Jurgis Rudkus is a big, strong man and a hard worker. He calls others who do not work as hard as he does weaklings or “broken-down tramps and good-for-nothings.” He finds work easily because of his strength and work ethic. While others stand in line for work for many months, he is picked out of the unemployment line at Brown and Company after no more than half an hour on just his second day in Chicago.
Jurgis is from the Lithuanian countryside where he had lived and worked on his ancestral estate in the Brelovicz (Imperial Forest)]. Jurgis’s brother had been drafted into the military, and his sister had married. Although he never expected to get married himself, he met Ona, his future wife, at a horse fair and fell deeply in love. She is from a wealthy family, however, and her father did not approve of their marrying. Lovesick, Jurgis makes the one hundred mile trek from his home to her family’s estate to convince her father to let her marry. When he arrives, he finds that Ona’s father has died, leaving the family estate in disarray. Teta Elzbieta had managed to save seven hundred roubles of the family fortune, but all else had been lost. Because she loves Teta Elzbieta, Ona decides she could not marry, and Jurgis decides that they all should instead make a new life in America. Life in America, he has heard, is better than the old country; Jurgis imagines, “He might do as he please(s), and count himself as good as any other man.” Five other adults, six other children, Marija Berczynskas, who had escaped work on a farm where she was beaten, and Jurgis board a boat headed for America.
They have a hard passage. An agent takes advantage of them while on the boat, and then, when they arrive in New York, a man disguised as a police officer holds them captive in a hotel room where he makes them pay large sums to leave. The party loses much of their money during the journey.
The group arrives in America, and because Ona’s brother Jonas had known a man that made a fortune in Chicago, they decide to journey west. When they arrive, they do not understand where they are and ask people on the street for directions to Chicago, not realizing they have arrived. People laugh at them, and they sleep that night in the doorway of a house until a police officer picks them up and takes them to the police station. They are transported to the stockyards, a place with “never a hill and never a hollow, but always the same endless vista of ugly and dirty little wooden buildings.” There are factories with “immense volumes of smoke” pouring from their chimneys and train yards with locomotives and freight cars. The party notices a change in the atmosphere as they enter the city: the dingy color of the landscape, the thickening smoke, and a “strange, pungent odor.” The group cannot quite describe the odor. It is “an elemental odor, raw and crude...rich, almost rancid, sensual, and strong.” When they exit their streetcar in the part of town known as the Stockyards, or, Packingtown, they hear the sound of ten thousand head of cattle lowing in the distance.
They walk only a block when Jonas runs into a delicatessen owned by Jokubas Szedvilas, the rich man that Jonas knew from Lithuania. They are hungry and tired, and Jokubas offers to take them to old Mrs. Jukniene’s flat where they can rest. Jokubas tells them that Old Mrs. Jukniene’s house is not a nice place to stay, but Teta Elzbieta assures him, “Nothing could be too cheap to suit them.” They have discovered that while America is a land of high wages, it is also a land of high prices. Old Mrs. Jukniene’s flat, however, is even worse than they imagined. She lives in a two-story frame tenement house, and she does not clean. Each floor of the house has a four-room flat that houses an average of half a dozen boarders per room, or fifty or sixty people in each flat. Each room contains a row of mattresses and a stove. In some cases, the landlord rents out one of the mattresses to one man during the day and to another at night when the other man is at work. Mrs. Jukniene tells the women that they can share her room and, since the weather was hot, sleep on the sidewalk. Jurgis tells the group that tomorrow he and Jonas will get jobs, and they will be able to afford their own flat.
Ona and Jurgis take a walk through their new neighborhood. There are children everywhere, playing in fetid puddles and streams of water. There are so many children in Packingtown “that nowhere on its streets could a horse and buggy move faster than a walk.” Swarms of flies populate the air. The entire town is built upon the garbage dumps of the city and during the hot summer, the smell becomes overbearing. Beyond the dump is a brickyard. The brick company scoops out the dirt of the land and replaces it with garbage, a feat that seems “characteristic of an enterprising country like America.” Beyond the brickyard is a hole that collects the water that drains from the polluted soil. In the winter, when the water freezes, it is cut and sold as ice to the people of the city. It seems economical to everyone, for “their heads were not full of troublesome thoughts about ‘germs.’” As the sun sets, Jurgis and Ona look over Packingtown. It appears to them now as “a vision of power...of things being done, of employment for thousands upon thousands of men, of opportunity and freedom, of life and love and joy.”
Jokubas Szedvilas, who is a long time resident of Packingtown, tells his new company that he will secure jobs for them through a policeman that he knows. The policeman works for Durham, and he finds suitable men for employment. Jurgis is confident that he can find employment on his own, and he goes to Brown’s, where he is immediately picked out of the line because of his size. One of the bosses asks him if he can “shovel guts,” and Jurgis, though he does not understand the English of the boss, accepts a job. The boss tells him he must show up at seven the next morning. Jurgis is ecstatic that he has found work so quickly.
To celebrate, Jokubas takes his new friends on a tour of Packingtown. For Jokubas, “the packers might own the land, but he claimed the landscape.” He takes them down to the yards where there are pens of cattle for as far as the eye can see. Jurgis feels pride in taking part in all of this because he ha just gotten a job and “become a sharer in all this activity, a cog in this marvelous machine.” Teta Elzbieta asks what becomes of all the cattle when they are bought and sold in the stockyards. Jokubas tells her that they are all weighed, loaded on trains, and taken to the slaughterhouses, where they will be killed and cut up for food. Everyone could think “only of the wonderful efficiency of it all.”
The party goes up to Durham’s, one of the meatpacking plants, and begins a tour of the factory. The tours are advertisements for the companies and the multiple products that they sell: “Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard...Durham’s Breakfast Bacon, Durham’s Canned Beef, Potted Ham, Devilled Chicken, Peerless Fertilizer!” They climb a series of stairways and see the chute where hogs come into the factory. The hogs come into a narrow room where men chain their legs, and they are lifted up by a wheel to a trolley. The hogs begin to squeal a sound that is “appalling, perilous to the ear-drums,” and many of the visitors laugh nervously at each other while some of the women have tears in their eyes. On the packing floor, men cut the throats of the hogs and throw them into vats of boiling water. “It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics.”
A visitor cannot help but become philosophical about the process and think on the idea of an afterlife for hogs, and on how each hog “had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope, and a heart’s desire.” Upon watching the slaughtering, Jurgis says, “I’m glad I’m not a hog!” Once the hog is done in the boiling water, it is scooped up by a machine and put on another trolley. Two lines of men stand on each side of the trolley. Each man is responsible for a specific job: one scrapes the legs, one cuts off the head, one saws through the breastbone, and one pulls out the guts. At the end of the trolley, the hog has been gone over several times, and an incompetent and lazy government inspector either looks over or ignores it. It then goes to the splitter, the most expert workers in the factory, who cut the hog in two. It is then butchered, and each part goes to different parts of the factories to be processed and shipped out. Signs everywhere demand cleanliness from the employees, and Jokubas translates these to Jurgis in a sarcastic manner.
The visitors move to another gallery. This one views the cattle-slaughtering process. As the cattle are loaded into a pen, a man stands over them and bludgeons their heads with a large hammer. As the animals fall, they are moved to the “killing-bed,” where they are strung upside down by chains, and the butcher slices their throats, letting the blood drain to the floor. Though men attempt to sweep all the blood into holes in the floor, they cannot keep up the pace, so the men do their work while standing in half an inch of blood. The heads are taken off, and the skin is sliced off. The carcasses of beef are then butchered. No part of the animal is wasted. The parts are made into diverse products: soaps, glue, violin strings, gelatin, lard, and fertilizer. The process amazes Jurgis, and he sees that he has been “given a place in it and a share in its wonderful activities.” He does not even realize that he has been hired at Brown’s, a competing plant that is supposed to be a “deadly rival” to Durham. Jokubas tells them that Durham has handled nearly a quarter of a billion animals since its founding. All of the meat packing factories are now almost as one, “the greatest aggregation of labor and capital ever gathered in one place.”
Jurgis reports to work at seven in the morning and goes to the killing floor. His job consists of sweeping away the intestines of cattle as they are gutted. It is a hot July day, and each worker wades through thick puddles of blood on the floor as they do their work. Jurgis earns seventeen and a half cents an hour and goes home that day elated to have earned over a dollar and a half. They also celebrate in their flat because Jonas has procured a job through the policeman, and Marija Berczynskas has gotten a job as a can painter which pays almost two dollars a day. Jurgis decides that both Teta Elzbieta and Ona will not get jobs and will instead stay home to care for the house. Only Dede Antanas cannot find work because of his age, although he wanders through the stockyards attempting to find a job any way that he can. The others do not have the heart to tell him that employers do not hire old men.
Upon seeing a flyer on his way to work one day, Jurgis has an idea. The flyer advertises a home for sale. Thinking that the family of twelve can pay just a bit more a month to own a home instead of rent, Jurgis makes the bold suggestion that they look into buying a home instead of renting a flat. Although the price is high for such a poor family, “they were in America, where people talked about such without fear.” Ona gives them the details of the house, which has four rooms and a basement, and they only have to put three hundred dollars down and pay twelve dollars a month. Each member of the family has a small amount of money left over from their journey to America, and pooled together they have enough for the down payment.
Ona and Teta Elzbieta make an inquiry on the house. They visit an agent who tells them that he works for a company selling these houses. The company is going out of business and is trying to sell the houses cheaply. He warns them that he has already sold so many houses that there might not be any left, but when the women become upset at this news, he makes a call and determines that there is one left. Ona figures how much each member of the family needs to contribute each month in order to cover the payment on the house. After all expenses are met, Ona determines that the family should have eighty-five dollars a month, “which ought surely to be sufficient for the support of a family of twelve.”
That Sunday, the entire family departs to see the house. They arrive and meet the agent, a “smooth and florid personage.” The house, however, is not as impressive as the advertisement, but the family does not feel as though they should question the integrity of the agent. The agent assures them there are many advantages to owning the home, but they insist that they discuss the matter before making any deals. That night, the family gathers for an extended time of arguments for and against buying the home. Jokubas Szedvilas appears and warns them against buying, telling “cruel stories of people who had been done to death in this ‘buying a home’ swindle.” When he leaves, however, Jonas convinces the rest that Szedvilas is a failed business owner and that this makes him bitter towards such deals. Finally, they decide to buy the house.
The agent gives them a time to come a sign papers, but Jurgis cannot come because of his job. He is deeply skeptical of signing any papers and warns the women to be cautious in their dealings with the agent. Szedvilas accompanies them to translate the English. The agent gives them the deed to the house and Szedvilas carefully reads over the entire document. He is shocked to see that the deed stipulates the family pay a monthly rental fee of twelve dollars for eight and a half years. The family is upset and the agent offers to go get a lawyer. The lawyer arrives, though they feel no better when he greets the agent by his first name. The lawyer assures them that the contract is sound and, frightened, Teta Elzbieta gives the agent the three hundred dollars. They all feel, however, that they have been swindled.
When Jurgis comes home, he is furious at the news. He threatens to go out and kill the agent that night. Instead, he and Svedvilas go and see another lawyer who agrees to read over their deed. The lawyer confirms that this is a standard contract and that the rent is paid only for the eight years after which the family owns the home. Jurgis is so relieved that he does not even object to the lawyer’s half dollar fee. He rushes home with the good news, and everyone is relieved that he did not kill the agent. Stunned by the confusion and excitement, Ona and her stepmother cry through the entire night.
Chapter Two begins the novel’s narrative by describing Jurgis Rudkus. Sinclair describes Jurgis’s character through physical traits. He is big and strong ,and the meat packing plant bosses quickly hire him. His physical characteristics influence his attitude towards other workers who are not as strong and not as enthusiastic about their work. Jurgis has a judgmental attitude towards these workers.
In this early chapter, Sinclair strikes a balance between portraying the difficulties of the immigrants’ move to America and the difficulties of life in Lithuania. Life in Lithuania is difficult, though it will not be as difficult as life in America, as the family will find out. Sinclair works here, however, not to idealize Eastern European life and to allow room for the validity of the American Dream. The American Dream, generally defined, is the belief in the ability of the individual to gain a sense of agency and economic or social advancement for themselves in American culture. Sinclair will use the contrast between dream and reality throughout the novel. In this early chapter, the dream is idealized.
This power of this dream is evident in the family’s trek to America. They immediately meet difficult circumstances. Their money is stolen, and they are extorted by being held captive. In addition, they find that while wages are higher in America, prices are also higher, which partly extinguishes a hope for riches, but the dream remains alive through the story of Jonas’s friend in Chicago who has made a fortune.
The dream is still alive when the family reaches Packingtown. Packingtown is a neighborhood in Chicago and the main setting for the novel. Packingtown contained the country’s largest meat producing industries and was a destination for millions of immigrants looking for work in the early twentieth century. Packingtown remained a leading meat-producing neighborhood until the 1970’s. While Packingtown was originally home to many German and Irish immigrant, many of them skilled butchers and meat producers, these groups were eventually replaced by cheaper labor, in the form of millions of unskilled Eastern European immigrants that flooded the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Because of the influx of such large populations, Packingtown became a slum filled with trash, disease, and poor living conditions.
Sinclair uses the metaphor of thousands of lowing cattle, all making the same droning noise that the family hears as they ride into the stockyards, as a symbol for the masses of people crowded into Packingtown. The lowing noise of the cows is a metaphor for the unheard agony of these immigrant populations who are forced into difficult living conditions. At the end of Chapter Two, Jurgis and Ona’s American dream is symbolized in the way that they literally stand on top of the garbage of Packingtown. For the moment, Sinclair suggests, their industry and determination in coming to America has helped them rise above the poorer people and lower classes (the “garbage” of the city) surrounding them.
Chapter Three is a realistic description of the packinghouses and the process of killing and butchering cattle and hogs for public consumption. The chapter is often graphic in its depiction of violence towards animals. Sinclair’s original publisher would not publish his novel because of such scenes and Sinclair was forced to self-publish the novel before it was finally bought by a mainstream publishing house. The irony of the chapter is best summed up in Jurgis’s line: “But I’m glad I’m not a hog!” In fact, the process of killing and breaking down animals is a similar process to the ways in which Jurgis himself will be broken down by the conditions of the city. This is not just a metaphorical breaking down, either, as a physical process of cutting and wounding is a primary cause of demise in the packing plants.
Chapters Three and Four offer two visions of America’s capitalist economy. Both visions show how unskilled, uneducated workers such as Jurgis’s family have no hope of successfully navigating this economy towards any kind of economic or social success. The first vision of capitalism is offered through the packinghouse where Jurgis works. While Henry Ford is generally considered the creator of the modern assembly line process of manufacturing, it was the Chicago meat packing plants that first revolutionized the process of mass production and assembly line techniques. The mantra that these plants “use every part of the hog except for the squeal” exemplifies the way that capitalist industry seeks to eliminate waste, even if such elimination results in unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
The second vision of capitalism is exemplified in the family's deal with the real estate agent. The agent attempts to sell the family a house that is not as advertised. In the quest for profit, Sinclair suggests that businessmen will use whatever means necessary to rip off or cheat others. A family such as Jurgis’s will be the first victims of this capitalist greed because they have no education of the system. Sinclair suggests that capitalism is a rigged economic system that only benefits those with inside knowledge of how to manipulate others for personal gain.