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Back in Lithuania at the beginning of The Jungle, Ona is around fourteen when Jurgis first meets and falls in love with her. He asks Ona's father for her hand in marriage, but, as she is so young and her father is a rich man, her father refuses. However, Ona's father dies and leaves his estate largely in debt. Ona has no money at all. That's when Jurgis's proposal of marriage, even though he is only a peasant, starts to look pretty good to Ona. Jurgis willingly takes on Ona and pretty much all of her extended family (her stepmother, six half-siblings, her step-uncle, and her cousin) to start a new life in the United States. Jurgis and Ona genuinely love each other, but in this novel, their romance is more about making a social point than about the importance of love. Although their marriage is based on feeling, it also has a business side to it – tying Jurgis to Ona's family so that they all have legal responsibilities to each other – and we all know how Upton Sinclair feels about business.
In many ways, Ona fits traditional stereotypes of femininity. She is very small physically, almost childlike (perhaps in part because she is fifteen-going-on-sixteen when she marries Jurgis). She is not physically strong, as Jurgis is. Jurgis keeps promising Ona that he will take care of her: "Leave it to me [...] I will earn more money – I will work harder" (1.41). Yet, Ona is better educated than Jurgis. She can read and write, and Jurgis often needs to ask for her help in reading newspapers before he starts going to night school. However, this education also suits Ona for a different kind of life than the Packingtown grind. In Packingtown, smarts don't make a bit of difference; the work there is all about physical strength. Because Ona is stuck in jobs that do not suit her particular talents, her health quickly goes downhill.
Even though Jurgis seems at first to enjoy Ona's dependence on him, her physical weakness becomes a real issue in the face of the brutal life they are leading in Chicago. As Jurgis grows angrier and angrier at their difficult existences, he gets resentful and cruel to Ona. After her painful death during childbirth, Jurgis looks back on his behavior towards her: "What a monster of wickedness, of heartlessness, he had been! Every angry word that he had ever spoken came back to him like a knife" (20.4). So Ona becomes yet another painful memory to oppress Jurgis. Ona is not particularly distinctive as a character – she is just one more thing to make Jurgis feel bad about himself and about his place in society.
But the worst drawback of Ona's physical weakness and softness of character is that she is even more vulnerable to the injustice of Packingtown than Jurgis is. Ona cannot defend herself from Phil Connor, the rapist who also forces her into prostitution. The Jungle suggests that Ona's sexual exploitation is an inevitable result of the huge power inequalities in Packingtown. Of course, a nice girl like Ona is going to become a victim of the system. The novel plays up Ona's more fragile character to make her tragic fate seem even more emotional for the reader. After all, Sinclair is trying to tug our heartstrings so that we feel sympathy for the working people of Packingtown.
The system that makes Ona's life impossible is not only the boss/worker relationship. Sinclair also offers a critique of marriage through his portrayal of Jurgis and Ona's awful life together. Because Jurgis is tied to Ona, he has to pool all of his money with her and he has no independence. He cannot save anything up or leave Packingtown, even if he wants to. Because Ona is married to Jurgis, Connor can threaten to get Jurgis fired. He can use Jurgis to bully Ona into following his demands. Even though Jurgis and Ona honestly love each other, the system they live in makes their marriage destructive to both of them. Ona's fragile health, rape, and eventual death all seem to foreshadow the message of socialist thinker Nicholas Schliemann in the final chapter of The Jungle:
Marriage and prostitution were two sides of one shield, the predatory man's exploitation of the sex-pleasure. The difference between them was a difference of class. If a woman had money she might dictate her own terms: equality, a life contract, and the legitimacy—that is, the property-rights—of her children. If she had no money, she was a proletarian, and sold herself for an existence. (31.12)
(Just to add a disclaimer: this is the novel speaking, here, not Shmoop!) Schliemann suggests that marriage is just prostitution with an official stamp on it, because it is an economic contract in which a woman exchanges financial support of herself and her future children for sex with her husband. Working-class women don't have the law on their sides, so they exchange money for sex more directly. The Jungle seems to suggest that, in a corrupt capitalist economic system, marriage and prostitution are at opposite ends of a sliding scale. So, even though Jurgis loves Ona dearly and tries to protect her, his marriage to Ona actually exploits and destroys her. Jurgis is the one who first ties Ona to Packingtown and makes it impossible for her to leave. So Jurgis bears some responsibility for what happens to Ona.