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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
A young immigrant Lithuanian couple, Jurgis Rudkus and Ona Lukoszaite, are celebrating their marriage in traditional peasant style in the backroom of a saloon in Chicago's Packingtown. The couple is part of a large family that has come to America in hopes of a better life. The marriage scene is actually a flash forward of events. The next chapter in the novel takes the reader back to Lithuania, where Elzbieta's brother Jonas suggests moving to America.
After an arduous journey, the family arrives in Packingtown, where Jokubas Szedvilas, a fellow Lithuanian immigrant, introduces them to the filthy, stinking part of the city which will be their home. Young, strong and fresh, Jurgis gets a job, and Jonas and Marija also soon find employment. But old Dede Antanas, Jurgis' father, is rejected everywhere. The family has rented living quarters in the filthy boarding house run by Aniele Jukniene, but Jurgis and the others want to buy a house. An attractive advertisement for a house brings them to a dishonest house agent. They do buy a house, but are made to sign a treacherous deed, whose contents they do not comprehend. As the house agent makes more fresh demands for money, Ona and Stanislovas, Elzbieta's youngest son, are forced to take up work. Stanislovas is employed to fill lard cans and Ona gets a job wrapping hams.
Jurgis an Ona are soon married and are unexpectedly left in debt, due to younger guests, who have begun to become Americanized, not following the traditional Lithuanian practice of giving money during the party. The novel has now caught up with the opening scene.
As they begin working, the family members discover the horrifying swindles of Packingtown. The conditions of work are inhuman, and the workers are treated abominably. Jurgis' father is only able to get a job after bribing a boss in the pickling rooms of a meat packing plant. The conditions there are terrible, and the job ultimately kills the old man. Winter brings fresh cruelties. Walking to work in the snow is difficult, the factories are unheated, and for Jurgis, the killing beds are fraught with danger due to poor visibility. The bright spot of the winter is the budding romance between Marija and Tamoszius, a violinist who provided the music at the wedding feast.
Marija, however, is soon plunged into gloom when she loses her well-paid job when the canning factory closes down. Jurgis gets involved with union activity and starts learning English. He is also made a citizen and through his association with the union, learns something of the political goings-on in Packingtown. Marija's factory re-opens, but she soon loses her job for demanding her rights when she is shorted on her pay. Ona, who is pregnant, is facing trouble at work from her forelady. She realizes that her boss runs a prostitution racket and forcibly uses the girls working at the factory. Ona gives birth to a baby boy, Antanas, named after Jurgis' father, who has passed away. Weakened by the delivery and forced to return to work within seven days, Ona never recovers her health.
Calamity hits the family when Jurgis sprains his ankle at work and the company refuses to take responsibility for the accident. Jurgis is bedridden for three months. In this period, Jonas abandons the family and disappears. When Jurgis returns to the killing beds, the boss refuses to hire him again. At this time, Elzbieta's youngest son, Kristoforas, dies of food poisoning from eating a sausage. Jurgis begins a fruitless search for employment that ultimately leads him to the worst hell-hole in Packingtown, the fertilizer plant. Elzbieta is also forced to take up a job in a sausage factory. Ona, pregnant again, is suffering from nervous fits and depression, while Jurgis drowns the horrors of the fertilizer plant in liquor.
One night, Ona does not return from work. The next morning she tells Jurgis she was forced to spend the night with her friend Jadvyga, because heavy snow had disrupted the streetcars. When Ona fails to return home a second time, Jurgis goes to Jadvyga's house and learns that Ona has lied to him. Angry and suspicious, he confronts Ona and learns that she has been forced to sleep with the foreman of the loading gang at her plant, Phil Connor. Jurgis berates Ona cruelly and in a fit of fury attacks Connor. Jurgis is sentenced to thirty days in jail for this crime. In prison, he meets and is befriended by Jack Duane, an educated, sophisticated safecracker. He returns from jail to find the family thrown out of the house and back at Aniele Jukniene's.
At Aniele's, Jurgis is greeted by Ona's wild, anguished screams. She has gone into premature labor and is dying. Wild with terror, Jurgis persuades a midwife to attend to Ona, but she and the child do not stand a chance. In her last living seconds, Jurgis is filled with love and desire for his young bride. In anguish at her death, Jurgis leaves the house and remains drunk for two days. When he returns, Elzbieta persuades him to take up a job for Antanas' sake. Jurgis finds he is blacklisted in Chicago due to the attack on Connor and moves downtown to seek work. After many weeks of fruitless searching, he chances upon a good job at a harvester plant through an old union acquaintance. The job, however, lasts only nine days.
Jurgis returns to Packingtown despairing, but finds a job at a steel mill thanks to the good offices of a settlement worker who had become interested in the family when she found Elzbieta's crippled son Juozapas foraging for food in a dump. The family fortunes improving, Jurgis is soon filled with a renewed hope. All his hopes, however, crash when little Antanas drowns in the water- logged and sewage-filled street outside Aniele's home. Crushed, Jurgis abandons the family and becomes a hobo. Jurgis is happy to live the life of a tramp, but the bitter winter forces him back to Chicago where he finds a job digging freight tunnels for the packing houses. He is soon injured in an accident at work and finds himself in the county hospital.
After treatment, he is discharged from the hospital, penniless and unemployable. Jurgis tries all means to stay alive, including begging. A chance encounter with a well-heeled young drunk turns into an adventure. The youth is Freddie Jones, the son of a wealthy packer. Freddie takes Jurgis to his mansion and gives him a hundred dollar bill. When Jurgis tries to change the bill at a saloon he is cheated by the barkeeper. A brawl ensues and once again Jurgis finds himself in jail, where he meets Jack Duane once again. Duane and Jurgis become partners in crime and through Duane, Jurgis learns of the links between the underworld, politicians, and capitalists. Jurgis is soon recruited by two of Mike Scully's men, Buck Halloran and Bush Harper, and begins working for the Democratic political machine. Through Scully, Jurgis gets a job in Packingtown. In return, Jurgis has to work to ensure that one of Scully's men is elected as alderman. When a series of strikes leaves the packinghouses in turmoil. Jurgis becomes a strikebreaker at Scully's behest and soon becomes a corrupt boss himself.
Jurgis chances upon Connor one day and attacks him again. He is imprisoned and asks Harper to bail him out. Harper informs Jurgis that Connor is one of Scully's men and is politically powerful. Jurgis has to part with all his savings to bribe Harper to help him out. Penniless and jobless, Jurgis is forced to depend on soup kitchens and stale-beer dives to stay alive. While begging one day, he meets an old acquaintance who directs him to Marija. Marija, who is working in a brothel in order to support Elzbieta and the children, tells Jurgis where to find the family. Jurgis wants to be employed before he meets Elzbieta, so he does not go to visit her right away. In his wanderings, he chances on a Socialist rally and hears a speech that animates him and gives him new hope. After the meeting, Jurgis goes in search of the orator and is led to the Lithuanian speaking, Polish Socialist, Ostrinski.
After hearing Jurgis' sorry tale, Ostrinski, takes Jurgis under his wing and introduces him to the basics of Socialism. Jurgis returns to Elzbieta and also finds a job as a porter in a hotel. The hotel proprietor, Tommy Hinds, is also a member of the Socialist party. Jurgis progresses a great deal and is a very enthusiastic convert to Socialism. He is profoundly inspired by two Socialist thinkers, Lucas and Schliemann, with whom he spends an evening. Jurgis is charged with the spirit of Socialism and its ideal of an egalitarian society, where wealth is not concentrated in the hands of exploitative capitalists like the packers. The presidential election shows a historic and significant gain for the Socialist Party in Chicago. The novel ends with a rally where the speaker exhorts the gathering to build on the victory and wrest Chicago from the packers.