Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1104

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The Arts versus Materialism
When the play starts out, Joe is a talented musician whose dream is to play beautiful violin music. To this end, Joe’s father, Mr. Bonaparte, secretly buys a very expensive violin for his son’s birthday. Mr. Bonaparte’s friend, Mr. Carp, plays the pessimist asking: ‘‘could a boy make a living playing this instrument in our competitive civilization today?’’ Mr. Bonaparte’s response illustrates the idea that art and financial success do not always go hand in hand: ‘‘Don’t expect for Joe to be a millionaire. He don’t need it, to be millionaire.’’ However, Joe has other plans. When he announces to his family that he is going to fight, he says it is for money: ‘‘I’m good—I went out to earn some money and I earned! I had a professional fight tonight— maybe I’ll have some more.’’ But the decision is not this easy for Joe. Although he does become a boxer, he holds back during his first several fights, afraid to hurt his hands and forever lose music as a possible career. When Mr. Bonaparte goes to visit Joe’s managers to find out how he is doing, Roxy tells him of their intentions: ‘‘We want to make your boy famous—a millionaire, but he won’t let us—won’t cooperate.’’ This phrase, ‘‘a millionaire,’’ echoes Mr. Bonaparte’s earlier comment to Mr. Carp.

Once the managers find out from Mr. Bonaparte that Joe is afraid to break his hands for fear of not playing the violin again, they step up pressure on him and Lorna tries to talk Joe into fighting. Joe, seduced in part by the idea of fast cars and other material possessions, decides to fight. However, when Joe asks his father for his blessing to fight, Mr. Bonaparte does not give it and says ‘‘Be careful fora your hands!’’ Yet in the end, Joe’s hands are injured. In the fourth scene of the second act, Joe is in the dressing room with his father after a fight. ‘‘Better cut it off,’’ Joe tells his trainer, indicating that his hand is broken. Joe is proud of his broken hand, which signals his total conversion into the fighting life, and says, ‘‘Hallelujah!! It’s the beginning of the world!’’ With a broken hand, Joe will no longer have the dexterity in his fingers necessary to play the violin.

Although Joe accepts this fact with glee, later he regrets his decision. He tries to leave the boxing world before his last fight, but Fuseli stops him with a threat. However, after he kills the Baltimore Chocolate Drop in the ring, Joe realizes that he has strayed far from his original artistic intentions. In the dressing room after the fight, Joe tells Lorna: ‘‘Lorna, I see what I did. I murdered myself, too!’’ Although Lorna suggests that he give up the fighting business and ‘‘go back to your music,’’ Joe is distraught: ‘‘But my hands are ruined. I’ll never play again!’’ Lorna and Joe try to escape in his fast car, but the car, a symbol of the materialism that killed the artistic boy inside him, now literally kills Joe and Lorna when they get in a car accident. There is no going back on Joe’s decision to abandon his music career.

Violence
The play is saturated with violence. In addition to the obvious references during the preparation for the boxing matches, and the deaths of both Joe and the Chocolate Drop, Odets includes several other episodes of violence. In the third scene of the first act, Roxy notes that Joe has been pulling his punches in the ring, and that the crowd does not like him as a result. Says Roxy: ‘‘He’s a clever boy, that Bonaparte, and speedy—but he’s first-class lousy in the shipping department!’’ The crowd likes to see brutality, not technique or fancy footwork, and when Joe does not deliver this to them, they do not like him. However, later in the play, after Joe has transformed himself into a brutal boxer, the stage directions note during his fight that ‘‘The roar of THE CROWD mounts up and calls for a kill.’’

In addition to the boxing crowds, violence is expressed in other ways. Siggie and his wife, Anna, beat each other; Frank, Joe’s brother, gets injured in a labor strike; and Fuseli, a notorious gangster, threatens violence often, as when he warns Moody not to pick on Joe: ‘‘It would be funny if your arms got broke.’’ Later in the play, Joe tells Fuseli that ‘‘You use me like a gun!’’ another reference to Fuseli’s violent tendencies. When Fuseli thinks Lorna is distracting Joe and making him lose a fight, he tries to kick her out of Joe’s dressing room. When she does not move quick enough, the stage directions note the following: ‘‘Completely enraged and out of control, EDDIE half brings his gun out from under his left armpit.’’ If Joe had not stopped him, he might have killed Lorna.

Shame
Besides money and possessions, Joe also chooses to fight out of shame. He is ashamed about being poor, but his shame goes deeper than that. Joe is cross-eyed, a fact that he is embarrassed about and one which other characters mention constantly. When Moody does not want to let Joe fight in the beginning, he says: ‘‘You’re brash, you’re fresh, you’re callow—and you’re cock-eyed! In fact, you’re an insult to my whole nature!’’ When Moody later laughs at Joe because of his eyes, Joe tells him ‘‘I don’t like it. . . . I don’t want you to do it,’’ and grabs Moody as if he is going to hit him. Joe’s crosseyed condition is immediately plastered in the headlines of the newspapers after his fight, as Frank notes: ‘‘Flash: Chocolate Drop fails to K.O. new cock-eyed wonder.’’ This undue attention to Joe’s eyes has plagued him since he was a kid, as he notes to Lorna: ‘‘People have hurt my feelings for years. I never forget.’’ Joe’s eyes are not the only thing that have made him feel ashamed over the years. As he notes to Lorna, ‘‘Even my name was special— Bonaparte.’’ This flamboyant name plagues Joe, because it reminds people of the famous French dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte. Several people make fun of this name including Drake, one of the newspaper reporters, who says: ‘‘Bonaparte, I’ll watch for Waterloo with more than interest!’’ a reference to the famous battle that Napoleon lost.

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