Throughout The Jungle, Sinclair’s characters are not so much well-rounded, believable characters as they are representative figures of the immigrant working class as a whole. The greatest evidence of Sinclair’s use of Jurgis to garner sympathy and admiration is that he doesn’t possess any true character flaw. When he acts immorally or selfishly, as when he goes out drinking after Ona’s death or abandons the family after Antanas’s death, we are always meant to understand that he does so out of the hurt and misery that his environment forces upon him. Jurgis’s characteristics are designed to make him appealing to the average American reader of 1906, and at the beginning of the novel, he has no unsympathetic traits. He is young, strong, optimistic, energetic, devoted to his family, and enthusiastic about his new country. He has a powerful belief in the American Dream—the idea that hard work will beget rewards. When Ona worries about the debt that their wedding feast will force them to assume, Jurgis earnestly promises, “I will work harder,” as though doing so will guarantee material success.
As Jurgis’s idealism and naïveté are slowly ground into oblivion by the oppressive conditions of life in Packingtown, the pain causes Jurgis to act out of character for long periods of time. The values with which he first equips himself in his pursuit of happiness begin to seem irrelevant: he uses his earnings to drink heavily instead of saving, he abandons his family, and he turns to corruption and crime as a source of income. But at no point are we meant to judge Jurgis harshly or think that he is simply an immoral, uncaring person. On the contrary, we are supposed to bear in mind that he is the exact opposite sort of person. Jurgis presents an idealized portrait of the working poor; his degradation illustrates how capitalism fails the working class.