In shock over his son's accidental drowning, Jurgis walks away and impulsively climbs aboard a freight train. Jurgis tries to think only of himself as the train heads toward the country. He buys food at one farmhouse and takes a bath in a pond. When another farmer refuses to sell him food, Jurgis responds by destroying 100 recently planted peach trees. Jurgis becomes a professional tramp, living from day to day, working and stealing enough to get by. For the most part he is able to forget his family and his past, but when he watches a mother bathe her young son, Jurgis has an emotional breakdown.
The change in environment results in a physical change in Jurgis. For the first time in years he is able to bathe and lose the stench of the fertilizer plant from himself and his clothes. This is a symbolic baptism, a cleansing into new life. However, Sinclair does not create the typical literary pastoral, where rural life is presented in an idealized manner. Instead, some of the same problems evident in the city exist in the country, with some farmers treating animals better than they treat workers.
Jurgis' life as a tramp does refresh and revive him. This remarkable and uplifting change is the direct result of escaping the city; however, the escape cannot be permanent. One sign of the corruption and evils of capitalism follows the migratory workers: bands of prostitutes.
wanderlust an impulse, longing, or urge to wander or travel.
reminiscences an account, written or spoken, of remembered experiences.
dray a low, sturdily built cart with detachable sides, for carrying heavy loads.
debauchery extreme indulgence of one's appetites, especially for sensual pleasure.