Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903
Tom Moody, a fight manager, and Lorna Moon, his mistress who wants to marry him, are having an argument about Tom’s wife, who will not give him a divorce. Tom, wanting money for the divorce, needs to find a winning fighter. While they are talking, Joe Bonaparte arrives to tell them that Moody’s fighter has broken his hand and cannot fight that night. Joe, whom nobody knows, persuades them to let him substitute, and he wins.
Joe, a musician, had always wanted a good violin, and his father had bought him one for his twenty-first birthday. When Joe returns home, his father, who has not been told of the fight, reads of it in the papers and is very much distressed. He tries to persuade Joe to give up fighting and continue his study of music, but Joe wants to fight. His father, hurt, does not give him the violin.
Joe fights well after that, but there is a serious conflict between the sensitive musician that he truly is and the brutal fighter he has to be. He holds back in the ring, fearing that he will ruin his hands for the violin. When Moody tries to persuade him that fame and money will be more important than music, he succeeds only in antagonizing Joe, who threatens to quit. Lorna agrees to try to persuade Joe to reconsider. Joe is basically a musician, but he has been ridiculed and hurt by people. Fighting is not a part of his nature, but he wants to fight back and music cannot do that for him. While he is explaining all this to Lorna, he has already decided to remain in the ring. When Joe is preparing for a fight tour, Mr. Bonaparte asks Lorna to help the young man find himself. When he tries to give Joe the violin, the boy refuses it. Then he asks for a blessing, which his father refuses to give.
Joe’s tour is a great success except for one fight. He did not fight well on that occasion because he saw a man with a violin and was reminded of his music and his own past. Moody realizes that Joe has to be prevented from having any contact with his family and his past.
The fight world changes Joe’s personality. He likes the money and the notoriety. He buys an expensive sports car, which he drives recklessly, and he becomes difficult to manage. Eddie Fuseli, a gambler and a gunman, wants to buy a piece of Joe, and Joe agrees, to Moody’s dislike. He tells Lorna to take care of Joe in her own way. Joe falls in love with Lorna and asks her to give up Moody. She denies loving Joe and says that she cannot leave Moody because she feels sorry for him. Joe knows that she is not telling the truth when she begins to cry. They talk about their love, and Joe demands that she tell Moody at once. She says that she will, but when she goes to tell him she learns that his wife has agreed to a divorce and that they can be married in a few months. Because of this, she is unable to tell him about her love for Joe. Later Joe has an argument with Moody and demands that Lorna tell Moody about their love. Although Lorna denies that there is anything between them, she confesses the truth to Moody when they are alone again.
One night Mr. Bonaparte comes to see Joe fight. Fuseli is disturbed because he does not want Joe to see his father, but Joe sees him anyway. He also sees Moody and Lorna together. Mr. Bonaparte, seeing that Joe has completely changed, finally gives his blessing to Joe’s career. Joe cries after his father leaves. During the fight, Mr. Bonaparte goes back into the dressing room rather than see the fighters hurt each other. Joe returns after he wins the fight, but when his trainer attempts to remove the gloves, Joe tells him that he will have to cut one of them off. His hand is broken.
Now that he can never be a musician, Joe is all fighter. Moody and Lorna announce that they are getting married in a few days. Joe is still in love with Lorna, and it is obvious that his unhappiness is hurting his career. While Joe is fighting badly in his most important match, Fuseli blames Lorna and threatens to kill her. Joe, however, returns to the dressing room a victor. A few moments later they are told that the other fighter died after being floored by Joe’s knockout punch. Everyone leaves the dressing room except Lorna and Joe. She tells him that she loves him and asks him to go back to his music. He shows her his mutilated hands. However, he decides to give up fighting, and he and Lorna go for a wild ride in order to celebrate.
Fuseli, Moody, and the others, not knowing where Joe and Lorna have gone, go to Joe’s home and drink and talk while they wait for his return. The telephone rings in the middle of an argument to decide who will own Joe in the future. Joe and Lorna have been killed in an automobile accident. Mr. Bonaparte leaves to claim Joe’s body and bring him home where he belongs.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 250
The first of Odets’s plays since Waiting for Lefty not to employ the Yiddish American vernacular at which Odets was so adept, Golden Boy is also the first play he wrote after going to California to write film scripts. In this play, Joe Bonaparte, a poor youth from humble circumstances, is faced with the agonizing decision of whether to continue in boxing, which will bring him substantial material rewards but will compromise his wish to have a career as a violinist. At the time he wrote this play, Odets was facing a personal crisis not unlike Joe’s, but he sought to assuage his pain at leaving the Group Theatre by writing a play for them that might relieve some of the financial pressures that threatened to force the Group to disband.
In Awake and Sing!, Moe Axelrod, the cynic, speaks of “One thing to get another.” Making choices is what life is all about. Joe Bonaparte opts for the comfort and security that boxing will afford him. He enjoys the outward manifestations of his success, particularly his supercharged Duesenberg roadster, but, as Gerard Weales has observed, he suffers from “the disintegration brought on by success.” The very sensitivity that a good musician needs is antithetical to the qualities that good fighters need. It is too late for Joe to turn back. His hands are damaged beyond repair, and now he faces failure as a boxer. His end comes when he crashes his Duesenberg and dies from the impact.