Marija and Tamoszius Kuszleika begin a love affair. Tamoszius is a “petite” man, while Marija is a burly woman. He finds, however, that she has the “heart of a baby,” and he courts her by playing his violin on Sunday afternoons. Tamoszius earns “big money” by playing events in the community, so his presence adds some financial gain for the family. One Saturday evening, Marija and Tamoszius express their love to each other. Soon they hold each other for hours in a small corner of the kitchen, and the family has a “tacit convention...to know nothing of what was going on in that corner.”
Marija becomes an expert at her job. She can paint two cans a minute, and at fourteen cents for every one hundred and ten cans, she brings home large sums of money, which she saves and spends on items for the family. She is “really the capitalist of the party.” Marija’s fortune changes one day, however. One Saturday afternoon, the canning factory where Marija paints cans is closed down. She is told that it is because of the season; there is no demand for canned meat, so there is no need for workers to paint the cans. Marija is furious and becomes manic with energy. She attempts to find other work, even going to the rich parts of town, but there are no jobs because all the work in all the factories has slowed down and everyone is looking for a job.
Jurgis’s work on the killing beds has also moved to a grinding pace. Often, cattle do not start coming down the chutes until ten or eleven in the morning. Sometimes they do not come until one or two o’clock in the afternoon. Because it is the rule that all cattle bought must be slaughtered on the same day, it often means that the workers are forced to stay at the factory until midnight or one in the morning to finish the work. The worst part is that men are paid only for the work that they do. Therefore, if a man is standing around on the cold killing-floor, waiting for the cattle buyers to send cattle to be slaughtered, that man does not earn any money. Likewise, men do not get paid if they do not work a full hour. At the end of the day, the floor bosses often try and work the men for fifty minutes, just under an hour. This means the men do not get paid for that work. There is great tension between the workers and the floor bosses because of these tactics.
Jurgis now understands the bitterness that the other workers have for the factories. When he is approached again by union representatives, he accepts their offer “in a far different spirit.” In the unions, Jurgis now has “the first inkling of a meaning in the phrase ‘a free country.’” Every member of his family soon has union cards. Marija is especially vocal. She makes an impassioned speech at a union meeting, though it is all in Lithuanian so no one understands her. Jurgis attends every union meeting. He meets several strange characters there, including Tommy Finnegan, a small Irishman with bad teeth who corners him with crazy stories of “higher intelligences” and spirits. Jurgis becomes a strong advocate of the unions. He makes it his mission to try to sign up all the Lithuanian community to the union cause. With the Lithuanians he will “labor and wrestle in prayer, trying to show them the right,” though many are not willing to accept his message.
Jurgis’s involvement with the unions makes him want to learn English so that he can understand the meetings he attends. He enrolls in a school, takes night classes, and learns to read and speak. He also begins to pay attention to politics. He finds it hard to believe that the United States is any different from Russia, where there are “rich men who [own] everything” and where it is difficult for common men to make a living. One day a man comes to Jurgis and asks him if he wants to be a citizen. The man tells Jurgis that this will allow him a half day off with pay and that he will be allowed to vote. Though Jurgis does not understand the process, he goes to a courthouse, takes an oath, and is told that he has “become a citizen of the Republic and the equal of the President himself.”
A few months later, Jurgis has the morning off to go vote in an election. The police usher all the workers into the back rooms of the saloons and they are each given two dollars and told to cast a vote for a particular candidate. The union men explain the process to him: the government exists under a democracy where there are political parties. The party that “bought the most votes” was the party that will be allowed to govern. Jurgis learns about Mike Scully, the most powerful man in Packingtown. Scully owns the trash dumps and the lake of fetid water that is used for ice in the winter. There have been numerous scandals associated with Scully, but he always pays someone else to take the blame and then that person leaves the country. Scully is the leader of the “War-Whoop League,” a political club. This club also holds entertainment events, such as cockfights and dogfights, for the workers. Scully’s “Indians,” as they are called, are responsible for rounding up the immigrant men and making them citizens so that they can vote. Scully is so powerful that “even the packers [are] in awe of him.”
There are other scandals in the packinghouses as well. The government inspectors, which all the people believe are protecting them from diseased meat, are actually appointed at the request of the packinghouses themselves. The only authority these men have is to make sure all diseased meat stays in the state. It does not mean that it cannot be used for food. The packers also pay the local government “two thousand dollars a week hush-money” so that there are no inspections on tubercular steers. The packers like to butcher tubercular steers because they fatten more quickly.
There are multiple horrors of the meatpacking trade. The diseased parts of the steers and hogs are injected with chemicals and spices and canned to be sold to the public. They have different labels, some costing more than others are, but it is all the same product. The packers buy rancid butter, which they oxidize to get rid of the odor. They re-churn it and then sell it. The lamb meat that people often think they are buying is really goat meat.
The men that work in the packing plants are also inflicted with disease. The butchers often cut their hands and have to work with bleeding fingers. They contract disease and sores. Men who work with chemicals often have their skin eaten away. Those that work in the chilling rooms can generally only last five years before severe rheumatism sets in. Anyone who works with cans has their own cuts and blood poisoning is common. A man who works at the stamping machines is always at risk for losing a limb. There are men who work around tanks of chemicals and they sometimes fall in the chemical vats. When they are pulled out, there is “never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting,” and “sometimes they [are] overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!”
The winter turns into spring, but the family does not find their economic situation any better than before. Marija still waits to hear of the re-opening of her canning factory, and she uses all but $25 of her savings. The pipes in the house burst, and the family has to pay an enormous sum for a plumber. When the family goes to pay their rent, the agent tells them that they must procure a new insurance policy on the house. Jurgis has a confrontational meeting with the man. He makes the agent clearly spell out all the costs of the house, and the sums are much larger than the family had originally thought.
The spring weather brings its own trouble. There are cold rains that turn the streets to mud, and when the spring turns into summer, there are swarms of flies because of the garbage dumps. The killing-beds become unbearably hot and the men could never wash themselves of the uncleanness of the place. In the hot sun, “all the old smells of a generation would be drawn out by this heat—for there was never any washing of the walls and rafter and pillars, and they were caked with the filth of a lifetime.”
Marija’s canning factory job hires again in the springtime, but in only a few weeks Marija loses her job. Because she was such a vocal member of the union, her forelady does not care for her and shorts her pay. Marija takes her complaints all the way to the supervisor, who becomes upset that he is bothered by a laborer. Marija is told to leave her job and not come back. It is an especially hard lesson for the family to learn this time because Ona is now pregnant and Jurgis insists that she get a “man-doctor” which costs much more than a mid-wife does. He is determined to pay for the better care, “even if he had to stop eating in the meantime!”
After four and a half weeks, Marija gets another job in one of the packing plants, taking the place of a man so that the foreman only has to pay her half of the wages. She is a “beef-trimmer” which means she stands in a room with no light, all day, and trims meat off bones. Though she is glad to be able to pay her board once again, she and Tamoszius despair over their inability to marry. Often, while Tamoszius plays sad music on his violin, Marija weeps over “the voices of the unborn generations which cried out in her for life.”
Ona has her own difficulties with her work. Her forelady, Miss Henderson, does not like Ona because she is “a decent married girl.” Miss Henderson was given her position because of an affair she carries on with one of the other foremen. She also runs a brothel at which some of the girls from the packing plant work. Though Ona is disgusted by such places, she knows that for many of the women in Packingtown there is “no place a girl could go...where a prostitute could not get along better than a decent girl.” Packingtown is a colony of poor, starving immigrants, all under the “whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave-drivers.”
Ona gives birth to a baby boy. The baby looks just like Jurgis, and Jurgis is fascinated by the new life he has created. He has little time to see his child, however, because he must work all the time to support the family. Both Ona and Jurgis decide that the baby must grow up to be more prosperous than they had been in their lives. Ona must also go back to work only a week after giving birth. This quick return to strenuous labor causes her to have “womb-trouble,” which all the women of Packingtown suffer. She suffers pain in her body all day long, and only alcohol based “medicines” which give her the “phantom of good heath” give her any temporary relief.
In Chapter Eight, Sinclair makes distinctions between the theoretical promise of capitalism and the reality of capitalism. In the theoretical world of capitalist economies, each person’s private interests, as well as the interests of the industries they create, all work together to bring about a maximum good for individuals and for society. This theory is best exemplified in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. This theoretical good of capitalist systems is exemplified in this chapter by Marija’s slow advancement in society. With a good job and an improving social life, it seems as though Marija’s own self-interest as “the capitalist of the party” is improving her life.
This improvement, however, is short lived. When demand for canned meat falls, as it does every spring and summer, Marija loses her job and is forced to live on her savings. This means that she will never be able to advance in an economic sense. This, Sinclair proposes, is the reality of capitalism. In this reality, certain individuals and their industries profit from their self-interests while others in the system do not. In fact, those individuals that do not profit suffer hardships. Capitalism, thus, is a hindrance to social good, not a benefit.
It is important to note how Sinclair’s narrative and the way in which he describes the hardships of the Rudkus family moves from a general notion of oppressive systems to exact descriptions of social and economic systems that cause hardship. In early chapter, the family understands their hardships as simply the “way” that things function in America. As the narrative progresses, however, each member of the family begins to gain a consciousness of the particular systems and events that create their suffering. They see the ways in which the food industry fixes the wage system against workers; unsanitary food processing that sucks nutrition from meat and causes disease for workers and consumers; and the industries unwillingness to support its workers in low demand seasons. These examples are one way in which Jurgis and his family move from a state of unconscious acceptance to a state of consciousness about corrupted morals.
At the end of Chapter Eight, Sinclair uses religious language to describe the work of the unions, a theme that he returns to in later chapters to describe the work of the Socialist Party in Packingtown politics. Jurgis is described here as a church-going man, yet a person for which religion “never touched him” in the way that it affected women. Socialist politics, however, is “a new religion...and with all the zeal and fury of a convert he went out as a missionary.” Some critics of the novel have noted that Sinclair’s interpretation of socialism is naive and this is one example. In portraying socialism as a truer religion than anything that has come before, Sinclair is overlooking many of the negative aspects of the economic theory.
Chapter Ten marks a turning point for Ona Rudkus. Although her work in the factories is difficult, her hardships are compounded by giving birth and then being forced to return to manual labor so quickly. She develops an addiction to alcoholic elixirs, the only way she can cope with her work. Ona is the first character for whom the mental and financial hardships of her life are manifested in a physical way. Almost all of the main characters of the novel progress in this way. The hardships pressed upon the family by an unjust society become true physical hardships. Sinclair shows how poverty and powerlessness is not simply a mental or social hardship. It is a physical hardship as well.