The protagonist of the book, Jurgis Rudkus, is a dynamic character. With almost every chapter, Jurgis grows 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 250 pounds 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. Even though the novel is set in America, Jurgis has spent most of his life in the forests of Lithuania.
His perspective on life at the outset of the novel is rural. For example, Jurgis fails to appreciate why the other workers criticize the packers and are almost servile in his gratitude for having been chosen to be part of this great industrial activity. Unused of dishonesty and extreme exploitation, he sees only the apparent efficiency of the system, not its brutality. His fellow workers recognize his ignorance: ‘It is plain that you have come from the country, and from very far in the country,’ remarks one. Jurgis has trouble with the arrogance of youth, health, and strength and laughs at the stories of men broken by the stockyards. His essentially hopeful and positive attitude toward life has not dimmed even after his introduction to Packingtown.
He is confident that, with his strength, he will be the best worker. Again, Jurgis is no rebel. Even though the working conditions are treacherous, the speed set by the pacemakers is murderous, and the weaker men are collapsing, Jurgis enjoys the work! Having lived in a rural area, he is suspicious of new ideas and dislikes people who support them. So, 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 him 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 narrowminded and quick-tempered, both attributes that lead to his near destruction. Life in Packingtown transforms Jurgis. Little by little, he is robbed of his strength, health, and spirit and reduced to an almost animal-like existence. His ignorance is worse; he does not comprehend the forces that are destroying his life. This further serves to make him bitter and destroy his goals and humanity. An example is Little Stanislovas. Jurgis shifts from wanting to educate the boy to reluctantly pulling him out of school during a financial crisis to brutally beating him to force the terrified boy to go to work in the winter.
Most inhuman is Jurgis’ treatment of Ona; he is so weighed down with his own problems that even her crying at night eventually has no effect on him. Their relationship reaches its depths when Jurgis barbarically forces Ona to confess her relationship with Connor and then reacts without sympathy to her situation. 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 abandonment of the family after little Antanas’ death also points 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 trickery is swift. But Jurgis evidently has very little 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 rises once again from the depths to which Chicago has reduced him.
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