Critical Evaluation

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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 600 words.)

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Critical Overview