[A] population . . . dependent for its opportunities . . . upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers.
Jurgis demands that the agent who sold his family the house reveal all of its hidden expenses. The agent explains that they must pay seven dollars a year for insurance, ten dollars a year in taxes, and six dollars a year for water. He adds that if the city chooses to install a sewer and a sidewalk, they would have to pay between thirty-seven and forty-seven dollars.
Spring arrives and with it come frequent cold rains and mud. In the summer, the factories are infernos. Moreover, legions of flies descend on Packingtown, attracted by the blood and meat. Marija regains her job at the can painting factory, only to lose it two months later. She is fired when she vocally protests being cheated out of a portion of her wages. The loss of her income is devastating to the family because Ona is now expecting Jurgis’s child. It takes Marija a month to find work as a beef trimmer. The boss hires her because she is as strong as a man while her wages are half of a man’s.
Ona’s supervisor, Miss Henderson, the superintendent’s jilted mistress, runs a brothel. Her prostitutes get jobs easily in Ona’s department. She hates Ona because she is a decent married woman and her toadies make Ona miserable.
Ona gives birth to a healthy boy. She and Jurgis name him Antanas after Jurgis’s father. Jurgis is seized with an overpowering affection for his child and his commitment to his role as a family man grows in consequence. But his long work hours prevent him from seeing his son very much. Ona returns to work a week after giving birth, and her health suffers badly.
The Packingtown laborers are worked at an ever greater speed only to see their wages cut numerous times. Marija opens a bank account for her savings. One morning she discovers that there is a run on the bank. She waits for two days in the line before she can withdraw her money. In truth, her fear is unfounded: an attempt by a policeman to arrest a drunk at the saloon next to the bank drew a crowd, and people who saw the crowd believed that there was a run on the bank, so they hurried to withdraw their money. Marija sews her savings into her clothing, which now weighs her down so that she fears sinking into the mud in the street.
Jurgis sprains his ankle and cannot return to work for almost three months. The frustration eats away at him and he often vents his bitterness upon his family. His infant son is often the only way for him to return to good humor. Stanislovas suffers frostbite in his hands, and the first joints on his fingers are permanently damaged. Jurgis often has to beat Stanislovas in order to make him go to work on snowy mornings.
Jonas disappears, so the family sends Nikalojus and Vilimas, Teta Elzbieta’s ten- and eleven-year-old sons, respectively, to work as newspaper sellers. After a few mishaps, the boys learn the tricks of the trade.
Teta Elzbieta’s youngest child, Kristoforas, dies after eating bad meat. While the old woman is stricken with grief, the rest of the family is relieved, as Kristoforas was congenitally crippled and fussed continually, wearing the nerves of everyone but Teta Elzbieta. Marija loans Teta Elzbieta the money to pay for a real funeral because Jurgis refuses to help.
In the spring, Jurgis looks unsuccessfully for work. He is worn out and unable to attract the boss’s eye. He settles for the least desirable job around, a position in a fertilizer mill. The chemicals seep into his skin, making him smell as foul as the muck itself.
The summer brings greater prosperity to the family. Vilimas and Nikalojus, however, begin to acquire bad habits on the streets, so the family sends them back to school. Teta Elzbieta takes a job in a sausage factory. Her thirteen-year-old daughter, Kotrina, takes care of Antanas and her other crippled brother, Juozapas. The bad working conditions wear on Teta Elzbieta’s health—she must stand and perform the same repetitive motion for hours on end.
In Packingtown, not even the arrival of spring brings cheer to the worker’s life. Every season brings with it cause for suffering, which is as relentless as time itself in the wage laborer’s world. These chapters illustrate the precarious existence of wage laborers—they are always on the verge of a financial crisis. The injury that incapacitates Jurgis is enough to upset the entire household’s stability, forcing others to assume the burden of earning income. The world that Sinclair portrays is remarkably Darwinian, as Jurgis and his family are running a losing race for survival. The conditions of life for them are so harsh that mere survival is considered a success. The weak, the crippled, and the old are weeded out with brutal efficiency.
Capitalists such as those who ran the Chicago stockyards in the early twentieth century often justified brutal labor practices with a philosophy known as Social Darwinism. This philosophy adapts Darwin’s theory of evolution to economic struggle, implying that, as in nature, only the fittest and the strongest are meant to survive. According to Social Darwinism, wealthy capitalists were considered the fittest of the human race because they were so successful. The wage laboring class was considered an inferior form of humanity. The widespread racism and prejudice against immigrants helped this belief gain power and influence in turn-of-the-century American culture. By attributing Jurgis with a strong physique and an initially enthusiastic attitude, Sinclair tries to demonstrate the fiction of Social Darwinism. Capitalism ruins strong, healthy individuals as well as the crippled, the weak, and the old. Only those who are morally corrupt, it seems, survive.
Marija’s fear about being weighed down into the mud by her money is a metaphor for the evils of capitalism. Sinclair argues that this system of greed oppresses individuals; here, Marija’s coins are a concretized form of money that physically oppresses her. The unassailable primacy of money has conditioned her to guard her money with her life. Marija’s quasi-religious devotion to her coins seems to recall Jesus’ admonition, according to the New Testament that “[i]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). Though she clutches the money not because she is greedy but because she needs it to survive, Marija has been distorted by capitalism into an un-Christian figure, descending into the mud of base desire.
Throughout these chapters, Sinclair accuses capitalism of undermining the family. Ona has to return to work a mere week after giving birth. She doesn’t have the opportunity to be a mother to her child. Almost everyone is happy when the crippled Kristoforas dies because, from a reasoning, mathematical point of view—which is indeed the lens through which these immigrants must examine their lives—the child is a drain on the family’s resources, a consumer without being a producer. Jurgis’s long work hours prevent the development of a strong bond with his son. The desperate need for sustenance takes priority over sympathy and love, as evidenced by Jurgis’s beating of the frostbitten Stanislovas. Jurgis and his family’s poverty, a result of capitalist economics, prevent them from being together as a family. Jonas even disappears without warning; it is possible that he dies while at work, but it is more likely that he simply abandons the family, which has deteriorated into a collection of individuals struggling to eke out an existence. Within the capitalist system, families are a burden best avoided if a single individual wishes to survive.