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Free Study Guide for The Contender by Robert Lipsyte Free BookNotes

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Alfred Brooks

During the book, Alfred Brooks, a seventeen-year-old adolescent and the protagonist of the novel, develops from an indecisive youth into a confident young man. The novel is really his coming of age story.

In the first chapters, Alfred, who was orphaned at a young age, appears as a shy, restless youth who almost seems afraid of his own shadow. He swallows the insults hurled by Major and Hollis and avoids answering the questions posed by his uncle about his future. When he learns that James, his good friend, is going with Major and his gang to rob the home of the Epsteins, Alfred, feeling helpless, does not really try to stop any of them. After the robbery fiasco, Major confronts him and blames Alfred for not telling them about the Epsteinsí alarm. He then strikes Alfred, who does nothing to try and protect himself.

Largely due to the misery that he feels over the loss of his friendship with James, who is in jail, Alfred decides that he will go to Donatelliís gym and train to be a boxer. He begins to work out daily and becomes stronger and more confident. He is still, however, not strong enough to stand up for himself or resist temptation. He accepts Majorís invitation to go to a party, for he hopes to see James there. At the party, Alfred allows Major to feed him vodka drinks to the point that he becomes inebriated. He also allows Arlene to talk him into smoking a cigarette, which happens to be filled with marijuana. When he finally spies James, he realizes that his friend is taking drugs; but he does nothing to try and stop him. Later in the book, he even gives James money, which only helps to feed his habits.

After the party, Alfred is so ashamed of his behavior that he decides he is unworthy to continue his training as a boxer. As a result, he goes to the gym to collect his belongings that are stored there. When Donatelli gives him a bit of encouragement, Alfred changes his mind and begins to train with more diligence and determination than before. He still, however, shows his naiveté by thinking he is ready to take on an opponent in the ring after only six weeks of training. At least when Donatelli tells him he must get much better before he fights a match, Alfred understands and continues to train towards his goal. He also gains the self-assurance to stand up to Major when he tempts him again.

After many long weeks, Donatelli tells Alfred he is ready for a real opponent. During his first match, Alfred is shocked by the bright lights of the arena, the insults of the noisy crowd, and the power of his opponent. Even though he struggles in the first round, Alfred is determined and refuses to give up. By the second round, he is able to throw punches at his opponent and has managed to stay in the match in spite of his pain. Even when Donatelli suggests that he give up, Alfred refuses; he is determined to fight until the end. By the third round, he has tired his opponent, while gaining confidence in himself. As a result, he boxes well, and at the end of the match, the referee declares Alfred the victor.

The opponent in Alfredís second match is much larger, stronger, more powerful, and better trained that his last opponent; but once again, Alfred is determined to win. Although he struggles in the first round, he becomes much more effective by the second round. Then in the third round, Alfred is finally able to overpower his opponent, hitting him with powerful blows and finally sending him to the floor. The referee declares it a knockout, causing Alfred to win his second match. Instead of gaining great pleasure from his victory, Alfred is miserable over inflicting such serious injury to another human being. He begins to question if he should be a boxer after all.

Before his third and final boxing match, Alfred makes the decision to leave the ring. Donatelli agrees with his decision, for he simply has not seen the "killer instinct" in his student. He does, however, encourage Alfred to apply the same determination he has shown in his training to another pursuit that suits him better. The reader feels certain that Alfred will follow Donatelliís advice. The reader is also not surprised that Alfred wants to fight one final match to prove to himself and the world that he truly is a contender.

Alfredís opponent in the third match is well-known as a powerful boxer. Alfred struggles against him from the beginning. When Donatelli suggests between rounds that Alfred just give up the fight, he refuses, for he wants to go out with his head held high. By the third round, Alfred is dealing his opponent some significant blows, but he is still unable to master him. As a result, he loses the match, but he is proud of his final performance. Because he has gained self-confidence, Alfred can think positively about his future. He decides he will continue his education in night school and work at the recreation center to help disadvantaged young children. He is also determined convince James to enter a rehabilitation center.

Circumstances help to shape Alfredís identity and make him determined; but his kindness and generosity are basic characteristics that he has possessed from the beginning. He gives up boxing because he does not want to hurt another human being. In addition, part of his reason for wanting to be successful is that he hopes to

earn enough money to provide comforts to his aunt and luxuries to his nieces. He also wants to help James and seizes the opportunity to turn him around when he finds him hiding in the cave. By the novelís end, Alfred has proven that he is a mature and selfless young man who is destined to have a bright future.

Aunt Pearl

After Alfred is orphaned at a young age, Aunt Pearl takes him in and becomes the stabilizing factor in his life. Since Pearl is a moral and religious woman, she becomes a visible and questioning conscience for her nephew. At the end of each day, Alfred returns back home to his aunt and answers to her. Her concern and worry over him help Alfred to accept responsibility and resist temptation. Aunt Pearl is also sensitive. She is often able to read Alfredís mind and to understand his dilemmas before he explains them. She is anxious about his welfare and cautions him about making the right decisions for the future. She also cares for him lovingly and gently, especially when he needs a tender touch. During the book, Aunt Pearl talks to Alfred about her past, which was filled with difficulties; but she never complains or seems unhappy. Instead, she tries to be upbeat for Alfred and her daughters so they will have a sense of happiness and security. Her sacrifices for the children prove that she is a kind, loving, and intelligent mother and aunt.


Donatelli, the manager of the gym, is a significant, positive influence in Alfredís life. At a stage, when Alfred is unsure of his image and surrounded by unruly elements, Donatelli becomes his savior, encouraging the boy to think positively and act decisively to establish his identity in a harsh world. He boosts Alfredís confidence by hinting about his potential as a boxer and creates the right atmosphere for him to pursue his ambition with dedication. As a hard taskmaster and strict disciplinarian, Donatelli demands that Alfred work with diligence and determination. As a result, Alfred respects him greatly.

Although Donatelli sometimes appears to be stern, it is clear he has a tender heart.

He is greatly concerned about the welfare of his boxing students and helps them to develop strength to fight successfully against any opponent in the ring. Before a match, he makes certain that his students are rested, properly fed, and encouraged.

During the match, Donatelli expects his students to do their best; however, if they any of them become injured, he feels distressed and tries to halt the match to stop them from getting more seriously wounded. In summary, Donatelli is a good, considerate, and disciplined trainer, who loves his students and tries to protect them from harm.

Bill Witherspoon

Bill Witherspoon, known by all as Spoon, is the best example in the novel of goodness and practical sense rolled in one person. He is educated, refined, humble and generous. Also, he is a good sportsman. Since he is a former champion in boxing, he visits Donatelliís gym to train newcomers and attends their competitions to keep in touch with the game. He is very appreciative of his own boxing training, for he feels it gave him confidence to face the world and to use his abilities to his best advantage. After leaving the ring, Spoon pursued a college degree and became a teacher. He also married a charming woman, who is also a teacher. They live in a comfortable home in Manhattan, which they generously share with the boxing trainees. Alfred is taken to Spoonís apartment before each of his boxing matches. There he relaxes and is fed a large, delicious meal. Alfred learns to truly appreciate and respect Spoon. He is especially impressed with Spoon when he encourages him to go to night school and when he talks to him about James needing to go to a rehabilitation center. By the end of the novel, Bill Witherspoon has clearly shown that he is a good man, loving husband, and generous friend.


Although James is not actually seen often in the novel, the reader learns a great deal about him from the thoughts and actions of Alfred and from what other people say about him. James is weak in character, especially in comparison to Alfred. He chooses to befriend Major, to take drugs, and to become involved in crime. Because he is not an experienced criminal, he is easily caught by the police when he tries to rob the Epsteins and is sent to jail. When he is released, he continues to run with Major and be involved in illegal activities. In spite of Jamesí weaknesses, Alfred always thinks of him as a friend and wants to help him, for they had been childhood companions, sharing their joys and sorrows. They had studied in the same school, shared similar interests, and confided their hopes and fears to each other in their secret cave. As a result, Alfred is determined to help his friend. When he finds him hiding in the cave after the second robbery, Alfred convinces James that he needs to turn his life around by checking into the rehabilitation center. He promises to help and stand by his friend along the way. The reader feels that James will improve and get his life back together, largely because of the efforts and constant friendship of Alfred.


In the novel, Major is developed as the classic bad guy or villain. Called a "devil in disguise," Major is responsible for leading James down a path of destruction and tempting Alfred on several occasions. Major lives a life of crime. He is the one who plans the robberies at the Epsteins and who steals a car. He also gets Alfred drunk at a party and causes James to start taking drugs. Major is a totally flat character, for no where in the book does he display a redeeming characteristic or try to improve himself or his behavior. As a result, he becomes a stock character who symbolizes evil.

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