Jurgis Rudkus arrives in the States with his family in tow. They set up their household in the slums of Packingtown, full of optimism for a bright future in American business.
Jurgis starts out the novel young, strong, and completely confident in his ability to conquer the meatpacking world. When he first claps eyes on the slaughtering process at these big factories, he is impressed with the creativity and modernization of America's meat processing technologies. When he hears men like Jokubas Szedvilas or Tamoszius Kuszleika complaining about hygiene and working conditions in the factory, he chalks up their dissatisfaction to their own physical weakness and lack of ambition. He decides that they must buy a home and settle down.
In Chapter 4, Jurgis's family embarks on their first major purchase in the United States: a house. Immediately, the family struggles to pay for their new home. This house provides the financial engine for the ruin of Jurgis's family.
There is a lot of foreshadowing that buying this house (supposedly new, and lying about a mile and a half away from the meatpacking factories) is going to be disastrous. First, the family can only make their twelve-dollar monthly house payments as long as all of the adults hold on to their jobs and keep making the same wages they are making at the outset of the novel. There is no wiggle room at all. Second, the house sucks up all of the savings they brought with them to the United States. Third, Teta Elzbieta winds up signing the deed without fully trusting that either the real estate agent or his lawyer are telling her the whole truth about the terms of this contract. Something hinky is definitely going on with this house.
In Chapter 6, we learn that the family has underestimated how much they will have to pay for their house. This leads to further compromises in their quality of life.
Grandmother Majauszkiene explains to the Jurgis family that they have been swindled. The house is not new at all; it has been owned by a series of different immigrant families who have all eventually been evicted. Furthermore, the Jurgis family has failed to take into account the interest they still owe on their outstanding house loan. Their house is not worth the money they paid for it, but their mortgage is costs a fortune. The burden of their new house is what forces the family to send Stanislovas and Ona out to work in the factories alongside Marija, Jurgis, and Jonas. Again, they are compromising their quality of life so that they can stay financially afloat.
Jurgis and his family lose the house that has sucked up all of their resources until now. Jurgis's whole plan to be successful in American business and to settle down in a home with his beloved Ona falls into ruins.
To make sure that Jurgis and Marija can keep their jobs, Ona keeps silent when her boss, Connor, intimidates her into sex and prostitution. When Jurgis finds out that Connor has raped Ona, he immediately stops thinking about money or practicality. Jurgis goes to attack Connor. As a result, Jurgis gets thirty days in jail. Once the main financial support of the family is gone, they can no longer keep up with the house payments for which they have sacrificed so much. Teta Elzbieta's younger children Kotrina, Vilimas, and Nikolajus all begin work. Jurgis's family is evicted from their home. They return to Mrs. Jukniene's tenement house and Ona dies in anguish. Baby Antanas soon passes away as well.
Jurgis's American dream has been dashed. The loss of his house represents the larger symbolic destruction of his family (i.e., the deaths of his wife and son) and his sense of self. Jurgis becomes a drifter and a criminal.
By Chapter 21, Jurgis has lost his house, his wife, and his son. The whole plot trajectory of Jurgis's failed American Dream has come to a close. The remaining suspense of the novel is to find out what Jurgis will do next. We know he started the novel thinking he was following one track towards financial security and happiness. Now that he is emotionally and financially ruined, it is no longer clear what path Jurgis is following. So we keep reading, full of suspense.
Jurgis finds a new sense of purpose in socialism.
After Jurgis's world falls apart, he tries various things to recover. First, immediately after Baby Antanas's death, Jurgis becomes a hobo. Since he has no home, he drifts from place to place, working when he wants to. In winter, that stops being comfortable, so he heads back to Chicago and starts waging war on society. He becomes a mugger, a union buster, and an election rigger. Still, even this new criminal persona doesn't seem to fit Jurgis. He still winds up homeless and begging yet again. It isn't until Chapter 28, when Jurgis happens upon a Socialist Party meeting, that he really begins to feel at home again after his long, slow decline. When Jurgis discovers socialism, that's when we realize what the entire plot of this novel has been building towards.
Jurgis becomes an active Socialist Party member. His Socialism gives him a sense of hope and purpose beyond his still-awful family life.
There is no healing Jurgis's family life; that has been broken forever. So, even though Teta Elzbieta welcomes him back to Packingtown, she has no interest in the socialism that saved Jurgis's life. As well, Marija refuses to stop being a prostitute. She cannot imagine another way of life now. However, Jurgis has a new tool to help him cope with disappointment, and that is socialism. We are led to believe that, even if Jurgis faces future unhappiness in Packingtown, he will never fall into the depths of despair that his earlier losses caused.