Jurgis is only barely able to keep warm by giving a few pennies for the price of lodging and a drink when he can. He wanders the cold streets of Chicago begging for money or food. Jurgis realizes that he is “lost in the fierce battle of greed” and is now “doomed to be exterminated.” Jurgis sees that all of society has their own lives and that they cannot be bothered to care about a person as lowly as he is. There is no place for him in this city.
One evening, Jurgis begs in front of the theater crowds, trying to stay away from the police. One policeman starts to come towards him and so Jurgis runs down an alley. At the end of the alley is a man and Jurgis starts to beg from him, asking for just a few cents for boarding. The man, who is young and well dressed, puts his hand upon Jurgis’s shoulder and lets Jurgis tell his whole story. The man tells Jurgis that he has been “up against” the whole world himself.
The young man then goes into a garbled story. He hiccups and burps through the whole thing, and it is apparent that he is drunk. The young man tells about how his father, the “guv’ner” has gone abroad and how he has left him here in Chicago with very little money. He tells Jurgis that he has been out all night with Kitty, defying his father’s orders to stay in the house while he is away. The young man tells him that his name is Freddie Jones.
Jurgis and the young man begin to walk down the street. Freddie asks Jurgis to come to his house and get a bite to eat. Freddie tells Jurgis to call a cab, and he drunkenly hands Jurgis a $100 bill. Jurgis sees that he has a whole fistful of bills, and he momentarily thinks about grabbing the money and running, but the cab pulls up, and Jurgis just takes the one hundred. They ride for almost half an hour to an address on Lake Shore Drive. The house they pull up to looks like a castle, and Jurgis cannot believe that someone could live in such a place. They walk up to the front door, Freddie pushes a button, and they are let in.
A team of butlers and servants meets Jurgis and Freddie. They take Freddie’s coat off. One of them, Hamilton, attempts to make Jurgis leave, but Freddie tells them that he wants him to stay. He begins to show Jurgis the house. It is filled with extravagant and expensive items, many of which cost tens of thousands of dollars. Freddie tells Jurgis that all this belongs to Jones, the owner of the meatpacking factory. He asks Jurgis if he had ever met Jones, and Jurgis tells him that he had actually worked for him in the stockyards. This greatly amuses the drunken Freddie. He continues to show him the house and takes him up to his own apartment.
In that room, Freddie orders a meal of “cold pates, and thin slices of meat, tiny bread and butter sandwiches with the crust cut off, a bowl of sliced peaches and cream (in January), little fancy cakes, pink and green and yellow and white, and half a dozen ice-cold bottles of wine.” He tells Jurgis to eat, and he eats the entire spread and washes it down with one of the bottles of wine. Freddie tells him of his family’s story, about how his brother had wanted to marry a girl that was not rich, so his father had bribed him with a large sum of money to stay single. His sister had married an Italian marquis who was now becoming upset, so Mr. Jones had gone to Italy to see how to calm the situation. This left only Freddie, with only an allowance of two thousand dollars for the entire time he was alone.
Freddie falls asleep, and soon Hamilton, the head butler enters. He makes it known that he wants Jurgis to leave. He threatens him with violence and tells Jurgis that he must search him for stolen items. Jurgis fights back and tells him that he would rather be arrested than searched. As he walks out the front door, the butler kicks him and he tumbles down the steps.
Jurgis is “wild with rage” at having been tossed out onto the street, but he has the one hundred dollar bill. He knows that he has a new problem, however, because he cannot give the bill to a shelter, and it is very difficult for a man of his stature to break the bill into smaller change without being beaten, robbed, and murdered or hauled away to jail. He finds an empty saloon, goes up to the barkeeper, and asks him to change the bill. The barkeeper agrees if he will buy a beer, and so Jurgis does. The barkeeper pours the beer and gives Jurgis ninety-five cents in change. Jurgis asks where the other ninety-nine dollars is, and the barkeeper only looks at him strangely telling him he must be mistaken.
Jurgis goes into another wild rage at this. He leaps over the bar and begins to attack the barkeeper, throwing his glass and bottles at him. The barkeeper punches Jurgis and is helped by two other men who enter the fight. Soon, a police officer joins them, knocks Jurgis out with his club, and hauls him to jail. The next day, Jurgis faces a judge who does not believe his side of the story. Jurgis does not know that the bartender pays the authorities five dollars every week to receive preferential treatment and that the barkeeper is a “kid-gloved reformer” for the Democratic Party. Jurgis goes to jail and the first person he meets is Jack Duane. Jack tells him to find him once he gets out of prison and Jurgis does that after his ten days behind bars. Jack tells Jurgis that he wants to make him a part of his crime operation ,and Jurgis is grateful for the chance.
Jurgis and Duane’s first crime is to rob a man on the street. They beat him up and take his money and possessions. Jurgis’s share of the take is fifty-five dollars. He reads about the crime in the paper the next day. The paper reports that a gang is on the prowl. They had hit the man and given him a concussion and because they had left him on the street, he had lost three fingers to frost. Jurgis feels bad about this, but Duane assures him that “it was the way of the game, and there was no helping it.” Soon, Jurgis would “think no more of it than they did in the yards of knocking out a bullock.”
Jurgis soon begins to hang out in the saloons and halls where the rest of Chicago’s criminals congregate. Every crook and crime boss hangs out in these places: lawyers and businessmen, police officers and bar owners, pick pockets and fake-doctors, and even more. Jurgis sees that “All of these agencies of corruption were banded together, and leagued in blood brotherhood with the politician and the police; more often than not they were one and the same person.”
Jurgis begins to be hired by different crooks and thieves to participate in different crimes for which he is paid. He participates in one scam in which he goes by several different names, picking up the weekly pay which did not belong to him and delivering it to a man named Buck Halloran. He is given the opportunity to rob rich businessmen, and the bartenders give him a way to escape. He gets tips on how certain horse races can be fixed, and so he bets on the horses and wins money. Even when Jurgis gets in trouble, he now has friends that can make a few phone calls and get him out of prison.
Soon, tiring of a life of petty crime, Jurgis begins to move into the world of the politicians. A man named Bush Harper gives him a special job. Harper offers him a job in the packinghouses if he will come to work for Mike Scully, the Democratic leader of the packing yards who owns most of the crooked businesses in the district. Scully, as leader of the Democrats, is being asked to run a Jewish businessman for a seat on the alders board. Scully does not want to do so but agrees. He then makes a deal with the Republicans to fund their candidate, a workingman, with the Jew’s money. The Republicans agree not to run a candidate the next year when Scully is up for re-election.
However, the problem with the plan is the rise of the Socialist party. The Socialists could siphon votes away from the Republicans, so Scully needs working men to make sure the Republican candidate will win. Jurgis is told that he will get a job in the packinghouses where it will be his job to round up votes for the Republican candidate. He will be paid a weekly salary for this position. On Election Day, Jurgis goes to work. He gets many hundreds of dollars to pay for votes. He pockets twenty-five of every hundred for himself. He works hard, and when the election is over, the Republican candidate, “Scotty” Doyle wins.
Jurgis keeps his job after the elections and begins a new life as a “sporty” young man. He wears nicer clothes now, and stays out until all hours of the night, gambling and drinking and going to parties. Soon, however, there is talk of a strike, and negotiations between the Meat Workers’ Union and the packinghouse owners begin to break down. The price of meat has gone up in past years, so the unions demanded more pay. The bosses denied the pay, so word went out to all the packing plants on the East Coast and in the Mid-West, and soon the great “Beef Strike” begins.
Jurgis walks over to see Mike Scully and asks for a job. Scully says that he cannot do it and tells Jurgis to go and break the strike and take back a job in the packinghouses. Jurgis asks if he could be in politics again, but Scully tells him no because he is now a Republican and Scully did not plan to elect a Republican again. Jurgis had not thought of this development. Jurgis then goes back to the packinghouse and tells them that he wants a job. They eagerly put him to work for three dollars a day and Jurgis becomes one of the new “American heroes” who shows the virtues “of the martyrs of Lexington and Valley Forge” since he broke the strike lines. One night, he goes out for a beer with some of his fellow strikebreakers, and a gang of union men confronts them. A fight breaks out and the next day, millions of people read of the violence in Chicago over the strikes.
One day, Jurgis is asked to become a boss on the killing floors. Jurgis jumps at the opportunity and soon he is directing and giving orders to a group of unskilled laborers. The packinghouses had brought in the lowest classes of workers. They began to ship in “Negroes” from the South to take the place of the union men. Many of the men do not work, but the plants can do nothing because they need to break the union strike. Jurgis makes even more money by “firing” a man who then pays him ten dollars to keep his job. The Packers then devise a plan to cause the unions even more hardships. They negotiate a deal with the union leaders, but when the men come back to work, they intentionally deny jobs to union leaders. The leaders are so angry over this that they go back on strike, and Packingtown is “beside itself with fury.”
With the return of the strike, the Packers make a new effort to bring in cheap labor from the South. Most of the new laborers are “‘green’ negroes from the cotton districts of the far South” who were the ancestors of “savages in Africa” and had been chattel slaves. “For the first time they were free, -- free to gratify every passion, free to wreck themselves.” There is great debauchery and vice in the stockyards then. These new workers care even less for the cleanliness of their work or their life. Jurgis, now a foreman, begins to dislike himself for being a scab and a traitor. He drinks even more and develops a “villainous temper” which he uses on his underlings. One evening, a few of the workers illegally kill a cow for meat. The police descend on the yards and begin to beat any black man they can find. Jurgis joins in the fray and begins to beat people in a saloon. Jurgis sees a police officer come in and beat up the woman barkeeper. The policeman then fills his pockets with bottles of liquor and raids the cash register.
One evening, after knocking off from work early, Jurgis goes downtown where he has dinner and gets involved in gambling. He loses his money and then makes his way back home. On the way, he meets a prostitute who begins to take him into her house when a man with a lantern comes out and demands to know why there is such noise on the street. When the light reaches his face, Jurgis sees that it is Connor, the man who raped his wife. Jurgis becomes furious and begins to beat Connor again, smashing his head against a stone. A policeman comes over and beats Jurgis. The next day, in jail, Jurgis gets a five hundred dollar bail.
Because he has some money now, he calls Harper to help get him out of jail. When Jurgis tells Harper what he has done, Harper tells him that he cannot help him. Connor was a close friend of Scully’s and by beating him, Jurgis’s “pull had run up against a bigger pull, and he was down and out!” Harper negotiates the bail down to three hundred, which Jurgis pays, and he tells Jurgis that the only way to keep his freedom is to skip town. Jurgis boards a streetcar and makes his way to the other side of Chicago with only a few dollars left to his name.
Jurgis, now a tramp and outcast once more, is “literally crippled as any wild animal which has lost its claws, or been torn out of its shell.” His new “handicap” is that he has acquired a taste for a higher standard of living and now must do without. He craves a drink so much that he spends his last nickel to try to get drunk. Jurgis is now very hungry; hunger becomes real to him.
Jurgis finds meager ways to survive. He buys half-priced stale bread and nibbles on it throughout the day. One day, a man offers him a job in a warehouse but then fires him because he says Jurgis is not strong enough, which breaks Jurgis’s heart. As he walks down the street, he sees a stand selling fresh cabbage. He steals one and is chased, but eats half of the cabbage raw when he gets away. A Chicago newspaper advertises for a free soup kitchen, but Jurgis has to stand in line for two blocks with other hungry men and only gets one bowl of soup. He sleeps in a rundown saloon owned by a “negro, who went out and drew off the old dregs of beer that lay in barrels set outside of the saloons” and then sells it for a few cents.
There is an election coming up, and Jurgis despairs because it reminds him that he had once “had a place beneath the shadow of the plum tree!” He attends a political rally where Senator Spareshanks, a Republican Party leader, gives a speech. Jurgis goes mainly to stay in a warm place for a while. The Senator speaks of how America will succeed in “future triumphs” and how each citizen will hold up the hands of those who toil to maintain the country’s greatness. He boasts of a system called “Protection...whereby the working-man permitted the manufacturer to charge him higher prices, in order that he might receive higher wages.” This seems like an ingenious system to the Senator.
Jurgis falls asleep during the rally and is kicked out of the hall. When he exits, he begins to beg from a woman and realizes that it is Alena Jasaityte, an old friend from Lithuania. Alena tells Jurgis that she cannot help him, but she tells him where Marija lives. She tells him that she is doing well and that she will help him. Jurgis sets off to the address that Alena gives him. He arrives at a nice brownstone house on a nice street in the city. He knocks on the door and meets a servant. The servant invites him in but tells him that no one by the name of Marija lives there. Just as Jurgis is about to exit the house, a barrage of police enter.
There is sudden confusion in the house and a mass of about thirty people, all in varying states of dress, begin to run around the house looking for an exit. All of the exits are blocked however, even the secret passageways that lead out of the house. Jurgis runs with the crowd upstairs. Several girls seem to be half-drunk, and suddenly Jurgis recognizes Marija. He calls for her, and she takes him into her room. It is a dirty room with clothes strewn about the place.
Marija begins to tell him how she came to be a whore. She tells him that it was because she was sick and needed to find a way to support the family. The family is not upset at him for leaving, however. Marija has a very businesslike quality to her now. She tells Jurgis that the family should have done everything they could to survive early on. Even Ona should have become a prostitute, she says, and this would have saved her from her eventual fate. She tells him that rats killed Stanislovas after he was accidentally locked in a factory one night. The rats attacked him and had half eaten him by the morning.
The police come and tell Marija and Jurgis that they are taking them away. Marija is not worried, however, because she says the police do this kind of raid all the time. She will be free by morning, she says. Jurgis tells her that he is a wanted man, however, and when he arrives at the police station, he gives a fake name. That night, in his jail cell, Jurgis reaches his spiritual and mental rock bottom. He thinks of everything that has happened and everyone who has been lost. “Their voices would die, and never again would he hear them -- and so the last faint spark of manhood in his soul would flicker out.”
In Chapter Twenty-Four, Sinclair notes that Jurgis’s journey to the home of the rich meat packer is the greatest adventure of his life. This is an ironic statement since Jurgis finds no real adventure there and, in fact, is once again subject to a string of events that is out of his control yet is deterministic for his fate. On the surface, the descriptions of the lavish settings, the carefully prepared food, and the way in which Freddie Jones unthinkingly spends money, provides as stark a contrast as possible between the lives of the rich and the lives of the poor. It shows the disconnect between those that own the packing plants and those that work there. Freddie Jones finds it humorous that Jurgis had once worked in the plants owned by his father. Jurgis finds it just as incomprehensible, however, that his labor is used to provide such a lavish estate. Notably, neither Freddie Jones, nor Jurgis, makes broad generalized judgments of the other during the scene. The servants, who have presumably moved up in social standing because of the jobs they have been able to attain, do judge Jurgis a tramp and throw him out of the house.
On another level, Sinclair recreates the setting of eighteenth-century France. In several of the passages, Sinclair has Jones allude to fine French things and to practices of the French aristocracy. For Sinclair, the French Revolution of 1789 best epitomized the collective power of the people used to overthrow the extravagances of aristocracy and to claim power. By using this scene of Chicago aristocracy, Sinclair is suggesting that a similar time will come in which the people will be made aware of the lifestyle their labor and toil produces for those that own the means of production. This, Sinclair hopes, will result in revolution.
The novel continues in its narratives of descent. It should be noted the order of events into which Jurgis descends. Some critics have noted that the novel can be read as a kind of modern re-telling of Dante’s Inferno, in which Dante descends through the levels of hell, witnessing the horrors of each and reasons for such punishment. Significantly, Jurgis ventures into the world of criminals, then politicians, before being turned out of each, which might mean that Sinclair sees politicians as even worse criminals than those that actively participate in criminal activities.
Jurgis’s time with Mike Scully’s political machine is an opportunity for Sinclair to describe in detail the corrupt ways that politicians and business people controlled the political and economic systems of Chicago. Sinclair notes how neither of the major political parties, Democrats or Republicans, stand up for any kind of political value. Instead, they are each engaged in a race to hold onto the power they already have. Scully, who is head of the Democratic Party, works to elect a Republican candidate so that he himself will be able to hold onto his seat in the next election. The Republican policies will be no different from the Democratic ones and that neither party will actually work towards improving the lives of those that vote for them. This cynicism will be contrasted in future chapters with the convictions of the Socialist Party and their insistence that there be no political leadership.
Jurgis soon becomes a participant of the Beef Strikes. The Beef Strikes were a series of historical strikes that occurred in the first decade of the twentieth century. On July 12, 1904, almost 30,000 packing plant workers left their jobs to strike for better wages and conditions. The packers had not willingness to concede to these demands, and so they instituted a program of bringing poor labor, many of them poverty stricken African Americans from the US South, to the plants. They had higher wages than normal workers did, even though they were unskilled. These tactics proved successful and packing plant workers such as Jurgis returned to their jobs without gaining concessions from the packers.
These scenes in the novel have been criticized as being racist and inaccurate in depicting immigrant and racial strife in the stockyards. Sinclair’s purpose is to show the way in which workers devolve into animals and how the conditions of Packingtown come to mirror the stockyards full of animals. These poor workers, Sinclair suggests, became sacrifices so that the packers might break the strike and, one day, produce larger profits.