Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 939
Eddie, a middle-aged longshoreman, works the docks in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn in the mid-1950’s. Alfieri, a first-generation Italian immigrant, practices law in the neighborhood. Eddie lives with his wife Beatrice and his seventeen-year-old niece Catherine. Both have open affection for Eddie.
It becomes almost immediately clear that the affection between Eddie and his niece may be unhealthy, planting the seeds for discontent. This relationship is quickly demonstrated when Catherine decides to leave secretarial school early in order to accept a lucrative job, one that Eddie fears will expose her to untrustworthy men. His desire at first appears to be to protect her. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Eddie has unarticulated and perhaps unconscious desires to possess Catherine himself. Eddie’s wife, Beatrice, sees the situation clearly, but she lacks the ability to confront her husband with her concerns. Instead, she becomes Catherine’s primary supporter, urging her to take the job, to accept her emerging maturity, and to enter the world as an adult. All these urgings are made in spite of Eddie and his adamant protestations to the contrary.
Beatrice’s two cousins, Marco and Rodolpho, are on their way to Brooklyn from Italy, and they plan to stay in the Carbone apartment until better accommodations can be arranged. They arrive, two illegal immigrants, and their impact on the Carbone household is felt immediately. Eddie experiences an instant dislike for Rodolpho, who sings in a high tenor voice and welcomes traditionally female tasks. In addition, Rodolpho is blond, evoking tales of Danes who came to Italy in the ancient past and left their legacy in the form of pale hair and skin. To make matters worse, the immigrant, who has difficulties at work with the other longshoremen because he is too effeminate, is attracted to Catherine, and she returns his feelings.
In Eddie’s assessment, something is wrong with Rodolpho. Eddie’s desire for his niece is exacerbated by her growing affection for her second cousin. Eddie visits Alfieri, the lawyer, seeking some legal protection for his family. Eddie believes that Rodolpho is after his niece for one reason only: to gain American citizenship through marriage. Alfieri relates to Eddie that the only legal matter at hand is the fact that Rodolpho and his brother Marco are in the country illegally. To report the two to the immigration office may be the legal recourse, but, as Eddie knows, it is not the moral choice. It would violate the values of Italian American culture to take such a step.
As a result, Eddie chooses to prove to his niece how ineffectual Rodolpho is as a man. After a tense dinner, Eddie challenges the younger man to a boxing match that turns instead into a lesson, humiliating Rodolpho. Marco, the silent one, sees what is happening to his brother and challenges Eddie to a test of strength. In the test that follows, Eddie proves unable to lift a chair from the floor by the lower part of the chair’s leg. Marco then proceeds not only to lift the chair but also to raise it over his head, revealing himself as a hidden threat. The stage is thus set for a confrontation between the two strong and viral men.
Rodolpho and Catherine are in the apartment alone. He responds to her questions, which have been motivated by Eddie’s distrust, with respect and honor. She believes and accepts him, and they retire to the bedroom. An inebriated Eddie appears on the scene, as Rodolpho emerges from the bedroom. In outrage, the drunken Eddie orders the young man out of his home. Catherine responds that if Rodolpho leaves, she will leave as well. Eddie grabs his niece and kisses her on the mouth, his deeply hidden need for possession coming to the fore. When Rodolpho protests, Eddie, desperate to prove the man’s lack of manliness, kisses his adversary on the mouth as well. As a result of this confrontation, the two immigrants move into another apartment in the same complex, and Rodolpho and Catherine set the date for their marriage. In desperation, Eddie places the call to the immigration office, an act he soon comes to regret.
Rodolpho and Marco are taken into custody, along with two other illegal immigrants, members of the Lipari family. All of them know that it was Eddie who served as informant, even though he protests his innocence vehemently. As Marco is being led away by the officers, he confronts Eddie with his charges of treachery and spits in his face in front of Eddie’s neighbors and family. Alfieri arranges for the brothers to be released on bail with the agreement that Marco will stay away from Eddie.
The marriage of Rodolpho and Catherine is set. Eddie refuses to attend the ceremony and demands that Beatrice do the same: If she goes to the wedding, Eddie declares, she is not to return home. Rodolpho appears and strives to make amends. He accepts the fact that he has inadvertently been the cause of the problems and asks Eddie for forgiveness. Eddie does not want apologies; he wants his reputation back. When Marco arrives to collect his brother for the wedding, a fight breaks out. Eddie is no match for the younger, stronger man, and, in desperation, he pulls a knife. Marco succeeds in turning the knife against Eddie, who is subsequently killed. All the final actions occur in front of the entire neighborhood, as the spectators become a silent chorus and Alfieri serves as spokesperson for all as he delivers the final monologue, bringing the tragic tale to a close.