Around the turn of the twentieth century, Ona Lukoszaite and Jurgis Rudkus, two Lithuanian immigrants who have recently arrived in Chicago, are being married. They hold their veselija, or wedding feast, according to Lithuanian custom. The celebration takes place in a hall near the Chicago stockyards in an area of the city known as Packingtown because it is the center of the meat-packing industry. Food, beer, and music fill the hall. Following Lithuanian tradition, hungry people lingering in the doorway are invited inside to eat their fill. The musicians play badly but, amid the general festivity, no one seems to mind.
The highlight of the celebration is the acziavimas: the guests, linking their hands, form a rotating circle while the musicians play; the bride stands in the middle and each male guest takes a turn dancing with her. After the dance, each male guest is expected to drop money into a hat, held by Teta Elzbieta, Ona’s stepmother. Each gives according to his means, helping the newlyweds pay for the veselija, which can cost upward of three hundred dollars—more than a year’s wages for many of the guests.
Many unscrupulous guests take advantage of the families of the newlyweds at these celebrations, however, filling themselves with food and drink and leaving without contributing any money. Some leave with open contempt while others sneak away. Often, the saloon-keeper cheats families on the beer and liquor, claiming that the guests consumed more than they actually did. Often, they serve the worst swill they have after the families have bargained for a certain quality of alcohol at a fixed price. The immigrants quickly learn not to antagonize these barmen because they are often connected with powerful district politicians. The honest guests and friends of the newlyweds bear the greater burden of the cost owing to the predators who attend.
Noticing that many people are leaving without paying, Ona becomes frightened and worried about the cost of the ceremony, but Jurgis promises that they will find some way to pay the bill. He vows that he will simply work harder and earn more money. The celebration is overshadowed by the knowledge that most of the men who are lucky enough to have jobs must report to work early in the morning. If a worker is one minute late, he loses an hour’s pay; if he is twenty minutes late, he loses his job. Getting fired means waiting for hours in doorways for up to weeks at a time to obtain another job. In Packingtown, men, women, and children alike work grueling hours for the most paltry of wages.
The narrator sketches background information about Jurgis and his family. Young and powerfully built, Jurgis came to Chicago from the rural countryside of Lithuania. In Lithuania, Ona’s father died, leaving his family troubled by debt. They lost their farm and had little in cash savings. They spoke of traveling to America, where the wages were much higher. Ona did not want to leave her siblings or Teta Elzbieta behind. Teta Elzbieta’s brother Jonas knew of a man who made a fortune in America, inspiring the family to work to make the trip possible. Jurgis worked for months to save money to help pay for the cost of the voyage. His father, Dede Antanas, resolved to go with his son and Ona’s family. Marija Berczynskas, Ona’s cousin, joined the family after suffering the abuse of an unkind employer in her homeland. She reckoned that her powerful physique would earn her more money and respect in America. Jurgis and his extended family, twelve in all, fell prey to various con artists in Lithuania and America. By the time they reached Chicago after landing in New York, their store of savings had dwindled.
By a stroke of luck, Jonas spies the delicatessen of Jokubas Szedvilas, the Lithuanian man whom he claimed had made a fortune. Jokubas owns a delicatessen in Chicago but, rather than living like a king, he is suffering financial troubles. He directs Jonas and the family to a miserable, overcrowded boardinghouse run by an impoverished widow, where they take up residence. Jurgis and Ona go for a walk through their new neighborhood. The stench of rotting animal flesh and animal excrement, along with billowing smoke, fills the air. Children pick through the nearby garbage dump. Much of the land surrounding the stockyards is “made land,” or filled dumps where buildings have now been constructed. After gazing at Packingtown in the distance for a few moments, Jurgis promises to “go there and get a job!”
Sinclair employs a spare, journalistic style that tries to convey an exacting realism, which had a precedent in American fiction in novelists such as Theodore Dreiser, who wrote about the social problems of industrialization, and Stephen Crane, who grimly portrayed the horrors of the Civil War in The Red Badge of Courage. But while these earlier authors’ realism had a more literary pedigree, Sinclair’s realism comes from journalism—muckraking journalism, which exposes misconduct on the part of an individual or business, in particular. Sinclair splatters the page with a surfeit of details that are intended not so much to create atmosphere as to drive home a message. The facts presented are never neutral or ambiguous. Sinclair’s occasional use of the second person (“to spend such a sum, all in a single day of your life”) heightens the reader’s sense of experiencing the life that Sinclair describes in full, gritty detail.
During the period of industrialization at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, the millions of poor immigrants that flocked to the United States met with terrible working conditions and barely livable wages. Moreover, they encountered hostility and racism from the citizens of their new homeland. Their unfamiliar cultural practices were regarded as a threat to traditional American culture. To build a case for socialism, Sinclair had to persuade the American reading public to sympathize with the very people whom many regarded with suspicion and hostility. In the opening chapters, Sinclair endeavors to reduce the alien character of the Lithuanian immigrant family that occupies the center of his narrative by showing them in an extremely sympathetic setting—a wedding feast. Nevertheless, he doesn’t pretend to portray them as entirely assimilated to American culture, since doing so would diminish their cultural heritage. Rather, of course, the wedding feast is held according to Lithuanian tradition. In this way, though the novel opens with the Lithuanian custom of the veselija, Sinclair emphasizes that the immigrants share a great many social values with the American reading public. The central values expressed in the veselija are family, community, and charity: according to custom, the community charitably shares in the expense of the celebration and donates money to help the new couple start out in life. The celebration is an expression of commitment to community and tradition as well as to the institution of marriage.
Just as Sinclair wishes to inspire sympathy for the immigrant family by getting his readers to identify with their social values, so too does he attempt to sway opinion against the unwholesome social values that menace the immigrants. The young con artists and the corrupt saloonkeepers, who represent dishonesty and thievery, respectively, have assimilated the brutal, predatory values of consumer capitalism. They value their personal gain above the social values of family, community, and charity. Hence, Sinclair identifies capitalism as hostile to American moral values; in this way, the opening chapters of the novel immediately begin to build a case for socialism.
Moreover, Jurgis and Ona’s family immigrates to America in search of the American Dream, the advertisement by which America sells itself as the land of freedom and opportunity. This myth, represented in Chapter 2 by the character of Jokubas, promises them that hard work and commitment to social values will win them success. But Sinclair immediately begins to portray this dream of America as a naïve fantasy: Jokubas is a struggling delicatessen operator, not a thriving capitalist. Furthermore, from the moment the immigrants arrive in the country they fall prey to various greedy individuals who profit unfairly from their ignorance. Sinclair means to depict these events as a betrayal of the very values upon which the American identity is based. Jurgis’s response to the con artists taking advantage of the veselija is “I will work harder.” Again, Sinclair wishes to identify the immigrant laborer with the values of the American reading public. Jurgis calmly faces adversity and expresses a profound belief in the ethic of work, a fundamental American value.