The main character in the book, Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, tries to make ends meet in Chicago. The book begins with his wife Ona and his wedding feast. He and his family live near the stockyards and meatpacking district where many immigrants, who do not know much English, work. He takes a job at Brown's slaughterhouse. Jurgis had thought the US would offer more freedom, but he finds working-conditions harsh. He and his young wife struggle to survive as they fall deeply into debt and become prey to con men. Hoping to buy a house, they exhaust their savings on the down payment for a substandard slum house, which they cannot afford. The family is eventually evicted after their money is taken.