Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


The support system Alfred finds in the book is born out of loyalty. The people who help him—Mr. Donatelli, Spoon, Jelly Belly and Henry—are not simply loyal to Alfred, but they are loyal to each other. They are loyal to boxing and to what they know it can inspire in people, and they are loyal to anyone who wants something hard enough to work for it. Alfred had never been treated like that by anyone before, and when it comes time for him to display loyalty and help someone else out, he is capable of doing so.

The Pursuit of Dreams

Aunt Pearl tells Alfred that, when she was seventeen, she wanted to sing in a show, but her mother would not let her. She says that what hurt was not that she failed to realize a dream, but that she was never allowed to try. Although she is not crazy about the idea of her nephew boxing, she allows Alfred to do it because she understands that he needs to pursue the dream, even if it does not work out. She understands what it means to need to "know," and thus against her better judgment allows Alfred to continue boxing.


A curious thing happens to Alfred at his first fight—he wins. An even stranger thing that happens after this fight is that he is not particularly happy about it. This is when Donatelli gets the sense that Alfred is not cut out for boxing, and it is also when Donatelli learns that Alfred is not boxing to win—he is boxing to learn about himself and focus his determination. During the course of the book, Lipsyte redefines what it means to win; It is after the only fight that Alfred actually loses where he actually gains the most. After this losing fight, Alfred realizes that he is a "contender" and, in a sense, comes out the big winner.