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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
The novel opens with the wedding celebration of Ona Lukoszaite and Jurgis Rudkus, Lithuanian immigrants who have recently arrived in Packingtown. The veselija, the wedding feast, is being held strictly according to Lithuanian custom. Ona's cousin Marija Berczynskas is in charge of the event, which is being held in the rear room of a saloon. A cello and two fiddles make up the band. The bride is extremely young, slight and nervous. The groom, in contrast, possesses "mighty shoulders and giant hands." Two tables groaning under the weight of a huge feast prepared by Ona's family take up a third of the room. An oily and dishonest bartender presides over the bar. The overwhelming feeling is one of excitement, noise and confusion.
Tamoszius Kuszleika, the lead violinist, plays with the fury of a man possessed. He is a semi-comic character who carries the burden of providing music for the feast from four in the afternoon to four the next morning. Many traditional songs are played. Then the bridegroom's father, Dede Antanas, makes a sentimental speech that leaves the audience in tears. When the meal is finished, the dancing begins in earnest. The older couples dance in the traditional Lithuanian style and are also dressed traditionally. The young, in contrast, dance and dress according to the latest fashions.
The dancing is followed by the great event of the evening, the acziavimas. The guests hold hands to form a ring around the bride. One by one, the men enter the circle and dance with the bride and then drop some money into a hat held by Teta Elzbieta. This collection goes towards paying for the feast and setting up the young couple's home. The acziavimas turns out to be a disaster, however, for many of the young people slip away without paying their share. Although many among the older guests are more than generous with their share, the amount collected is nowhere near expectations and might not even cover the expense of the party. An enraged Marija picks a fight with one of the freeloaders. A policeman intervenes and breaks up the fisticuffs. Jurgis reassures a frantic Ona that he will work harder and make up the losses. When the entire company is in a liquor-induced stupor, Jurgis lifts a faint Ona into his arms and walks home, painfully aware that they have to reach their respective workplaces the next morning. Before going to bed, he reassures her once again that he will work harder and take care of them.
The wedding scene with which the novel opens is a flash forward to the future. When the next chapter opens, Jurgis and Ona are still to be married. The entire proceedings are characterized by two emotions, a fairytale like unreality and a sense of foreboding. On the on hand, it is the only time in the lives of the characters that there is a predominance of gaiety. Yet, within the fabric of celebration are woven the threads of tragedy and reality. For instance, the music gives the celebration room the feel of a wonderland, "a little corner of the high mansions of the sky." In reality however, the place is just the dingy rear room of a saloon in the back of the yards. The music too is not quite tuneful, yet the revelers ignore it, just as they do the dirt, noise and squalor with which they are surrounded. The author employs farce to illustrate the farcical nature of his characters' existence, their acceptance of sufferings as the building blocks of their lives.
While the celebration is a traditional one, it is marked by a struggle between the old and the new. The modern generation does not want to dress or dance in the traditional manner, nor do the youngsters keep up the old custom of acziavimas, the contribution for the wedding feast. The stinginess of the young, many of whom drink for free at the bar without even acknowledging the bride and groom, is in contrast to the heroic generosity of the older generation, many of whom can barely afford their gift. The fact that these immigrant Lithuanian peasants are finding it hard to keep up old traditions even at important occasion like weddings, hints at their present tragic situation that is portrayed as the book unfolds.
This quick contrasts of joy and sorrow, laughter and anguish, is characteristic of this chapter. Jurgis and Ona are happy, yet emotionally overwrought. Dede Antanas, Jurgis' father, convinced that he has not long to live and coughing continually gives a moving speech that brings tears to everyone's eyes. Outwardly busy with the cooking, laughter and dancing, inwardly Teta Elzbieta is making fearful mental estimates of the cost of the celebration. Marija, upset at the behavior of some of the freeloaders, nearly starts a fight. Everyone is aware that after the night's revelry, they will have to return to work the next day and they are determined to live this rare night of pleasure to the fullest.
The wedding feast is not merely an event in the lives of Jurgis and Ona, but a symbol of the bitter and at times impractical struggle of a people who are losing their souls bit by bit to maintain something human in the face of dehumanization. The staggering expenditure of a year's income by impoverished people on a wedding feast may be imprudent, even tragic, but it is beautiful. Says Sinclair of his revelers' motivations. "One might dwell within the cave and gaze upon shadows, provided only that once in his lifetime he could break his chains, and feel his wings, and behold the sun." This image, alas, carries with it a foreboding hint at the future, the indication that it is only these few golden memories that the immigrants will have to survive on for the rest of their lives.
Just as Ona is the epitome of delicacy and fragility, Jurgis epitomizes the strength and optimism of youth. He possesses an indomitable spirit, yet it is already evident that life in Packingtown will break this spirit. When faced with the fact that the collection from the acziavimas is less than expected, Jurgis simply replies he will work harder. Nevertheless, the reader begins to suspect that Jurgis will not succeed.
By the end of the wedding feast Ona almost faints with exhaustion. Her employers have refused her a day of leave after the wedding. As the couple returns home, Jurgis insists that Ona should not go to Brown's, her workplace, for daybreak is just a few hours away. Whether or not Ona does go to work remains unknown for now. This unanswered question is a tool used by the author to create a sense of anticipation about future events.