When Jurgis returns from his day of drinking, Aniele tells him that he cannot stay in her rooms because he smells so badly. She makes him go up to the attic and sleep. He feels a deep sorrow over Ona’s death and cannot help but think of all the times that he was cruel to her and did not love her as she deserved. He feels shame and loathing and wishes that he could have her back. Elzbieta begs with him to stay and care for his son for she is worried that he will leave as Jonas did. Jurgis feels a duty towards his boy and commits to staying and working to support him.
He goes out the next day and begins to look for work. He goes back to the fertilizer plant but is told that there is no job for him. When Jurgis asks if he can wait for a job, the foreman tells him that there will be no job for him there in the future either. He finds a foreman in one of the packinghouses that offers him a job pushing a truck, but when Jurgis returns the next day to start work, the foreman tells him that he was mistaken and that there is no work after all. When Jurgis goes to the saloons he finds out that he is on the blacklist and that he will not be able to find work in packing houses all across the country. “He was condemned and sentenced, without trial and without appeal; he could never work for the packers again.”
Jurgis, Elzbieta, and Marija decide that it will be best for him to go downtown and beg for work there where no one knows him. For two weeks, he struggles to find work and to survive. He gets a few odd jobs and this lets him find a place to sleep indoors for a night. He tries to read the classifieds in the paper to find jobs, but most of them are scams.
One day he accidentally meets a friend, who tells him there might be work for him at one of the giant factories of the Harvester Trust. The Harvester Trust is a joint effort of businessmen and philanthropists. It provides safer and cleaner workshops. There is a restaurant where men can buy good food, and it pays decent wages with a lower speed of work. The place becomes a “kind of heaven” to Jurgis and he feels as though he has a chance to once again be treated like a human being. One of the other workers, a strong Lithuanian man just as Jurgis had been in his younger days, works to support eight children and also works on weekends while studying English. Jurgis feels that he might have a chance to be that kind of man again and that he might one day rise in standing and stature.
The factory produces harvesting machinery for farmers. One man stamps the machinery while another forms the molds for the steel. The work is never too fast for men to handle, and they are paid based on how many pieces of machinery they can produce in a day. Philanthropists boast that this kind of workplace demonstrates that America is the “greatest nation the sun ever shone upon” because “we have been able to goad our wage-earners to this pitch of frenzy” in manufacturing products. Though Jurgis still has to walk five or six miles every day to work, or else pay ten percent of his wages to the trolley cars, he is making a decent wage and feels as though he can provide for what is left of his family. He can even afford an overcoat now. One day Jurgis shows up for work, however, and finds a sign on the door that states that his department of the harvester works will be closed until further notice.
Jurgis is dismayed that he no longer has a job at the harvesting-machine plant. Other men tell him that the situation is no one’s fault because “they had made all the harvesting-machines that the world needed, and now they had to wait till some wore out.” Jurgis thinks that it is a “hellish mockery” that he should starve because he did his job too well. He goes home and, after two days, returns to the streets to beg for work. He begs for ten days while the family begins to run out of money again.
One day, Little Juozapas goes to Mike Scully’s garbage dump to scrounge for food. Because this is the dump where all the rich people send their trash, he finds a good deal of unspoiled food and returns home that night quite satiated. When he returns the next day, he meets a well-dressed woman who tells him to take her home with him. The woman tells Elzbieta that she is a “settlement-worker” and so Elzbieta begins to tell her the tale of their life in America. She tells the woman about all of their trials. The story is so sad that the woman begins to weep and makes Elzbieta continue until the whole story is told. When Elzbieta finishes the story, the woman gives her a letter and tells her to send Jurgis to the steel mills in South Chicago and that a man there will give him a job.
The steel mills are fifteen miles away, so Jurgis must once again take two trains and pay two fares to get to work. When he arrives, he waits with hundreds of other men all looking for work. He gives his letter to one of the factory bosses and is then taken into the factory where a foreman begins to give him a tour of the mill. Jurgis is terrified of the place. There are loud noises and great cauldrons, “big enough for all the devils of hell to brew their broth in, full of something white and blinding, bubbling and splashing, roaring as if volcanoes were blowing through it.” Jurgis watches an amazing process as steel is shaped and formed into rail ties. Jurgis obtains a job moving the steel rails with a crowbar.
Instead of traveling the fifteen miles every day, Jurgis decides to sleep in a boarding house near the mill. After a week, he overcomes his fear of the place and begins to “take all the miracles and terrors” of the place for granted. There are still dangerous situations, however. One morning, as Jurgis passes by a furnace, the machine blows out spraying fire and melted steel over two men. Jurgis attempts to help them, but he only loses the skin on one of his hands by doing so. The doctor bandages him and he cannot work for eight days without pay.
Nevertheless, in other ways, Jurgis’s life is improving. His family begins to be able to pay off debts and start to save money once again. Jurgis’s greatest joy is his son, Antanas, who is growing strong. The boy seems to learn how to talk more and more every time that Jurgis sees him. Every Sunday, Jurgis buys a five-cent paper, and Antanas takes great pleasure in the pages of cartoons and comics. Jurgis heals from his wound, picks up his bedding, and returns to the steel mill. One Saturday night, he takes the rail cars back to his home and enters the flat, where he sees a group of woman who become silent when he enters. This reminds him of the women that had gathered when Ona was dying. Jurgis demands to know what is going on. Aniele takes him by the arm and tells him that little Antanas is dead. He drowned in a flooded street.
Jurgis takes the news of Antanas’s death “in a peculiar way.” Instead of screaming or erupting in anger, he goes up to the loft where Elzbieta and Marija are mourning. He asks if the boy is really dead, and they confirm it. Jurgis then leaves the loft and walks out of the apartment flat. Instead of going straight to the saloon, however, he simply walks. He gets to the train yard and a strange thought overtakes him. He sneaks past the train keeper’s shed and jumps on a moving freight car that takes him out of the city and into the country.
Jurgis decides now that he will leave the slavery of the city and become free. He decides, “This was no world for women and children, and the sooner they got out of it the better for them.” He decides that he is now going to fight for his life, fight for himself. He rides the train through the night and whenever it stops, he can smell the freshness of the countryside. He thinks that he was a country man all his life, and for the past three years he has never seen the country. In fact, he thinks that for those years he has not even seen a tree except in the few city parks that he would sleep in when he could not find work.
Jurgis comes to a farmhouse and asks for a meal. For twenty cents, the farmer’s wife gives him a good breakfast and Jurgis takes it down to the woods and to a stream. At the stream, Jurgis bathes and washes his clothes. He eats and sets off again. He stops at several farmers’ homes and each time is able to get a meal for a bit of work on the farm or for just a few dimes. Each time the farmers ask him to stay and work, but when Jurgis asks if the work will last past November, the farmers tell him no. He asks one farmer if they would treat their horses in this way, working them in the summer months and then releasing them when it turns cold, and each admits that they would not.
Jurgis is soon living the life of a tramp. He learns all the tricks of the trade. Most of the tramps, he learns, never pay for a meal and never do a bit of work for their shelter. He sneaks into barns at night and steals food when he can. When farmers are not fair to him, he sleeps in the fields and eats wild berries. Soon, his health returns to him, and although he sometimes thinks of his dead son, he always rises in the morning to “stride away again to battle with the world.” He falls in with the tramps and the migrant workers who begin their work in Texas and, as the weather warms, move north, picking up work along the way, until they end up in Canada and begin to make their way south again.
During one harvest season, Jurgis finds himself in Missouri where the farmers must hire great numbers of men in order to harvest the fields. Men earn good wages during these weeks, and at the end of the season, Jurgis finds that he has a large sum of money in his pocket. Because he is a tramp and knows nothing of banks, he decides he should simply spend it all in a night of debauchery and drink in a saloon. There is a whole industry of prostitution that follows the migrant workers wherever they go during the season, and Jurgis takes one of these women. He feels bad after that night, but he quashes those feelings and sets off on the road again. One night, he finds the house of a farmer and immigrant Slav like himself. He and the man talk and Jurgis watches as the man’s wife bathes their one-year-old son. As he looks at the baby, Jurgis feels intense pain over the loss of his son and weeps and cries and leaves the house.
After spending a season in the countryside, Jurgis heads back into the city to find work for the winter. He brings with him fifteen dollars from his earnings, which he believes will buy him some time to find a job and a place to stay while looking for work. Jurgis begins searching all over the city for a job, though not at the packinghouses since he is on the blacklist. There is no work for him at first, but he then stumbles upon a newspaper advertisement offering jobs for one hundred men. Jurgis takes the job and begins the work of building tunnels under the city streets of Chicago.
The tunnels are a vast web, lit with electricity and laid with railroad track. A collective of corporations and businesses is building the tunnels in order to break the teamsters’ union. When “these freight tunnels were completed, connecting all the big factories and stores with the railroad depots, they would have the teamsters’ union by the throat.” The tunnels can also be dangerous, however. One night, as Jurgis is leaving the tunnel, one of the rail freight cars gets away and comes barreling down the tunnel. It hits Jurgis on the shoulder, breaking his arm and knocking him out cold.
Jurgis spends his Christmas in a hospital, and it is “the pleasantest Christmas he had had in America.” After a two-week stay, the hospital kicks him out to the street so that they can give his bed to someone that is worse off than he is. Jurgis has very little money left because he spent most of it at a saloon before being injured. He tries to get his boardinghouse keeper to let him keep his room but, because he is injured, she knows he will not be working and so decides to throw him out instead.
Jurgis becomes terrified of the world outside. He knows that he cannot get a job while he is hurt and he cannot even sell papers. Jurgis is “like a wounded animal in the forest; ...forced to compete with his enemies upon unequal terms.” There is a bitter cold spell that hits Chicago just at this time and so Jurgis spends much of his days just trying to find a place to stay warm. He moves from saloon to saloon, but they will not let him stay too long if he is not a paying customer. Some of the saloonkeepers run a scam in which they allow beggars to come sit by the fire. These beggars draw others in and offer to hear the hard stories of the other men. After a while, the other man has spent a dollar on drinks, and the saloonkeeper has made money.
Jurgis attends a religious revival because it takes place in a warm hall. The place is packed with street people and beggars. No one comes for the revival but only to keep warm on the cold night. The evangelist preaches of sin and redemption but this only fills Jurgis’s soul with hatred. “What did he know about sin and suffering - with his smooth, black coat and his neatly starched collar, his body warm, and his belly full, and money in his pocket - and lecturing men who were struggling for their lives, men at the death-grapple with the demon powers of hunger and cold!”
Jurgis’s final nickels run out and he now has nowhere to sleep. He begins to beg on the street, but he finds that there are even beggars that are professionals and that he is “simply a blundering amateur in competition with organized and scientific professionalism.” As pitiful and downtrodden as Jurgis looks, some are even worse off than he is. There are the “dregs of the city’s cesspools, wretches who hid at night in the rain-soaked cellars of old ramshackle tenements...with abandoned women in the last stages of the harlot’s progress - women who had been kept by Chinamen and turned away at last to die.” These are the lowest of classes, all people driven to insanity because of their poverty.
Without other options, Jurgis makes the conscious choice to remain in Chicago and care for his child. Though work is difficult to find because he is blacklisted at the meat packing plant, Jurgis is able to obtain employment at two other factories -- the Harvester Trust and the Steel Mills. Jurgis’s jobs at these places allow Sinclair to compare and contrast different methods of capitalism and to eventually show how each is a corruption of the other.
The first place that Jurgis finds a job is with the Harvester Trust. This Trust is run by businessmen and philanthropists. Their factory creates farm machinery and is run in a way that makes life more humane for workers. Sinclair notes that the Harvester Trust is considered a jewel of American industrialism by the businessmen and philanthropists who own it. In a way, the Trust is a kind of propaganda for the large industrial interests of Chicago.
The second place that Jurgis finds a job is in the steel mill. This place is no better in terms of safety or humanity than the meat packing plants. Ironically, Jurgis get this job through the help of a “settlement worker.” During the Progressive Era, the settlement worker movement would employ young men and women from affluent society to move into the slums and ghettos of large industrial cities where they would volunteer their time to give back to the poor. Sinclair uses this irony to show how even the charity of the rich is inextricably tied to the power and wealth of industrial society. Although the settlement worker means only to help, this person has no way of helping Jurgis except by placing him in an industrial factory that enslaves and injures him.
The jobs that Jurgis holds in these two industries helps Sinclair show how tangled the web of capitalism had become in the United States. Although Sinclair does not make the connection explicitly, his readers would have surely known about the connection between the Harvester Trust, the Steel Trust, and the Beef Trust. The Harvester Trust was actually majority-owned by the leaders of the other great monopolistic industries of the time (steel, beef, sugar, and oil). Each of these enterprises cut deals with the other to get labor and materials cheaper than would otherwise be available. For instance, the Steel Industry would provide materials for the Harvester Trust to make machines cheaply. The Harvester Trust could then sell these machines to the sugar or beef industry. More products would mean that more railroad tracks would need to be built, meaning more steel would need to be manufactured. The Beef Trust would profit as well. These webs of industry all happen many levels above the understanding of a common worker like Jurgis. All that he knows is that his job can disappear at any time.
The death of little Antanas by drowning is another example of the ways in which characters have only the whim of nature to keep them alive or to kill them. Jurgis’s life now takes a new direction. He attempts to find a new way of living outside of the city. In this way, Jurgis is surrendering himself to nature. When he returns to the country, however, he finds that nature is more kind to him here. While in the country, Jurgis is able to fend for himself. He is able to survive and to take advantage of the natural world around him to regain his strength, even if his motives are not always pure.
The contrasts between farm life and city life suggest that in city life Sinclair sees a perversion of nature. The scene in which Jurgis becomes drunk and hires a prostitute is a scene establishing Jurgis’s final loss of innocence. The reader is reminded of the Garden of Eden narrative once again. This loss of innocence means that Jurgis must leave the natural world that had sustained him and return to the depraved world of the city.
The final scene of Chapter Twenty Three in which Jurgis attends a revival is Sinclair’s criticism of organized religion. Throughout the novel, Sinclair takes several different viewpoints on the value of religion. In this particular take, he portrays the evangelist preacher as being out of touch with the real needs of the people. The preacher offers the word of God, while the poor and hungry only want a warm place to stay. This inefficacy of religion means that Jurgis feels no shame or guilt when he begins to fall in with the criminals and poorest of the poor who use trickery and deceit to steal what they can.