The Jungle

Does the wedding feast at the beginning of the story signify peace and happiness in a time of turmoil and distress?

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Yes...Around the turn of the twentieth century, Ona Lukoszaite and Jurgis Rudkus, two Lithuanian immigrants who have recently arrived in Chicago, are being married. They hold their veselija, or wedding feast, according to Lithuanian custom. The celebration takes place in a hall near the Chicago stockyards in an area of the city known as Packingtown because it is the center of the meat-packing industry. Food, beer, and music fill the hall. Following Lithuanian tradition, hungry people lingering in the doorway are invited inside to eat their fill. The musicians play badly but, amid the general festivity, no one seems to mind.

The highlight of the celebration is the acziavimas: the guests, linking their hands, form a rotating circle while the musicians play; the bride stands in the middle and each male guest takes a turn dancing with her. After the dance, each male guest is expected to drop money into a hat, held by Teta Elzbieta, Ona’s stepmother. Each gives according to his means, helping the newlyweds pay for the veselija, which can cost upward of three hundred dollars—more than a year’s wages for many of the guests.

Many unscrupulous guests take advantage of the families of the newlyweds at these celebrations, however, filling themselves with food and drink and leaving without contributing any money. Some leave with open contempt while others sneak away. Often, the saloon-keeper cheats families on the beer and liquor, claiming that the guests consumed more than they actually did. Often, they serve the worst swill they have after the families have bargained for a certain quality of alcohol at a fixed price. The immigrants quickly learn not to antagonize these barmen because they are often connected with powerful district politicians. The honest guests and friends of the newlyweds bear the greater burden of the cost owing to the predators who attend.

Noticing that many people are leaving without paying, Ona becomes frightened and worried about the cost of the ceremony, but Jurgis promises that they will find some way to pay the bill. He vows that he will simply work harder and earn more money. The celebration is overshadowed by the knowledge that most of the men who are lucky enough to have jobs must report to work early in the morning. If a worker is one minute late, he loses an hour’s pay; if he is twenty minutes late, he loses his job. Getting fired means waiting for hours in doorways for up to weeks at a time to obtain another job. In Packingtown, men, women, and children alike work grueling hours for the most paltry of wages.

The description of the celebration was meant to show that people will always find happiness, even in the middle of chaos.