrain that he has said many times. He said it when his possessions were stolen upon arriving in America; he said it when an agent at Ellis Island made him pay an exorbitant fee to leave the immigration station.

The acziavimas ends, and the dancers return to the floor. The musicians began playing dance music again. Everyone is exhausted and drunk, and the policeman on duty is watchful. If a fight begins to break out, he will “crack” their heads. Only Marija begins a fight. She is drunk and becomes angry at two young men who have not paid their share for the wedding feast. The policeman breaks up the fight and expels the young men from the party. The band continues to repeatedly play a song, “In the good old summer time.” Half of the room is passed out, either drunk or exhausted. Each of them will have to be up and at their jobs at seven o’clock or else they will be fired and have to stand in the long lines of unemployed outside of the factories. Even Ona, who had requested a day off from Brown’s, must be at her station promptly. Jurgis, now tired and drunk himself, takes his bride to their home two blocks away. As he opens the door, he tells her that she will not go to work today. She begs him to reconsider, but he tells her, “I will earn more money—I will work harder.”


The novel opens with Jurgis and Ona Rudkus’s wedding feast. Jurgis is the novel’s protagonist. This scene is actually a series of embellishments of a scene in the story that takes place in later chapters. The scene is a fictional recreation of a wedding feast that Sinclair observed while researching his novel and living in Packingtown. This scene sets the tone for the novel, combining a series of fictional events within the context of the real life of Lithuanian immigrants in early twentieth century Chicago. In literature, this style of writing is called “realism,” a “faithful representation of reality” also called “verisimilitude.” The realism in The Jungle comes from the perspective of the novel’s immigrant protagonists.

The character of Tamoszius Kuszleika is a representation of Upton Sinclair himself. In effect, through this character Sinclair writes himself into his novel. Sinclair’s representation of himself in the novel demonstrates his own difficulty in dealing with the objective/subjective nature of journalistic fiction. He describes his attempts to portray the lives of these immigrants accurately as Tamouszius using a violin that he has taught himself to play. Instead of music, however, Sinclair is describing his passion for spreading the news of socialism. Sinclair recognizes his inability to bring a complete realism to his novel, just as Tamouszius cannot bring the talent of a trained musician to his music, yet, like Tamouszius, what Sinclair lacks in formal philosophical training, he makes up for in passion for his subject.

This wedding scene also first describes an important theme in the novel, that of the growing “Americanization” of new generations. Sinclair uses two types of objective descriptions to make his case. These descriptions are in the feast’s dancing and in the acziavimas ceremony. During the dancing, Sinclair uses an objective description of the dress of the wedding participants to paint a picture of the way in which younger immigrant generations slowly lose their sense of ethnicity characterized by the conventions of the older generations. In the second example, Sinclair describes the actions of these younger generations, through their refusal to pay the family for the privilege of attending the wedding and their abuse of the free food and drink provided.

This first chapter establishes a sympathetic relationship between the reader and the novel’s fictional characters. Sinclair knows that the general argument he hopes to make with the novel, that the United States should adopt socialist principle, depends upon the reader being able to identify with the plight of his characters. By describing the veselija in such detail, Sinclair hopes to create a world where readers can see themselves, which is a difficult task, since the years between 1870 - 1920 saw a marked rise in xenophobic attitudes in the American public.

The closing section of this chapter shifts the novel’s literary mood. The shift in mood mirrors the longer arc of the shift in literary mood that occurs through the novel. The chapter starts with a festive mood. All of the wedding guests are filled with hope for Jurgis and Ona and hope for the future of their people in America. In the middle of the festivities, a crisis occurs when the family cannot raise the money needed to pay for the wedding. This results in increased hardships and a darker mood for the family with Jurgis’s promise to “work harder.”