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The protagonists of the novel are a young Lithuanian couple, Jurgis Rudkus and Ona Lukoszaite, and their family. Ona is integral to the story, until she dies halfway through the novel. The other family members are also essential to the plot. But the novel revolves mainly around Jurgis, whose evolution from Lithuanian peasant to immigrant workingman in Chicago to tramp to criminal to minor political machine worker and finally to Socialist activist is traced.
Jurgis and his family migrate to America in hope of freedom, prosperity and a better life. Life in Chicago's stockyards, however, robs the Lithuanian immigrants of their essential qualities and reduces them to beasts of burden. Ultimately, their dreams shatter and life turns into a nightmare. Several family members die tragic deaths, one disappears, and another becomes a prostitute. Of the six adults in the family, it is Jurgis who is the most resilient. He traverses the full circle, moving from innocent peasant to cynical criminal, before rising again to reshape his life in a new mold.
The antagonist of the novel is Packingtown, the stronghold of the meat packaging industry, situated in the stockyard district of Chicago. The packers and politicians who run the town dehumanize the workers in every possible manner. The products that are manufactured and sold there are also thoroughly rotten and adulterated. The novel delves deeply into the manufacturing process and the working conditions in Packingtown. While America is run by a democratic system, Packingtown is a capitalistic oligarchy, in which a few live in luxury while the majority of the population lives like slaves.
The climax of the novel comes when Jurgis learns that Ona has been raped by one of her bosses and forced into prostitution. In a murderous mood, Jurgis attacks the boss, Connor, and is sentenced to thirty days in jail. As revenge, Connor ensures that all the family members lose their jobs. Helpless and starving, they are thrown out of their home. Soon, the frail and second-time pregnant Ona delivers prematurely, and she and the infant die. This is the beginning of the end of Jurgis' family.
Although essentially a tragic story, the novel ends on a very hopeful note, with the hero Jurgis finding a renewed commitment to life, the remnants of his family and humanity in Socialism, which promises a way for workers to overturn the system that oppresses them. The last chapter is a dramatized account of a historic 1904 election, where the Socialist Party fared very well in Chicago. The final words of the novel are the slogan of Chicago's workers, "Chicago will be ours."