Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600
Clifford Odets is generally regarded as one of the most talented playwrights to emerge from the Depression generation. In his mid-twenties he became one of the founders of the Group Theatre, the most exciting and innovative American theater group of the period, and its dominant playwright. In the spirit of the times, Odets quickly established himself as a volatile political dramatist with such intense theatrical statements as Waiting for Lefty (1935), Till the Day I Die (1935), Awake and Sing! (1935), and Paradise Lost (1935). Although admitting that Golden Boy was consciously written “to be a hit” and shore up the sagging finances of the Group Theatre, Odets insisted that it, too, was an anticapitalist social play. To a modern audience, however, the personal tragedy of Joe Bonaparte is the most important concern of the drama.
In essence, Golden Boy is a variation on the theme of the man who sells himself for success and discovers, too late, that he has made a bad bargain. A poor Italian youth coming of age in the middle of the Depression, Joe knows that he can find personal satisfaction playing the violin, but the bitterness in his feelings of poverty, coupled with a desire for revenge against people who have scorned him for years, drives him into opting for fighting instead of music.
At first, he boxes gingerly, trying to protect his hands for his music, but by the end of the first act he no longer cares. The remainder of the play is devoted to showing how this decision corrupts and destroys him. The question of whether it is a social or a personal play probably depends on whether one interprets Joe’s decision as resulting from individual weakness or social pressure. Once he makes it, however, there is no doubt that the ethic of success that he embraces is totally self-destructive.
In the earliest version of the play Odets subtitled it an allegory, and, as such, it almost resembles a morality play. Embodiments of good and evil contend for Joe’s “soul,” although these other characters are, for the most part, also the victims of conflicting needs and values.
The positive moral forces in the story are represented by old Mr. Bonaparte, a fruit peddler, who encourages Joe’s violin playing and is horrified by what he sees in the boxing business; Joe’s brother, Frank, a labor organizer, who represents the right kind of militant, one who fights for the things he believes in; and Joe’s trainer, Tokio, who, although a part of the fighting business, is a sensitive man who understands Joe’s needs and tries to help him find himself.
Joe, however, cannot take good advice. He must find things out for himself and, when he does, he has gone too far, and it is too late. He rejects his real father and accepts Eddie Fuseli, the gangster-gambler, as his model. Joe emulates Fuseli’s taste in clothing, goals, and values, and only at the end of the play realizes that Fuseli owns him, literally as well as professionally.
Success has done nothing to soften the hatred in Joe, and it is this unleashed hostility that destroys him. He hits his last opponent, the Chocolate Drop, with all his might and kills him. In doing so, Joe finally realizes that he has killed himself, too. No longer able to fight, ruined for the violin, he commits suicide, either consciously or unconsciously, in the most appropriate way, by crashing his sports car, symbol of materialism and speed, in the company of Lorna Moon, the good-bad girl who shares his confusion of values.