West Side Story Summary

Irving Shulman

West Side Story

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West Side Story Summary

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Irving Shulman’s West Side Story is a novelization of the famous musical by the same name. The story centers around two rival gangs fighting for dominance of New York City’s Upper West Side, and the love of a young man and young woman caught in the middle. The Jets are composed of whites and led by Riff. The Sharks are Puerto Rican and led by Bernardo. Riff encourages Tony, a friend and former member of the Jets, to participate in a showdown against the Sharks. Although hesitant at first, Tony agrees to attend the local dance where Riff is planning to put forward his challenge to the Sharks. Meanwhile, Bernardo’s sister Maria, who has just recently arrived in America from Puerto Rico, is working with Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, in a bridal shop. Maria complains to Anita that she does not love Chino, the man that her brother has arranged for her to marry. Anita listens as she prepares a dress for Maria to wear to the upcoming dance where the confrontation between the gangs is about to take place.

Amidst the tension surrounding them at the dance, Tony and Maria meet and a romance between them quickly blossoms. But when Bernardo observes what is happening, he quickly splits the two up and has Maria return to her apartment. At the dance, Bernardo also accepts Riff’s invitation for a showdown between their gangs, and the two agree to meet at the local drugstore to discuss the terms of engagement. At that meeting, Bernardo and Riff agree that use of weapons will be prohibited during the battle, ensuring that the fight will be fair.

Following the dance, Tony tracks Maria down to her apartment and the two express their feelings for each other. Maria seems quite cheerful with her new love, but her good mood is disturbed when she learns about the upcoming battle between the gangs. She pleads with Tony to do what he can to stop the battle from happening. Tony agrees, but his attempts to make peace fail. Bernardo shoves Tony, inciting Riff to attack Bernardo. The violence escalates, and switchblades are drawn. The fight culminates in Bernardo stabbing Riff to death and Tony killing Bernardo in retaliation. The other gang members involved in the battle flee when they hear the sounds of police sirens nearby.

When Maria learns what Tony has done, she is overcome with emotion. But her love for Tony is strong, and the two make plans to run away together. Meanwhile, word spreads that Chino, who is wielding a gun, intends to hunt Tony down and settle the score. Anita, although still mourning the loss of her brother, can see how strongly Maria loves Tony and warns Maria about Chino’s plans. While Maria is undergoing questioning by a police officer about Bernardo’s murder, she sends Maria to the local drugstore where Tony and Maria had planned to meet. Anita’s intention as she makes her way to the drugstore is to make sure that Tony waits for Maria while she is being detained by the police officer.

At the drugstore, things do not go as planned. Anita arrives to be greeted by several members of the Jets, who pepper her with racial slurs, sexual innuendo, and other forms of verbal abuse. In a rage, Anita decides to mislead the Jets with false information: that Chino has killed Maria. When the message reaches Tony, he is devastated and wishes to end his life. Tony tracks down Chino and asks for him to put him out of his misery. Chino shoots Tony just as he catches sight of Maria and realizes that she is still alive.

Tony’s death at Chino’s hands incites further hatred between the Sharks and the Jets, who advance on each other to engage in battle yet again. Maria protests, declaring that both sides are equally responsible for Tony’s death because of both sides act out of hatred. She picks up Chino’s gun and aims it at the gang members, saying that she now possesses hatred. Unable to fire the gun, Maria begins weeping over Tony’s death. The aggressive advance of the gang members ceases, and the Sharks and Jets together form a procession which carries Tony’s body away.

Like the play and movie versions of West Side Story, Shulman’s novel tells a tragic story that has strong affinities with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Both are stories of love that is forbidden and that strives to escape the conditions that seek to suffocate it. Both end with acts of violence that bring about the end to the romance the readers/audience have been witnessing develop throughout the stories.

One difference between Shulman’s novelization of West Side Story and the play and movie versions is that in Shulman’s novel the members of the Sharks and the Jets are depicted as more hardened criminal types than they are in the play and movie.  This is significant as far as how we understand the basic conflict going on in the story: Whereas the play and movie portray the conflict as mainly generated by racial conflict, the novel suggests that gang rivalries have more to do with the nature of gangs and criminal activity in general and not race in particular.