The narrator describes Jurgis's background and how he came to America. Jurgis grew up in the Imperial Forest region of Lithuania, the son of a peasant, Antanas Rudkus. He met Ona at a horse-fair, fell in love with her, and devoted himself to winning her for a bride. After Ona's father died, leaving her family financially adrift, Ona's step-uncle Jonas suggested they all go to America, where it is rumored that you can get rich and live freely. He even tells them of a man he knows who moved to America and made a fortune. Jurgis saves money for months to make the trip, and Jurgis, Ona, and Jonas, embark for America with Jurgis's father, Ona's stepmother, Teta Elzbieta, Ona's cousin, Marija, and six children.
The story of Jurgis's background shows that he is diligent, hard-working, and honest. It also shows that, although he is tough and masculine, he has a soft spot for Ona, with whom he falls desperately in love. Jonas paints an idealized picture of America, and the family dreams of getting rich and having a better life there. They believe in America and its promise.
They are cheated along their journey by agents and officials, but they successfully make their way to Chicago, where they believe they can get rich working in the stockyards. Clueless and unable to speak the language, they are put on a trolley car that takes them to the stockyards. As they leave the city and approach Packingtown—the location of the stockyards on the outskirts of town—they are confronted by a strange and overpowering smell. They see clouds of black smoke and hear the distant lowing and grunting of ten thousand animals.
The family faces dishonesty and cheating from the moment they set out for America, showing the far-reaching effects of Capitalism. The family is naïve, unprepared, and vulnerable, and other people seek to exploit them, not help them. The smells and sounds of Packingtown provide an ominous hint of the horrors of the meatpacking industry, although the family is not aware of them yet.
Prices are higher in America, and they have already lost much of the money they saved. They soon run into Jonas's friend Jokubas Szedvilas—he is the person whom Jonas described as becoming rich in America. Jonas does own a delicatessen, but it's actually in some financial difficulty. He offers to help them get situated. Jokubas sends them to a crowded, filthy boarding house where they will stay.
The hopeful family begins to face challenges and cracks begin to form in their idealized depiction of America. They lose their savings and realize that their friend is not as well-off as they thought he was. They are forced to stay in a terrible boarding house.
Jurgis and Ona take a walk around their new neighborhood. The unpaved streets are teeming with children, and there are pools of stinking water, hordes of flies, and garbage dumps where children gather scraps of food. They notice a brickyard where bricks are made out of garbage and a festering pool of water that is used to produce ice and marvel at these enterprises. They gaze at the meatpacking plant in the twilight and dream of employment.
Ona and Jurgis, still caught up in the dream of making a living in America, are at this point oblivious to their hellish surroundings. To them, the brickyard and the pool for ice represent American enterprise instead of American exploitation. The meatpacking plant appears beautiful to them and offers them hopes for the future. Their optimism blinds them to a reality that the reader can see more easily.