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The Contender

Robert Lipsyte

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

Why is it so important to Alfred to maintain his friendship with James, even when it seems James could not care less?

Alfred knows how James feels. He even understands the reasons that crime and drugs appeal so much to James. They have the same basic problem—that they do not fit in anywhere. They are not in school, Alfred has a low position at a job, and James does not even have a job. Neither knows exactly where he is headed in life, nor where he wants to be heading. They are both lost, and when Alfred begins to find his way he wants to help James and share what he has found. He knows that James is salvageable—if Alfred could be saved, then James can be. Also, James is the single person with whom Alfred used to feel like he fit in. With the loss of both of his parents, James was Alfred's only family. Throughout the book Alfred understands the importance of having people close to him who understand what he wants to do and why.

What role do socio-economics play in the book?

Money is one of those characteristics that Alfred thinks defines people. Some people are defined by the fact that they have copious amounts of money. Others, like him, are defined by the fact that they do not have much money and are constantly in a position of needing it. James is defined by money—not only does he need money for basic needs, but he needs money to support another defining characteristic of his—drug use. Lack of money provides motivation for James, Major, and Hollis to turn to crime. And, money provides motivation for Alfred to work. Meeting Spoon changes Alfred's opinion about priorities, as he realizes the importance of education and also observes its direct link to money.

In this book money breeds fear too. Alfred sees bums in the city—people who have no future because they do not, and probably will not ever, have any money. Especially in witnessing James's downfall, Alfred releases that very little separates himself from these people, except that they are not contenders. One of the reasons Alfred feels left out is because socio-economic factors, in a sense, push him out. He does not have much money or live in a nice part of town, and he is not educated. In these terms, he defined by what he does not have and who he is not, and, thus, he finds it harder to find people and places where he seems to fit in.

Why does Mr. Donatelli go out on a limb for Alfred?

Mr. Donatelli sees something in Alfred on the night Alfred first comes to the gym. He is alone, it is nighttime and dark, and Alfred is obviously out of place. There is something very basic and very understandable about Alfred's need to fit in, and Mr. Donatelli recognizes this right away. Mr. Donatelli knows from the outset and even tells Alfred that he needs more than just a yearning to be a champion. He knows that Alfred needs to train because he needs to learn some crucial things about himself, and as a teacher Donatelli focuses on those aspects even more than he focuses on the boxing itself.

What do you think Lipsyte is trying to say about race relations in the book?

Why does Lipsyte pick boxing as the subject of a text about a boy coming of age and learning about himself? Why not another sport? Why a sport at all?

In using Willie Streeter as an example, what is Lipsyte suggesting about the nature and limitations of fear?

What do you make of the fact that Alfred has a big extended family (with whom he lives) but no immediate family? Why is this fact important?

How does Aunt Pearl differ from her own parents in terms of allowing Alfred the freedom to make his own choices?

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