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Free Study Guide for The Contender by Robert Lipsyte Free BookNotes

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The plot of The Contender is simple, straightforward, and chronological as it tells of Alfredís coming of age. It follows the classic pattern of plot development. The first few chapters are largely introductory, presenting the characters, setting, themes, and conflict. The rising action begins when Alfred enters Donatelliís gym, where he will learn how to build his self-confidence and resist temptations. The rising action centers on Alfredís development as a human being. Through his training and his boxing matches, he learns who he is and what he wants in life. He suffers one major setback along his path to maturity. Hoping to see his old friend James, he accepts Majorís invitation to attend a party, where he gets drunk and smokes marijuana. After the party, he is so disgusted with himself and his behavior that he seriously thinks about quitting his training. Donatelliís words of encouragement convince Alfred he should forgive himself and train harder. As a result, Alfred works out at the gym with renewed vigor, regularly overcoming pain and exhaustion.

After months of work, Alfred is finally ready for a public boxing match. Although he has a difficult time in the ring during his first fight, he is finally declared the winner, which boosts his confidence. He again struggles against a fierce opponent in his second match but is finally able, through sheer determination, to knock him out in the third round. Much to Alfredís surprise, he is not delighted about the knock out; instead, he is troubled that he has seriously hurt another human being. Accepting the truth about his feelings, Alfred decides that he does not want to be a boxer. It is the climax and turning point of the novel, for Alfred knows what he wants and has accepted who he is.

In the falling action, Alfred goes to the gym and announces his decision to Donatelli, who agrees that he has made the right choice. Donatelli also grants Alfred permission to box in one last match. During the fight, Alfred proves to himself and the world that he is truly a contender. Although he loses the fight, he has proven himself to be self-confident and mature. He is now ready to return to school to pursue his higher education, to find a job he really wants, and to help his friend James. In the conclusion of the novel, Alfred finds James hiding in the cave and convinces him to enroll in a rehab center. Alfred also makes the decision that he wants to work with disadvantaged children at the recreation center while attending night school. By the end of the book, the reader is convinced that Alfred will have a bright future, for he has overcome his weaknesses and problems.

The plot is unified by time, place, and character. The entire novel takes place over a few months and is largely set at Aunt Pearlís house, Donatelliís gym, the park, and the boxing arena. The book is further unified by the constant presence of Alfred, the central character and protagonist of the plot. The book follows his development from an unsure youth to a self-confident young man.


The difficulty of finding oneís true identity is the major theme of the novel.

At the start of the novel, Alfred is unsure of himself, acting indecisively and turning to James for company and solace. Orphaned at a young age, he has no role model to follow and no specific goal in life. After meeting Henry and Donatelli, Alfred decides to take up boxing. He joins the gym and works hard every day in order to improve his strength, stamina, and boxing ability. His efforts pay dividends. He wins his first two matches and competes effectively in the third match against a formidable opponent. Despite his victories, Alfred is troubled, for he does not like injuring another human being in order to be a winner in the ring. He realizes that he has the instinct to preserve life rather than to harm it. Accepting that he does not possess the killer instinct of a champion boxer, Alfred decides to permanently retire from the ring in order to pursue a higher level of education and to become a teacher like Spoon. He especially wants to help disadvantaged black children at the local recreation center. He also desires to reform James and make him his partner in his endeavors. Although Alfred struggles in the book to find his true identity, by the novelís end he knows who he is and what he wants out of life.

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