The novel opens sometime around 1900 with a veselija, a traditional Lithuanian wedding festival for two Lithuanian immigrants, Ona and Jurgis. The wedding celebration is taking place in the backroom of a saloon in the Chicago stockyards, where the meat-packing industry is located. Ona and Jurgis are an unlikely but happy couple—Ona, a slight, blushing 15-year-old and Jurgis, a burly working man. The wedding party is a boisterous, raucous, and emotional affair with elaborate food, drinking, music, and dancing. Guests of all ages, from babies to the elderly, fill the room, and Ona's loud, forceful cousin Marija presides over the festivities.
The wedding festival shows the richness and vitality of Lithuanian culture, transported to America. The characters are loud and animated, and hopeful, with an iconic pretty innocent bride and big strong groom. And Marija seems to embody a kind of matriarchal strength that supports and drives this community. Yet the rest of the chapter will chip away at this happy image of a perfect party and strong traditional culture.
During the feast, Tamoszius Kusleika, a man who works on the livestock "killing beds" during the day and has learned to play the fiddle at night, plays songs from the old country. His imperfect but impassioned playing reminds the guests of home.
The soulful musician helps preserve cultural traditions in a foreign land. The fact that he practices music at night and continues to make art is evidence of human resilience, even under oppressive working conditions.
After the banquet, tables are cleared away, and the dancing begins, with older people in traditional dress doing traditional dances and younger people in Americanized clothing dancing in couples. One couple, Jadvyga and Mikolas, dance together and we learn about their story. Jadvyga works in the canning factory to support her sick mother and three little sisters. Mikolas works as a beef-boner and has cut his hands and gotten blood poisoning several times, preventing them from marrying.
The difference between the younger generation and the older generation shows how Lithuanian culture is evolving in the immigrant population. The story of Jadvyga and Mikolas foreshadows the horrors of the meatpacking plant that will be described in detail throughout the book—in their case, the meatpacking industry has literally infected and killed their future together.
As the festivities continue, the family begins to worry about the cost of the party, which may be $200 or $300, more than the year's income of many of the guests. This is a huge amount of money for one day of festivities, though the family also finds the expense worth it because the celebration helps make their lives bearable.
The party is fun, but there is also a sense of desperation to it. The workers are so miserable in their daily lives that they are willing to spend an exorbitant amount of money for one night of festivities, because the merriment reminds them that they are human.
Traditionally, in Lithuania, male guests at the celebration would dance with the bride and then contribute a sum of money to help cover the expense of the party. And many do the same at this celebration. But many other guests take advantage of the hosts, and sneak off without contributing money. In addition, the saloon keeper will cheat the celebrating family—both by claiming that guests drank more than they did and by serving inferior beer and liquor—but there's nothing the family can do about it because he is connected to politicians. When Ona worries about the financial stress, Jurgis responds by saying that he will "work harder".
In America, the immigrants' cultural traditions are threatened. The dishonesty of the guests and bartender is evidence of the evil effects of Capitalism—everyone is out for himself and dishonesty and corruption are rampant. However, the fact that many guests do give generously shows that not all traditional values have been lost in America. At this point, Jurgis is optimistic about his prospects and seems to see the system as fair—if he works hard, he thinks, he will succeed.
The party goes late into the night and the remaining guests become drunk and exhausted. Marija refuses to let the party end, and so they continue till 3 in the morning, although all the guests—men, women, and children—will have to be at work at their various meat-packing jobs at 7 am the same morning. If they are even slightly late, they risk having their wages cut or losing their jobs. Ona has asked for the day off after her wedding but been refused. Finally, Jurgis carries his new bride home.
Marija and the other guests linger at the party because it is their only escape from the drudgery of their daily lives. The description of the partiers' need to arrive a work immediately on time, and the fact that Ona is not allowed a day off after her wedding, shows the brutality and heartlessness of working conditions at the plant.