The novel explains that after the death of Ona's father in Lithuania his farm was sold, and the family paid two-thirds of their inheritance to a local magistrate in order to avoid losing all of it. That was when Ona's brother Jonas suggested that they all move to America. He had heard about a friend who went to America and became rich (the friend later turns out to actually be making just a modest living with his delicatessen in Chicago). In calculating the money he could earn in America, Jurgis Rudkus does not account for the fact that, while the pay rate is higher, the cost of living is greater too. But the promise of wealth is not even as important in their decision-making as the promise of social equality. The book explains their thinking: "In (America), rich or poor, a man was free, it was said; he did not have to go into the army, he did not have to pay out his money to public officials,—he might do as he pleased, and count himself as good as any other men. So America was a place of which lovers and young people dreamed." The central theme of this book focuses on this particular group finding the American Dream of wealth and freedom to be an illusion. They are not free to do as they wish, but instead spend all of their time and energy trying to meet their financial needs, destroying themselves physically and morally in the process. The clearest example of this is the fact that Ona has to work as a prostitute in order to assure that her family members can keep their dangerous, mind-numbing jobs at the packing house. One of the greatest lures of the American Dream has always been the promise of land ownership, which is related to freedom, but that is denied the Rudkus family too, when they lose their house and all they have put into it after missing a few payments. In the end, Jurgis finds that socialism offers him more prosperity and freedom than the competitive American system, because it focuses its attention on the good of all, rather than making the rich and poor opponents.
Most of the problems faced by Jurgis' family are caused by the fact that they have nothing, and that those who do have things actively strive to keep them from benefiting from their own hard work. Not only do the packinghouse owners benefit from the workers' labor, but they also benefit from promoting hostility among the workers, because resentment toward each other keeps them from organizing into unions. The plant managers are forced by the people above them to eke more and more work out of the low-level employees. European laborers look down on black workers from the south,...
(The entire section is 1072 words.)