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Free Study Guide for The Contender by Robert Lipsyte Free BookNotes

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Comparisons and Contrasts

The Contender provides studies in both comparison and contrast:

Alfred and James

Alfred and James share many similarities. Both of them are poor blacks who have unstable family lives. Alfred’s mother died when he was very young, and his father left home, deserting him. James’ father was a drunk who did not take care of his son. As children, Alfred and James went to the same school, liked the same things, and shared their joys and sorrows. They also had ambitions of escaping from Harlem, becoming successful engineers, and leading comfortable lives. Unfortunately, they both dropped out of high school after eleventh grade.

As high school dropouts and young adults, Alfred and James became very different. Alfred developed a positive attitude about life, while James drowned himself in negative thoughts. Alfred worked hard for his employer, the Epsteins, while James spent his time hanging out with Major and Hollis and getting into trouble. Alfred tried to fight temptation, refusing to be influenced by troublemakers, like Major and Hollis; James quickly succumbed to the temptations offered by Major, participating in robberies with him and taking drugs. Alfred continued to care about James and be concerned about his welfare; James only came to Alfred when he needed money to purchase drugs. At the end of the novel, Alfred convinces James to enter a rehabilitation center in order to turn his life around; therefore, there is hope that the two friends will become more similar again in the future.

Alfred and Jeff

Alfred and Jeff can be compared in several ways. They are cousins of approximately the same age. They are both intelligent, ambitious, and disciplined. Both also have lofty goals. Through much of the book, Jeff wants to go to Africa and make a fortune for himself as a businessman, while Alfred wants to become a champion boxer. Both boys have a change of heart in the course of the novel. Jeff decides that he would rather establish self-help centers for black young people than to go to Africa and get rich; Alfred decides he would rather become a teacher of disadvantaged black youth than to be a champion boxer. It is clear that the cousins both possess a noble heart that wants to reach out and help needy people.

Henry and James

Henry and James present studies in contrast. Henry, the son of the club manager, is disabled but makes an effort to rise above his disability to establish his identity in his small world. Though he stays in the premises of the club, he shuns the company of Major and his friends who frequent the club to pursue their dubious activities. Instead of remaining in the shadow of his father, he strives to assert his identity by joining the gym as a helper. He is conscious of his limp but hates to gain sympathy or help through his disability. He helps Bud and Donatelli in training the students and giving them first aid whenever they require it. Thus, he helps Alfred in gaining confidence and becoming able to compete in a boxing match. Instead of indulging in self-pity, he encourages boys like Alfred to improve their image. Through his determination and courage, he gains the admiration of the readers.

James is a total contrast to Henry. Although he is physically and mentally able to succeed in life, he easily succumbs to temptations. He drops out of school and does not get a job. Instead, he hangs out at the club and befriends troublemakers, like Major and Hollis. He is easily persuaded by Major to join in on the robbery of the Epsteins’ home; when he is caught by the police, he spends time in jail. After his release, he returns to his life of crime, taking drugs and participating in robberies. While Henry emerges from the shadow of his disability to become a success, James hides in the shadow of his weakness and becomes a failure.

Major And Donatelli

There are two forces that influence Alfred in his struggle for success. Major is a bad influence, and Donatelli is a good one. Major, described as a devil in disguise, has a negative affect on everyone around him. He beats Alfred up for saying nothing about the Epsteins’ alarm, gets him drunk on vodka, takes him to Coney Island in a stolen car, and tries to make him come down to his level. In contrast to Major, Donatelli tries to positively influence Alfred. He helps him in his training, demands that he gives his best, and encourages him. When Alfred feels guilty about succumbing to the evil influence of Major and thinks about quitting his training, Donatelli changes his mind, convincing him to work hard than ever towards his goal of being a champion boxer. Under the guidance of Donatelli, Alfred gains strength, confidence, and self-knowledge.


Robert Lipsyte portrays the setting of the book and his characters so realistically that the novel at times seems almost autobiographical. The spirit of life in Harlem is clearly captured from the beginning. In fact, the book opens with Alfred waiting for James "on the stoop until twilight, pretending to watch the sun melt into the dirty gray Harlem sky. Up and down the street, transistor radios clicked on and hummed into the sour air. Men dragged out card tables, laughing. Cars cruised through the garbage and broken glass, older guys showed off their Friday night girls." In these few lines, Lipsyte brings Harlem to life.

Lipstye also captures with realism the temptations and difficulties that a black teenager must face in Harlem. James is tempted into robbing homes and taking drugs. Alfred is constantly challenged by Major, who tries to tempt him into a life of crime, beats him up, tries to steal his money, and forces him to go with him to Coney Island in a stolen car. Alfred also succumbs to the temptation of smoking marijuana and underage drinking. Alfred must also undergo ridicule for being employed in the home of a white family. "Sonny and Hollis began to laugh as Major shuffled around the dim, warm room, his muscular arms dangling like a monkey’s, his eyes rolling, his black head bobbing in ugly imitation of an old time Negro servant. ‘I can see you now, Alfred, good old Uncle Alfred. Yassuh, Mistuh Ben, I be so grat-I-fied you’s kick me now and again, show how much white folks love us.’ The laughter rose high-pitched and nervous. Alfred peeked at their faces, black and sweating in the semi-circle around him. Hollis and Sonny grinning and nodding."

Robert Lipsyte is equally good at creating a realistic picture of Donatelli’s gym and the pain of training and boxing.
When Alfred first enters the gym, he is astounded by the hectic activity in the place.

"Half-naked bodies were jumping and twisting and jerking around. Bells rang, the peanut bag went rackety-rackety-rackety, ropes swish-slapped against the squeaking floorboards, someone screamed, ‘TIME,’ and gasping voices, ‘Uh ... uh ... uh-uh,’ and an enormous black belly rushed past, spraying heat like a lawn sprinkler."

Lipsyte is also masterful in creating dialogue, as evidenced in one of Alfred’s interactions with Aunt Pearl. The first morning after Alfred returns from jogging in the park, Aunt Pearl is suspicious:

"Alfred?" Her face was stern, her hands on her hips.
"Yes, ma’am." He winked at the girls, kissed his aunt on top of her head, and cakewalked around the kitchen table.
"No applause, folks, please."
"You drunk?"
"Now, Aunt Pearl, you know I never drink till after breakfast."
Charlene giggled in her cereal.
"Where you been?"
"Out running."
"From what?"
"From One Hundred Tenth to Eighty-fifth street and back nearly three miles."
"Don’t you make fun of me, Alfred. Wipe that smirk off your face. Where you been?"
"Ladeez ... and, uh, ladies. An announcement."
The twins began to giggle too.
"Introducing Alfred Brooks, the up-and-coming champeen of the world."
"Now you gonna be the down-and -out chump if you keep on."
She snatched up a big wooden serving spoon. "You ain’t that big I can’t still whip that smirk off your face."
The girls ducked back into their cereal.
"Now. Where you been?"
"I been running in the park, build up my wind, get in shape, strengthen my legs."
"Slow down. What are you talking about?"
"Aunt Pearl, I’m gonna be a boxer."
"Boxer!" The word rattled the cereal bowls, and the girls came up with milk on their noses.
"Are you out of your mind? Boxer! Now you better ... Alfred Brooks, I can tell, you’re not fooling, are you?"

Alfred’s announcement, Aunt Pearl’s disbelief, and the girls’ amusement are all captured so realistically and cleverly that the readers are able to visualize the scene and have a hearty laugh over it.

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