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The hero of the book, Jurgis Rudkus, is not a static character. With almost every chapter, the reader finds him evolving into a different kind of person. In the initial stages of the novel, the two most striking features of Jurgis' personality are his physical presence and his simple, peasant mindset. In the novel's opening scene he is described as, "he with the mighty shoulders and the giant hands" and "great black eyes with beetling brows." He is so strong that he is capable of carrying a two hundred and fifty pound weight with ease. The emphasis on Jurgis' strength is not incidental; his physical attributes play an important part in shaping his outlook and, ultimately, his life.
Although the novel takes place in America, Jurgis has spent most of his life in the forests of Lithuania. His perspective of life at the outset of the novel is, therefore, typically rural. For instance, Jurgis fails to appreciate why the other workers criticize the packers and is almost servile in his gratitude for having been chosen to be part of this great industrial activity. Unused to dishonesty and extreme exploitation, he sees only the apparent efficiency of the system, not its brutality. His fellow workmen recognize his ignorance: "It is plain that you have come from the country, and from very far in the country," remarks one.
Jurgis also suffers from the arrogance of youth, health and strength, and laughs at the stories of men broken by the stockyards. His essentially hopeful and positive attitude to life is not dimmed even after his introduction to Packingtown. He is confident that, with his strength, he will emerge a winner. Again, Jurgis is no rebel. Even though the working conditions at the killing beds are exploitative, the speed set by the pacemakers is murderous and the weaker men are collapsing, Jurgis enjoys the work! A typical rustic, he is suspicious of new ideas and dislikes people who espouse them. Thus, when the representative of the butcher- helpers' union first approaches him, Jurgis is intensely hostile to the man.
Jurgis is also endowed with passion (he refuses to rest until he has won Ona), tenderness (he cares deeply for his old father and also wants to protect Ona from all the hardships of life), love (he initially dotes on Ona and later his son) and compassion (he is determined to educate Elzbieta's children). But Jurgis is also very narrow minded and hot-headed; both attributes that lead to his near destruction.
Life in Packingtown transforms Jurgis. Bit by bit, he is robbed of his health, strength and spirit and reduced to an almost animal-like existence. Even worse, in his ignorance, he does not understand the forces destroying his life. This further serves to make him bitter and destroy his compassion and humanity. His treatment of little Stanislovas is a case in point. Jurgis moves from wanting to educate the boy to reluctantly pulling him out of school during a financial crisis to brutally beating him to compel the terrified lad to go to work in the bitter winter. Most inhuman is Jurgis' treatment of Ona; he is so weighed down with his own problems that even her crying at night eventually elicits scoldings from him. Their relationship reaches its depths when Jurgis barbarically forces Ona to confess to her relationship with Connor and then reacts without sympathy to her plight.
It is a measure of Jurgis' immaturity and hot-headedness that Ona is afraid to confide in him and has to hold on to her horrible secret and suffer alone. Jurgis' dependence on drink and his abandoning of the family after little Antanas' death also point to a weakness and instability in his character that was only kept in check by his love for Ona and their son. Once these two die, Jurgis' weaknesses overcome his strengths and his slide into begging, crime and political skullduggery is swift. But Jurgis evidently has secret reserves of strength, resilience and character. Even from the worst depths, he pulls himself up when he sees a glimmer of direction at the Socialist meeting and, like the proverbial Phoenix, rises once again from the ashes to which Chicago have reduced him.
At the wedding feast where she is first introduced to the reader, Ona appears a complete mismatch for Jurgis. Small, fragile and "one of God's gentlest creatures," she is a complete contrast to Jurgis. Extremely young and delicately built, Ona is initially among those of the family who are not supposed to go out to work in Packingtown. In this respect, she is therefore grouped with the children and the older generation. It is only a crisis that pushes Ona and Stanislovas to the cruelties of the packing houses. From the outset, Ona seems a person who is unfit for life in Packingtown. Ironically, she is also the one who is destined to bear the heaviest burden.
Married at a tender age, overburdened with work in a hostile atmosphere, crushed by motherhood in the most inimical circumstances, raped and forced into prostitution, harshly tried and condemned by her beloved, and finally killed after a tormenting childbirth in animal-like conditions, Ona is arguably the most cruelly tortured character in The Jungle. This mental and physical agony transforms a beautiful young girl with romantic dreams and ideals into a nervous, hysterical wreck. The Ona of Chapter Five, in which the family has bought and is furnishing the house, is dancing with joy and delights in the smallest pleasures shared with her fiancée Jurgis. By Chapter Ten, Ona, now a mother, is plagued by ill health and trying one patent medicine after the other. Four chapters later, Ona, pregnant once again, is "going to pieces." She is dogged by a rattling cough, "fearful nervousness," "frightful headaches and fits of aimless weeping," and "[comes] home at night shuddering and moaning."
The reader later learns that by this time, the gruesome sexual exploitation of Ona at the hands of Connor and Miss Henderson has begun. Just as Packingtown robs Jurgis of his health and strength, it compels Ona to relinquish her honor, integrity and sanity. But while Jurgis develops into a somewhat insensitive character, Ona does not lose her sensitivity despite her agonizing trials. As Sinclair puts it, "the soul of Ona was not dead." She craves Jurgis' love and, as the novel progresses, needs it more than ever, but she instead has to learn to weep silently.
Paradoxically, although Ona is portrayed as young and weak, she is also a survivor. Ona is intuitively intelligent enough to understand that telling her hotheaded husband about her exploitation at work will ruin the family. Ona knows that for their survival her sexual exploitation is inevitable -- a fact that Jurgis is unable to see. Even in her worst fits of hysteria and near-insanity, Ona is far more sane and far-sighted than Jurgis. Even as she relates her story that Jurgis literally chokes out of her, Ona predicts the future: "And now you will kill him--you--you will kill him-- and we shall die." The "frail" Ona displays her strength for the last time on her death-bed, when the hard-bitten midwife Madame Haupt is moved to say, "She fights hard, she is not yet quite dead." The ostensibly tender and delicate character of Ona Lukoszaite leaves the reader with a lasting impression of strength.