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Jurgis gets a job within half an hour on his second day in Chicago. Jurgis is a country boy who hails from Brelovicz, Lithuania. A year and a half before coming to America, he meets Ona at a horse fair, a hundred miles from his home. Jurgis wants to marry Ona and offers her father two horses as the bride price. Ona's father, who is fairly wealthy, refuses because the girl is very young. After the harvest that year, Jurgis returns to Ona's village to find that the girl's circumstances have changed dramatically. Her father has died, leaving the family's finances in a mess. Jonas, Ona's step- uncle, suggests that the family, which includes the girl's stepmother, Teta Elzbieta, and her six young children, leave for America, where a friend of Jonas had supposedly gotten rich. Jurgis decides to join them.
The next spring, the entire party, including Jurgis' father (Dede Antanas) decides to leave Lithuania. At the last moment, they are joined by Ona's cousin, 20-year-old Marija Berczynskas, an orphan. During their tedious journey they're swindled out of the precious little they own by corrupt customs agents and hotel employees. They finally make it to Chicago and lost, spend a whole night cowering outside a doorway. A policeman who chances upon them the next morning takes them to the police station. An interpreter is found and they are finally packed onto a tram headed for the stockyards, where the Lithuanian community is centered.
On reaching Packingtown, the family chances upon the delicatessen of Szedvilas, the friend whose legendary success Jonas had mentioned. Szedvilas and his wife, who are also struggling to survive in Packingtown, set them up at a filthy but affordable boarding house run by the widow Mrs. Jukniene. Jurgis and Ona take a small tour of their surroundings. The neighborhood is filthy and filled with "gullies and ditches, and great hollows full of stinking green water." Children run around in swarms playing in the dirt. Swarms of flies blacken the air and an awful, fetid stench is all-pervading. The innumerable chimneys dotting Packingtown's landscape spew out thick, oily smoke. As Jurgis and Ona stand staring at the chimneys in the twilight, they dream of employment and prosperity.
This chapter bridges the two crucial parts of the lives of Jurgis and Ona and their family members. It briefly describes their life before Chicago and then introduces the immigrants to the city. In the initial paragraphs it becomes evident that Jurgis has spent around four months in Chicago and has been integrated into Packingtown's industrial machine. After this stage in the narrative, Sinclair uses the device of flashback to travel back to the immigrants' lives in Lithuania, their transit to America and their introduction to Chicago's stockyards.
In the flashback, the tenacity and keenness of Jurgis' love for Ona and the hopeless poverty of rural Lithuania that drives the families to Chicago are established. Even as their dreams of prosperity are depicted, the reader intuitively knows they will be shattered. The author achieves this effect, not through direct statement of facts, but through indirect implication. This impression of impending disaster lasts throughout the novel.
The family's tram journey to the stockyards is used to describe Chicago, as seen through the eyes of rural foreigners. Descriptive passages are used to convey the soulless quality of the city. For instance, "They were on a street which seemed to run forever, mile after mile -- thirty-four of them, if they had known it -- and each side of it one uninterrupted row of wretched little two-story frame buildings...never a hill and never a hollow, but always the same endless vista of ugly and dirty little wooden buildings."
Packingtown itself is an amalgam of confusion, filth and industry, dominated by a powerful stench emanating from the rotting waste products of the stockyards. The stench is practically alive; it is elemental, raw, crude, rich, rancid, sensual and strong. Sinclair makes heavy use of symbolism in describing the environment the new immigrants find themselves in. The decaying garbage and the overpowering stench of putrefaction are meant to convey the decayed condition of society. The suffocating smoke -- "thick, oily and black as night" - that the chimneys endlessly spew depicts industry's violation of nature and the environment. The changing colors of the smoke in the twilight - black, brown, gray, purple - convey sorrow and depression. The squealing animals are the bestial counterparts of the humans trapped as helplessly in the industrial machine as the animals in the yards and fated to die as brutally too. A special mention is made of the pitiable condition of children. As the level of civilization of any community is well judged by its children, the hungry kids scrabbling for food in the garbage are a scathing comment on industrial America at the turn of the century.
For Jurgis and Ona, however, the vision of misery and filth is overshadowed by hope. They dream of becoming cogs in this wheel of industry. It is not the brutality but the power of Packingtown that strikes them most. The description of Packingtown in this chapter places the wedding feast of the preceding chapter in perspective. The feast was almost dreamlike, a sentimental luxury; the stockyards, in contrast, are hard fact.
Although the narrative ostensibly deals with an immigrant family in the stockyards of Chicago, it constantly strives to convey a larger and more universal picture. For instance, Teta Elzbieta, Ona's stepmother, finds that the high wages in Chicago are offset by high prices bringing her to the conclusion that the poor are poor anywhere in the world. This conveys the message of a universal phenomenon of exploitation that cuts across geographical borders.