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Marija Berczynskas is arguably the strongest female character in the book. She is an orphan who toils under the whip of a tyrannical farmer. Once she is grown, however, she finally rebels and nearly kills the man. Unlike Ona, Marija is loud and strong and almost manly, but a heart of gold beats under the brawn. Quick to bounce back after every crisis, Marija is a great optimist and like Jurgis, believes in her own strength. But two other characteristics set her well apart from Jurgis -- her sensitivity and fierce fidelity.
Marija's loyalty to the family is steadfast to the very end; in fact Marija sacrifices her own happiness and the chance of marriage for the sake of the family. Marija is also a fighter; she is the only one of the whole family who raises her voice against injustice at her workplace and she pays a heavy price for her outspokenness. Despite this toughness, she also has a tender and romantic side. Her courtship with the musician Tamoszius Kuszleika is comic, idyllic and also tragic. Soon after Jurgis deserts the family, however, Tamoszius develops blood poisoning, loses a finger, and disappears from Marija's life. At this juncture, Marija is forced to turn to prostitution to support Elzbieta and the starving children and she has no more time for displays of tenderness. Although Marija's loyalty to her loved ones stays steadfast, Packingtown robs her spirit.
When Jurgis chances upon Marija in a brothel, she is neither ashamed nor proud of her profession; she has accepted it as the inevitable outcome of her circumstances. She is the only one with the strength and perspicacity to make Jurgis realize the folly of his actions. Even in the brothel, Marija is loud and chirpy, but this is merely a front; she is a heroin addict and can face every new day only bolstered with the dope. When Jurgis asks Marija to quit the brothel, she refuses. Perhaps this could be interpreted as weakness on her part. However, Marija's decision to continue life as a prostitute reveals her astuteness and insight. Unlike Jurgis, she clearly knows that society will now give her no other status, save that of a prostitute, no matter what profession she takes up. Furthermore, remaining in her profession is the only way that she can guarantee that Elzbieta's can continue to go to school; she knows that she cannot rely on Jurgis for financial support. Given her circumstances, her sacrifice, like Ona's is a sign of internal strength.
Stoic, tenacious, and perpetually adaptable, Ona's stepmother, Teta Elzbieta, is a hard-working peasant woman who has learned to accept life's sorrows impassively and proceed with the important task of surviving. From bustling chief cook at the wedding feast to sausage factory automaton to floor-scrubber, Elzbieta works without complaint. Despite her age, she absorbs every new tragedy thrown at her -- the deaths of two sons, a step-daughter, and a grandson; Jurgis' abandoning the family; Marija's becoming a prostitute to save the children from starvation -- and continues to live. Elzbieta's survival instincts come sharply to the fore after Ona's death. When Jurgis returns from his drinking binge, Elzbieta handles the situation very carefully.
She said not a word of reproach--she and Marija had chosen that course before; she would only plead with him, here by the corpse of his dead wife. Already Elzbieta had choked down her tears, grief being crowded out of her soul by fear. She had to bury one of her children--but then she had done it three times before, and each time had risen up and gone back to take up the battle for the rest. Elzbieta was one of the primitive creatures like the angle worm, which goes on living though cut in half; like a hen which deprived of her chickens one by one, will mother the last that is left her. She did this because it was her nature-she asked no questions about the justice of it, nor the worth of life in which destruction and death ran riot.
Evidently, Elzbieta is not a thinking or questioning person, her forte is plain common sense and a fatal acceptance. These qualities keep her living and working to keep her brood alive, even as others stronger and younger fall by the wayside. Elzbieta's personality is strikingly exemplified by one incident -- despite her favorite child, the crippled Kristoforas dying an agonizing death due to sausage poisoning, Elzbieta takes up work in a sausage factory without a murmur. Again, when Jurgis returns to the family after a long desertion at the end of the book, Elzbieta accepts him immediately.
Ona's stepmother is also portrayed as a traditional and religious person. She insists on a "proper" wedding feast for Jurgis and Ona, and she begs pennies for Ona's funeral mass and then pays for it in advance lest starvation tempt her to spend the money on food.
All the major characters in the book undergo a transformation, except Elzbieta, whose character seems unchanging through the novel. This could perhaps be explained by the fact that unlike Ona, Jurgis, and Marija, Elzbieta is old and has already lived the best years of her life before coming to Packingtown.