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Jurgis and Ona have already waited two years to be married. They have had to postpone their union because Teta Elzbieta has insisted on the traditional wedding feast, an unaffordable luxury for the young couple. The minimum cost of the feast would be two hundred dollars. Ona decides to take a job, hoping to speed up the wedding. But the wedding plans are hastily set aside as the family learns some terrible news.
An elderly Lithuanian neighbor informs them that the house they have purchased is not new, but fifteen years old. She also tells them that what they have bought for fifteen hundred dollars cost the builders, who used the flimsiest and cheapest materials, less than five hundred dollars to build. They also learn from her that even a single month's default in the payment of the installments will allow the company to reclaim the house forthwith and sell it all over again. The family would thus lose the house and whatever they had paid into it. Four other families had already tried to buy the house but were forced to leave at their very first missed payment. The first family to try and buy the house was German, the second Irish, the third Bohemian and the fourth Polish.
According to this voluble widow, the house is unlucky, because some member of every family who lives in it is sure to contract consumption. The worst blow their experienced neighbor delivers is that the amount due to the housing company every month is not twelve dollars, as they had calculated, but nineteen dollars -- Jurgis and Ona had overlooked the fine print in the deed, mentioning payment of interest on the mortgage. As a result of this calamitous news, young Stanislovas is forced to enter the job market. Teta Elzbieta obtains a certificate from a priest falsifying the boy's age, so he can work. He is fortunate to find a place in the packing plants, filling lard cans for five cents an hour, a wage that will just cover the interest payment.
Elzbieta belongs to the older generation and holds dear the old values of her country and a rural society. She wants to stick to tradition at all costs. A heavy price will be paid for Elzbieta's obstinacy. The younger generation is impatient with this obsession with tradition, but for the older people tradition is like an armor to protect against the corrupting influence of this new world into which their loved ones are thrust. Packingtown represents a corruption of the soul, the old country traditions represent values and ideals, to which those like Elzbieta are trying desperately to hold on.
The families that try to buy the house before Jurgis represent the various nationalities that worked the stockyards at various times. Each lot of workers was forced to move on when they were settled enough to demand better conditions of work. This process shows how mass migrations from faraway countries can be engineered. This is the economic and political power of capital. Old Durham, one of the major packers is himself partially responsible for the migrations. He has sworn to "fix" the people of Packingtown for calling a strike on him. He does this by bringing in labor of newer and newer nationalities to the stockyards. The modus operandi is to send agents into the cities and distant villages of Europe with tales of chances of work and high wages. The packers force each group of immigrants to grind themselves to pieces before finding more impoverished persons to take their place.
This chapter also introduces the theme of revolt and political change - the worldly wise neighborhood grandmother who tells them of the housing scam is a socialist. The new immigrants, in contrast, are still ignorant, apolitical and somewhat narrow- minded. The family finds their neighbor strange for being a socialist and quite dislike her, even though she brings them such crucial information. Sinclair uses strong imagery to display the helpless feeling of the family as they listen to one calamitous piece of information after the other from the widow -- "it was sickening, like a nightmare, in which suddenly something gives way beneath you and you feel yourself sinking, sinking, down into bottomless abysses."
The immigrants are shown to be prone to superstition that clouds their understanding of the forces buffeting their lives. For instance, the fact that people who live in this particular house fall prey to consumption is attributed to the construction being begun "in the dark of the moon." Jurgis responds to the troubles of the previous families by saying it is a matter of fate. In reality, there are other forces at work, far stronger than the workers, and their misfortunes are not a result of bad luck or fate but the intentional practices of the factory owners.
The description of little Stanislovas' grueling, mechanical job, is in fact an account of the exploitative working conditions of the nearly two million children toiling in the sweat shops of America. Although there are laws preventing child labor, such a law, no matter how well meaning, is useless in Packingtown, where people have no choice but to send their children to work in order to survive. That laws are meant to be broken in Packingtown is a given, and the family has no trouble getting a false age certificate from a priest, which allows Stanislovas to work.