The play is set in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook in the 1950s, near the small apartment of a man named Eddie. A middle-aged lawyer named Alfieri comes on stage and addresses the audience directly. He says that the people of this neighborhood distrust lawyers, just as their Sicilian ancestors always have. Describing Red Hook, he says that all the Italian immigrants there are “quite civilized, quite American,” and says, “justice is very important here.”
The opening of the play explicitly establishes the importance of the topic of justice, while also contextualizing the events of the play amid an immigrant community that balances its American identity with its collective Italian heritage.
Alfieri says that he has mostly dealt with simple, petty cases during his career, but occasionally finds a serious case that some ancient lawyer in Italy “in some Caesar’s year” would have dealt with. Eddie enters, and Alfieri introduces him to the audience as Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman who works on the docks. Eddie is returning home after work, and sees his niece Catherine.
The reference to “some Caesar’s year” asserts continuity between the community’s Italian (i.e. Roman) past and American present, even after the momentous changes of immigration.
Eddie notices that Catherine is well dressed and has made her hair look nice. He asks where she’s planning on going, and she says that she has news for him. Eddie says her skirt is too short, but Catherine disagrees. Eddie tells her that she should change how she walks down the sidewalk, because she’s drawing the attention of men.
Eddie is overprotective of Catherine, and thinks of her as a young, immature girl who doesn’t realize what kind of male attention she is drawing. But what kind of attention is Eddie himself giving to Catherine’s short skirt or way of walking?
Catherine begins to get upset, and Eddie reminds her that he promised her mother as she was dying that he would watch over Catherine. He tells Catherine that she is a “baby” and doesn’t “doesn’t understand these things.” Eddie calls for his wife, Beatrice, and says that her cousins have arrived from Italy. Beatrice enters and is surprised that they have come early. She worries that the house is not ready for them yet, but Eddie tells her that the cousins will “think it’s a millionaire’s house compared to the way they live.”
Again, Eddie claims that Catherine is immature and not old enough to make independent decisions. He is sure that Beatrice’s cousins will admire his apartment, because he is convinced that America is a more prosperous land of opportunity than places people immigrate from.
Beatrice is nervous for her cousins’ arrival, but Eddie says that it will be fine, as long as the cousins “know where they’re gonna sleep.” He’s worried that Beatrice is so generous she’ll give them her bed and Eddie and Beatrice will end up sleeping on the floor. He tells Beatrice she has “too big a heart.” Beatrice calls Eddie an angel for letting her cousins stay with them.
Eddie is allowing his cousins to stay at his apartment, but is already wary of his position as the respected head of the household being threatened by these new arrivals.
As the three prepare to eat dinner, Catherine shares her news with Eddie. She has gotten a job as a typist at a plumbing company, having been picked as the best student in her typing class. Catherine is excited, but Eddie is hesitant and doesn’t want her to be “with a lotta plumbers.” He says he doesn’t want Catherine to go to the neighborhood where the company is. Beatrice tries to persuade Eddie that Catherine would be safe there, and asks him, “you gonna keep her in the house all her life?”
Catherine is excited at this opportunity to begin to make her own independent life, but Eddie wants her to remain in the house and dependent on him, using fatherly concern as an excuse for his resistance. Beatrice stands up to Eddie on behalf of Catherine, a habit that Eddie finds disrespectful, as he will later tell her.
Eddie tells Catherine her hair makes her look like “the madonna type.” He relents and tells her she can take the job. Catherine is ecstatic and talks about what she’ll buy with her first paycheck. Eddie says Catherine will probably move out soon, and “come visit on Sundays, then once a month, then Christmas and New Year’s, finally.” He tells Catherine not to trust people and to be cautious.
Eddie’s compliment to Catherine also hints that he wants her to remain chaste, like the Madonna (the virgin Mary). He is worried not only about losing control over Catherine in his household, but also about losing Catherine entirely, as she begins to move toward her own life.
The three eat dinner, and then conversation returns to the topic of Beatrice’s cousins. Eddie reminds her of the importance of not saying anything to anyone about the cousins, since they are staying in the apartment illegally and are not legal immigrants. He says that the Immigration Bureau has people paid off in the neighborhood to report on illegal immigrants.
Eddie and other inhabitants of Red Hook have a complicated relationship to the law. They have a higher sense of familial duty and justice that contradicts the law’s mandates about immigration, so that they are forced to hide their illegal family members in their homes.
Eddie and Beatrice tell Catherine the story of a nearby boy who “snitched to the Immigration” about his illegal immigrant uncle. The boy’s family was so enraged by this betrayal that they “pulled him down the stairs,” beat him, and “spit on him in the street.” Catherine promises not to say a word about Beatrice’s cousins.
The story about the boy highlights the conflict between a familial sense of justice and the law. In obeying the law, the boy betrayed his family, who sought their own form of justice in violent revenge.
Catherine says she is supposed to start work the next Monday, and Eddie wishes her luck, with tears in his eyes. He jokes that he “never figured on” Catherine growing up. Catherine goes to get Eddie his cigar, and Eddie asks Beatrice why she is mad at him. She says she isn’t, and that he is the one who is mad. As this dinner scene comes to an end, Alfieri comes on stage and tells the audience that Eddie was a good, hard-working man. He says that around ten o’clock that night, Beatrice’s cousins arrived.
At this point, Eddie’s overprotective love for Catherine seems like that of a father-figure sad to let her go. But his feelings toward Catherine will gradually be revealed to be more complicated—and problematic. Alfieri informs the audience of Eddie’s good reputation as an honorable, hard-working man.
A man escorts Beatrice’s cousins, Rodolpho and Marco, to Eddie’s apartment. Marco and Rodolpho enter the apartment and meet Beatrice and Eddie. Marco thanks them for letting Rodolpho and him stay and says that as soon as Eddie wants them out, they will leave. Catherine notices and remarks on Rodolpho’s light blond hair.
Marco and Rodolpho are respectful of Eddie’s home and don’t want to intrude. As they cannot consider Eddie’s apartment their real home but have left theirs in Italy, they are temporarily without a home, a place where they feel they belong.
Eddie tells Marco and Rodolpho about the work they will have, on the docks. They talk about how there are no jobs where they are from in Italy, and people struggle to make money, pushing taxis up hills for example. Marco describes his wife and children, whom he has left back in Italy and to whom he is going to send back money as he works here. He and Rodolpho are excited at the opportunity to make money in the U.S. and are delighted when Eddie tells them they could make thirty or forty dollars a week.
Marco and Rodolpho’s motivation in coming to America is to find work. They are ecstatic at the opportunities available in New York, though they will later find that immigrating brings with it perhaps as many problems as opportunities. Marco is also motivated out of love for his family, and a desire to provide for them by sending money back home.
Catherine asks if Rodolpho is married. He isn’t, and he says he wants to stay in the U.S., become a rich American, and then one day return to Italy with a motorcycle. Rodolpho talks about what a status symbol a motorcycle is in Italy, and then says that he is also a singer, and once made money singing at a hotel. Catherine is intrigued and wants to hear him sing. He sings a song called “Paper Doll.”
Unlike Marco, Rodolpho has somewhat more naïve ambitions of wealth and prestige in immigrating. Catherine is quickly becoming infatuated with Rodolpho, a budding love that will greatly trouble the overprotective Eddie.
The lyrics of the song talk about being disillusioned with love, and say “I’m gonna buy a paper doll that I can call my own, a doll that other fellows cannot steal.” Eddie tells Rodolpho to stop singing, as it will alert neighbors that someone new is staying in the apartment. Marco tells Rodolpho to be quiet. Eddie notices that Catherine is wearing high-heeled shoes, and tells her to go into her room and change them.
The lyrics echo Eddie’s attempt to control and possess Catherine, like a paper doll. Catherine’s high-heeled shoes trouble Eddie because they suggest that she is a mature woman and also because they hint that she is trying to impress or capture the attention of Rodolpho.
As this scene comes to a close, Alfieri comes on stage and says that, ‘as the weeks passed . . . there was a trouble that would not go away.” The play resumes following Eddie and his family a few weeks in the future. Eddie is waiting impatiently for Catherine and Rodolpho to return from seeing a movie. He tells Beatrice that Rodolpho is supposed to stay inside when he isn’t working, to avoid getting caught. Beatrice tells him to stop worrying.
Eddie pretends to be merely concerned with Rodolpho getting caught for being an illegal immigrant, but is clearly concerned about his relationship with Catherine, whom he doesn’t want to see grow up and whom he doesn’t want to see develop a relationship with any man other than him.
Eddie asks Beatrice if Catherine has said anything about Rodolpho, and Beatrice says that Rodolpho is “a nice kid." Eddie disagrees, and Beatrice says he’s jealous of him. Eddie thinks this is ridiculous, and is displeased at the idea of Rodolpho and Catherine being together. He says that Rodolpho sings while working, so that the other longshoremen have nicknamed him Paper Doll. He says Rodolpho is “weird” and has “wacky hair.”
Beatrice’s suggestion that Eddie may be jealous hints that Eddie’s overprotective affection for Catherine may edge into a kind of incestuous desire. Eddie hints that he has doubts about Rodolpho’s masculinity and sexuality, but he himself seems particularly fixated on Rodolpho’s appearance.
Eddie says that Marco “goes around like a man,” in contrast to Rodolpho. He says he didn’t bring Catherine up for someone like Rodolpho. Beatrice changes the subject and asks, “When am I gonna be a wife again, Eddie?” She says it’s been months since they’ve slept together, and Eddie says he doesn’t want to talk about it. He goes back to the subject of Catherine, and Beatrice says that Catherine is eighteen and old enough to make her own decisions.
Eddie is uncomfortable with Rodolpho, but perhaps more generally with the idea of Catherine leaving him for another man. He doesn’t accept, as Beatrice does, that Catherine is an independent, mature person. Beatrice’s question to Eddie potentially raises questions about his sexual desires.
Eddie goes outside and talks with two neighbors, Mike and Louis, about Marco and Rodolpho. They compliment Marco’s strength and work ethic, but then say that Rodolpho “has a sense of humor,” and seem to suggest that something is strange about him. They say that Rodolpho is “just humorous,” though they seem to be implying something more, as they laugh about Rodolpho. Mike and Louis leave, just as Rodolpho and Catherine enter.
Mike and Louis represent the backdrop of the neighborhood against which the play’s family drama takes place. Eddie worries about his and Rodolpho’s reputation among his neighbors. Given Eddie’s earlier concerns about Rodolpho’s appearance, one can guess that Mike and Louis are hinting at Rodolpho’s questionable sexuality.
Eddie asks where Catherine and Rodolpho have been, wanting to make sure they haven’t gone to Times Square. Catherine says that Rodolpho has been telling her about Italy, where there are fountains in every town and orange and lemon trees. Eddie tells Rodolpho that he wants to talk to Catherine alone. Rodolpho leaves, and Eddie says that he never sees Catherine anymore. He says she used to always be there when he got home, but now she is “a big girl,” and he doesn’t know how to talk to her.
While Rodolpho has abandoned Italy for the opportunities of America, Catherine is fascinated and intrigued by Italy, partially because she is oppressed and stifled by her own home. Eddie is upset that Catherine is growing more independent, and is also confused by his own complicated feelings toward her now that she is “a big girl.”
Eddie asks Catherine if she likes Rodolpho. She says she does, and he warns her that Rodolpho doesn’t respect her, and hasn’t asked his permission to “run around” with her. Catherine insists that Rodolpho respects both her and Eddie. Eddie says that Rodolpho is trying to use Catherine to become an American citizen through marriage. He says that he is suspicious because Rodolpho hasn’t sent his money back to Italy, but has used it to buy “snappy new” clothes.
Eddie masks his attempt to sabotage Catherine’s relationship with Rodolpho as fatherly concern, when he simply wants her under his own watch and control. Marriage would potentially offer Rodolpho a way to solidify his immigration and truly become an American.
Catherine is upset, and insists that Rodolpho loves her. She runs into the apartment and Eddie follows her. Inside, Beatrice angrily tells Eddie to leave Catherine alone. Eddie walks outside, and Beatrice talks to Catherine. She tells Catherine that she is no longer a baby, and asks what she wants to do. Catherine says she wants to get married but is worried because Eddie is so against it. Beatrice tells her that no man would be good enough for Catherine in Eddie’s eyes.
Beatrice stands up for Catherine, as Catherine is still not independent enough to stand up for herself. Beatrice suggests that Eddie’s problem is not with Rodolpho but with Catherine seeing any man, but does not specify whether this is out of paternal concern or romantic jealousy.
Beatrice tells Catherine, “you gotta be your own self more,” and encourages her to make her own decisions and not let Eddie order her around. Beatrice tells Catherine to stop acting like a little girl around Eddie, “talkin’ to him when he’s shavin’ in his underwear,” and throwing herself at him when he comes home, “like when you was twelve years old.”
Ironically, if Catherine were to follow Beatrice’s advice in being more her “own self,” she would just be allowing someone else to dictate her behavior. Regardless, Catherine is caught on the threshold of adulthood; she is in the midst of her own process of “immigration” from childhood to maturity.
Beatrice tells Catherine that she needs to act differently and tell Eddie not to order her around, because if Beatrice tells him this, he will only think she is jealous of Catherine. Catherine is astonished and asks if Eddie said Beatrice was jealous of her. Beatrice says no, and that she isn’t jealous. Beatrice tells Catherine that she is a woman now, and Catherine promises to behave more like an adult.
The idea that Beatrice might be jealous of Catherine suggests that Eddie has a taboo desire for Catherine. Note that Beatrice's advice that Catherine be more independent is also a bit self-serving, as it would get Catherine out of the house and separate her from Eddie.
Alfieri comes on stage and tells the audience that around this time, Eddie first came to him. He says that when Eddie came to his office, he looked passionate and upset. Alfieri goes to his office, where Eddie is sitting. He asks Eddie what he wants him to do, since there is nothing illegal about Catherine falling in love with Rodolpho.
Eddie feels that the way Rodolpho has courted Catherine is simply not right, and that he should therefore have some recourse in the law. But Alfieri is bound by the specificities of the law, which don’t address every instance of right and wrong.
Eddie says that Rodolpho is only interested in Catherine in order to become an American citizen, but Alfieri says there is no proof of this. Eddie says that Rodolpho isn’t saving his money but is spending it on all sorts of things, which is very suspicious because most illegal immigrants are only in New York to work and save up money to send back home.
Eddie is suspicious about nearly all aspects of Rodolpho, and doubts that he has any intention of ever returning to Italy, but again nothing in Rodolpho’s behavior or spending habits is illegal.
Eddie then tells Alfieri that Rodolpho “ain’t right.” Alfieri tries to get Eddie to be more specific, and Eddie says that Rodolpho has bright blond hair and is skinny and weak. He describes how Rodolpho sings and hits very high notes with an almost womanly voice. He says that recently Catherine had a dress that was too small for her, and Rodolpho took it apart and sewed it up into a new dress for her.
Eddie hints that Rodolpho may be homosexual, an accusation he never explicitly specifies. But Eddie himself again seems curiously preoccupied with Rodolpho’s sexuality. As with Catherine, there may be more to Eddie’s feelings about Rodolpho than he realizes.
Eddie says that people on the docks call Rodolpho “Paper Doll” and “Blondie,” and laugh at him. Alfieri again tells Eddie that there is no legal action he can take. Eddie reiterates that Rodolpho “ain’t right,” but Alfieri says the only legal matter here is the fact that Rodolpho is an illegal immigrant. Eddie says he’d never report Rodolpho to the Immigration Bureau.
The title of the song suggests fragility and femininity. Eddie is worried that Rodolpho’s reputation among the dock workers may affect his own reputation. Alfieri reminds him, though, that none of Eddie’s suspicions point to anything illegal. Eddie still has too much respect for his own honor and his familial duty to turn Rodolpho in.
Alfieri tells Eddie that sometimes there’s simply too much love in a man’s life and “it goes where it musn’t.” He says that sometimes a man works so hard to bring up a child that “he never realizes it, but through the years—there is too much love for the daughter, there is too much love for the niece.” Eddie doesn’t quite get Alfieri’s point, and Alfieri tells him that children have to grow up and advises him to let Catherine go.
Alfieri tries to get Eddie to realize that his feelings for Catherine are problematic, that he has mixed up fatherly affection with romantic desire and cares too much for Catherine. When Eddie doesn’t take this hint, Alfieri encourages him to recognize Catherine’s independence and maturity as a young woman.
Eddie gets up to go, and talks about how hard he has worked, going anywhere he could find jobs, just to support Catherine and raise her. He angrily talks about how he has taken Rodolpho in and given him shelter, and now he “puts his dirty filthy hands on her like a goddam thief!” He shouts that Rodolpho is stealing from him. Alfieri tells Eddie that Catherine wants to get married, and says she can’t marry Eddie. Eddie is shocked and asks what Alfieri is talking about. Alfieri tells Eddie to stop worrying about Catherine and Rodolpho.
Eddie sees Rodolpho’s taking Catherine as a kind of assault on his honor, after he has worked so hard to support and raise Catherine. His calling Rodolpho a thief suggests that he sees Catherine as an object that he possesses and has ownership of. Alfieri once again hints at the extent of Eddie’s real desire for Catherine, which Eddie is still unaware of and denies.
Eddie leaves, and Alfieri tells the audience that he knew then what would happen, but was powerless to stop it. Back at Eddie’s apartment, Catherine tells Beatrice about how Rodolpho and Marco once went to Africa on a fishing boat. Marco and Rodolpho talk about working on fishing boats in the ocean. Catherine is fascinated by the idea of traveling all over on a boat, and talks about the orange and lemon trees Rodolpho says are in Italy.
Through the character of Alfieri, Miller displays how the law is often powerless to right every wrong or prevent every tragedy, because it doesn’t always line up perfectly with justice. Having been somewhat oppressed by Eddie and kept within her home, Catherine is fascinated by the idea of travelling to exotic places.
Marco talks about how much money he has been able to save and send back to his wife in Italy. Eddie jokes that there must be “plenty surprises sometimes” when people return home to Italy and find more children there than when they left. Marco says, “the women wait, Eddie,” and Rodolpho says it’s “more strict” in Italy and “not so free” as it is in America. Getting upset, Eddie says it “ain’t so free here either,” and says one wouldn’t “drag off some girl without permission” in America.
Marco and Rodolpho show two different examples of the complex immigrant experience: Marco is completely dedicated to working and maximizing his economic chances in the U.S. Eddie implies that Rodolpho’s going out with Catherine is an act of disrespect toward him and thinks that he has the right to dictate who Catherine sees.
Rodolpho assures Eddie that he has respect for Catherine and asks if he has done anything wrong. Eddie says that Rodolpho has come home late with Catherine, and Marco tells Rodolpho to get home early from now on. Eddie says that Rodolpho shouldn’t go out so much, as he risks getting caught, and that if he came to “make a livin’” for his family, he should spend his time working.
Marco is wary of offending Eddie in his own home, and respectful of Eddie as a family member who has helped him, and thus tells Rodolpho to listen to Eddie. Eddie acts as if he is simply concerned about Rodolpho getting caught, when he clearly has ulterior motives in not wanting him to go out with Catherine.
Catherine puts on a record, playing the song “Paper Doll,” and asks Rodolpho if he wants to dance. Rodolpho and Catherine dance, and Beatrice asks Marco about the fishing boats he worked on. Marco talks about the kitchen on the boat, and says that Rodolpho was a very good cook. Eddie sarcastically says, “It’s wonderful. He sings, he cooks, he could make dresses.”
The song is something shared between Catherine and Rodolpho, and her dancing to it in front of Eddie is a deliberate act of defiance, the first example of her standing up to him, if subtly. Eddie implicitly questions Rodolpho’s sexuality, which he is again concerned with.
Eddie says that the docks aren’t the place for Rodolpho to be working, and says he would work somewhere else if he could make dresses, like a dress store. Eddie asks Marco if he wants to go see a boxing fight, and then asks Rodolpho if he has ever boxed. He offers to teach him, and Rodolpho and Eddie stand up to practice boxing. He starts to show Rodolpho some boxing moves, and then asks Rodolpho to try to hit him.
Eddie again questions Rodolpho’s masculinity and, implicitly, his sexuality. Feeling as though his place of dominance in his own home is being challenged, he uses the excuse of teaching boxing as a way of establishing his honor and power over Rodolpho.
Rodolpho grazes Eddie’s jaw, and Eddie tells him to try to block his punch now. Eddie lands a blow on Rodolpho, and Marco stands up in protest, but Rodolpho says he’s fine. Eddie says he’ll teach Rodolpho again sometime. Catherine and Rodolpho dance again to “Paper Doll.”
The tensions between Eddie and Rodolpho play out in their sparring, as Eddie tries to reestablish his honor, and Marco nearly steps in to defend Rodolpho’s. Catherine again subtly defies Eddie in dancing to “Paper Doll.”
Marco places a chair in front of Eddie and asks if he can lift it with one hand, from one of the chair’s legs, while kneeling on the ground. Eddie can’t. Marco gets on the ground and lifts the chair with one hand. He stands up so that he is holding the chair above his head, face to face with Eddie. He gives Eddie a look of warning that then turns into “a smile of triumph.”
Marco now displays his own strength and sense of honor in lifting the chair. Marco's “smile of triumph” suggests that he is beginning to see Eddie as something of a bully, and that he sees himself as having successfully challenged Eddie's power in his own home. Yet, still, the rebellion here is a quiet one, still within the family.