In his poem "The Hollow Men," T. S. Eliot writes,
Between the idea
And the reality...
Falls the shadow
Such is the case for the two Lithuanian families who come to America seeking opportunities that can give them hope for the fulfillment of their dreams. But they find that reality falls into the shadows of what they have dreamed.
Descended from peasants, Jurgis Rutkus learns that the girl he has adored from a distance, Ona Lukoszaite, has lost her father and his money has all gone to pay his debts. Emboldened by this situation, Jurgis comes to her and proposes marriage. But he soon learns that she has a family that has always been dependent upon her father. They have lost much because the estate went to court and now they can only claim half its worth. Still Jurgis perceives this family as people of worth because they can read and have knowledge of many things of which he is ignorant. It is, then, Jonas, the brother of Ona's stepmother, who suggests that the family go to America, where a friend of his has become rich. Jurgis has also heard of the promise of America, and he, too, decides "to be a rich man in the bargain." America is a free country where
...he did not have to go into the army, he did not have to pay out his money to rascally official--he might do as he pleased, and count himself as good as any other man. So America was a place of which lovers and young people dreamed. If one could only manage to get the price of a passage, he could count his troubles at an end. (Ch.2)
However, their troubles are not over, even after Jurgis has worked for the passage by selling himself to a contractor in Russia until he has earned enough. For, when the family arrives in New York, they are exploited because they do not know English and cannot read the hotel rates that are posted. After they board the train to Chicago they wander until a policeman finds them an interpreter. The next day, the family boards a train and arrives at the stockyards where they smell the elemental odors and hear the sounds of "ten thousand cattle" and "ten thousand swine." As they walk along, Jonas spots a sign with the name of his friend: "J. Szedvilas, Delicatessan." Finding him is fortuitous, indeed, as the deli owner feeds them and explains much about the land of both high wages and high prices. But, when they are taken to the boarding house of the Widow Jukniene where thirteen to fourteen people are in a room, the family "could not but recoil." These rooms have never been cleaned; periodically, the chickens come in and eat the insects, but that is all. Futhermore, there is nothing green visible in Packingtown: "One never saw the fields." The neighborhoods are so overrun with children that no horse and buggy could move faster than a walk. (Ch. 2)
However, Jurgis feels very fortunate because he finds work right away as he is stout and muscular. When he reaches home, there is the good news that Jonas has been promised a job, too, starting next week. Then, too, Marija Berczynskas, "fired with jealousy by the success of Jurgis, set out upon her own responsibility to get a place." After being rejected and cursed at, she finally finds a position in one of the smaller plants, a job painting and labeling small sealed cans of meat. Because of their good fortune, the family speaks of moving into a house. But, when they negotiate, they are anxious because the agent speaks rapidly. When Jurgis returns home, he becomes angry and hires a lawyer, fearing that others have taken advantage of them since it seems that they may have signed a rental agreement instead. But, a lawyer assures him that the house is theirs as long as they make the payments. Nevertheless, there is a sense of foreboding, especially in Ona and Elizbieta.
After some time has passed, although Jurgis is grateful to have a job, he finds the pace grueling. This pace is one that "called for every faculty of a man"; there is never one instant's rest. To keep this pace up, the company employs what are called "pacemakers," who are paid high wages and work like men "possessed." They "sped up the gang" and if others complained, there were plenty more men who were outside waiting for a job. Further, there is talk of unionizing, but Jurgis does not want to join. Also, he is surprised that most of the men loathe their jobs. They inform him,
...nobody rose in Packingtown by doing good work....the man who minded his own business and did his work--why, they would "speed him up" till they had worn him out, and then they would throw him into the gutter.
When Antanas Rudkus, a meek man, returns home for only two days, he returns "as bitter as any of them" and curses Durham's with all his might. Further, Marija comes home another day with tales about where she works. One of the girls tells her that she received her job because the forelady simply fired another woman who coughed and could not keep pace. The fact that Mary had a sick child and had worked there a long time made no difference to the forelady. Some time later, Jurgis has his own tale. He is made to remain after work and help with the disposal of some of the injured cattle. However, to his surprise, Jurgis saw these cows go into the chilling rooms with the rest of the meat, "being carefully scattered here and there so that they could not be identified." In a very somber mood, Jurgis returns home.
...that night he was in a very somber mood, having begun to see at last how those might be right who had laughed at him for his faith in America. (Ch.5)