Jurgis feels that work will come easily to him because he's young, strong, and optimistic.
He hears horror stories about what laboring at the stockyards does to you, but he doesn't believe it can happen to him.
Chicago is the first city Jurgis has ever seen: he was raised in a forest in Lithuania. This forest has long been a game preserve for the Lithuanian nobility. Jurgis's family is one of the few peasant families with the right to live in this forest.
Jurgis met Ona a year and a half ago, at a horse fair. Even though he's not particularly romantic, he still finds himself falling in love with her at first sight.
So Jurgis goes to meet Ona's father to ask if he can buy her in marriage.
Ona's father refuses: Ona is still a child (by our calculations, she must be around thirteen or fourteen at this point), and he has plenty of money to support her.
Jurgis goes home defeated.
But he keeps thinking about her, so he tries again after the harvest is in.
Apparently, Ona's father has died in the meantime, and his estate is going to his creditors.
Ona's family is in big financial trouble. There are nine of them, counting Ona: her stepmother, Teta Elzbieta, Teta Elzbieta's six children, Teta Elzbieta's brother, Jonas, and Ona herself.
Ona is a well-educated girl (she can read while Jurgis can't), but she has literally no experience of the world.
Jonas suggests that they all go to America to get rich, and Jurgis agrees. Jurgis's father also decides to join them.
Jurgis spends a year working as a contract laborer in Russia to earn the money they need for travel expenses.
At the last minute, Ona's cousin, Marija Berczynskas, joins them. She is escaping an abusive work situation, and needs to get out of Lithuania.
So there are twelve people setting off for the States in this party: Jurgis, Ona, Marija, Jonas, Teta Elzbieta, Antanas (the father), and Teta Elzbieta's six children.
Jonas has heard that the place to get rich is the Chicago stockyards, so they all go to Chicago.
They arrive there after being cheated by officials twice, once in trying to get out of Lithuania, and once in New York when they arrive.
When they finally get to Chicago, they don't know where to go.
They wander around the city, utterly lost and unable to ask for directions.
Finally, a policeman sees them wandering aimlessly, picks them up, and finds an interpreter.
So they learn a new word: stockyards. They start going to their new home.
As they reach the Chicago meatpacking district, they notice that the air is changing: not only is it filled with smoke and strange noises, but it also has a weird, unknown odor. They have no idea what this odor might be.
Jonas suddenly starts pointing and shouting: he sees a sign, "J. Szedvilas. Delicatessen" (2.15).
This same Jokubas Szedvilas was Jonas's friend who had come to America and gotten rich.
Jokubas Szedvilas is really excited to see people from his old part of Lithuania, and agrees to help them get situated.
Jokubas Szedvilas sends them to an apartment run by Mrs. Aniele Jukniene, a widow. She rents a four room apartment in a tenement house kept for Eastern European immigrants.
These four room apartments often house thirteen or fourteen people to a room, fifty or sixty people to an apartment.
(OK, folks, take a second to imagine living with fifty or sixty other people in four rooms. We start having trouble breathing as we imagine the sheer claustrophobia of these kinds of living conditions. Eep!)
Even though Jurgis and his new family have seen a lot of awful places on their travels over to the States, this apartment where they are expected to live is still the worst thing they have ever seen.
The most terrible thing of all is that they are lucky to get space with Mrs. Jukniene, because her apartment is not the worst. She has a separate room for the women and children.
Jurgis promises that he and maybe Jonas will get a job, and then they will find their own place.
Jurgis and Ona go for a walk through the streets, which are muddy and filled with flies and the smell of rot.
The reason the air is filled with this awful smell is because these streets have been built on landfill: the city digs up all the earth to make bricks and then fills in the holes with garbage, which they then cover over. (And people live on top of these mounds of waste! Blerg!)
Jurgis and Ona are impressed by this inventive use of the land.
Jurgis can still look at this landfill being created for people to live on and think that it's proof of human invention and can-do spirit.
He still believes that America is the land of opportunity.