Study Guide

Goodfellas Themes

  • Respect and Reputation

    In Goodfellas, respect, power, and masculinity are wrapped up tighter than a burrito with cement salsa. Having respect is the sign of being a man. Sometimes, it's earned, like when teenage Henry doesn't rat out his pals after getting pinched selling hijacked smokes. Other times, it's bought. We're talking about bribed cops, wives in luxurious houses, girlfriends in slightly less luxurious apartments, and sweaty $20 bills in the pockets of just about everybody else. And when a wiseguy feels he's been disrespected and his manhood has been threatened? Well, let's just say people have a funny way of turning up dead.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. Paulie is the boss. How do the other characters show their respect for him?
    2. Do people respect Jimmy, or are they just afraid of him? What's the difference?
    3. What are three examples of how respect is linked to masculinity in the movie?
    4. Does Tommy respect his mother?

    Chew on This

    Tommy's lack of respect for others is ultimately his downfall.

    If Karen had any self-respect, she would have left Henry as soon as she discovered he was mobbed up.

  • Power

    In Goodfellas, having money is a superpower. The wiseguys are fueled by a one-two punch of ambition and greed. Their wives run on mink coats and expensive sofas, rationalizing that their husbands are just hardworking guys looking to provide for their families and get ahead of those suckers who take the train to work and worry about paying the electric bill. But, money alone doesn't make these wiseguys powerful; it also takes muscle. They exert control through force—or, if not actual force, through the threat of it. Henry and his crew are large and in charge because they can grease pockets and bust heads. Everything is theirs for the taking. It's also theirs to lose.

    Questions About Power

    1. Given the lengths to which he goes to preserve his power, how relatable is Henry? Do you feel sympathy for him at any point?
    2. Why is Paulie afraid of going out like Gribbs, who he says is 70 and going to croak in prison?
    3. On a scale of one to 10, how powerful is Tommy? Show your work.
    4. What about Karen? Does she hold any authority? If so, how? If not, why?

    Chew on This

    Henry's fall from power was inevitable because his lifestyle was too decadent to maintain.

    In Goodfellas, possessions equal power.

  • Family

    What if you had two families? Two sets of parents. Two totally different sets of siblings. Double the fun on Christmas and your birthday. Sounds pretty good, right? Henry might beg to differ. In Goodfellas, he actually has two families: his real family, like Karen, his kids, and his brother, Michael; and his mafia family, like Paulie, Jimmy, and Tommy. Living up to the expectations of both can be trickier to manage than a Madden NFL team, but the role the family plays in mob life is essential. Simply put, it's the backbone of the whole operation. Without the trust and loyalty that comes with being part of a close-knit community, Henry's crew can't function. In the mafia, your family has got your back. And, if you step out of line, they'll shoot you in it.

    Questions About Family

    1. If Henry were a made guy, do you think Paulie still would have turned his back on him?
    2. Where do all of the mistresses and girlfriends fit into the family? (The mafia family, that is. We know where they fit into the real family. Karen makes that pretty clear.)
    3. Is it dangerous for the family to be so isolated and spend all of their time only with each other?

    Chew on This

    Henry lying to Paulie is devastating because Paulie is Henry's surrogate father.

    The main purpose of a mobster's traditional family—the house, the wife, the 2.5 kids—is to put up a facade of decency.

  • Traditions and Customs

    While they may not have a cool, top-secret handshake, the wiseguys in Goodfellas definitely belong to their own exclusive club. Membership has its privileges, but it also includes a set of traditions and customs that govern behavior and simply cannot be ignored. "Membership in a Mob family comes with strangulating restrictions," notes Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. "There's no life outside of it." Whether it's paying Paulie his tribute, keeping your mouth shut, or being A-OK with the occasional murder, Henry and his crew know the deal—and they also know that shirking the family's traditions and customs can mean a one-way ticket to the boneyard.

    Questions About Traditions and Customs

    1. If Tommy is aware of the mob's code of conduct, why does he kill Billy Batts?
    2. What role does masculinity play in the mob's traditions? How would the mob operate differently if the women were in charge?
    3. Does breaking with mob tradition play a part in Henry's downfall? How?

    Chew on This

    In Goodfellas, the mob's traditions and customs are the secret to their longevity. Without everyone's adherence to traditions, the organization couldn't exist.

    The conclusion of Goodfellas shows that even the longest-running traditions can't survive interpersonal conflict and self-interest.

  • Morality and Ethics

    To say that the wiseguys in Goodfellas play fast and loose with morals would be an understatement the size of Tuddy Cicero. Henry and his crew take what they want, from whomever they want, whenever they want—and they don't feel a drop of guilt about it. They're blinded by ambition and a desire for wealth without doing an honest day's work. They're never troubled by a guilty conscience.

    Henry, Jimmy, Tommy—these guys never met a truck they couldn't hijack, an airport they couldn't rob, or a girlfriend they couldn't set up in an apartment around the corner. To them, their warped moral code is all in the name of the American Dream and providing for their families, and it's not at all warped. It's just living well. Commuting and worrying about the rent? Leave that to the schnooks. Psychiatrists call these guys sociopaths, and the bad news is that they never change.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Why is Henry initially attracted to the mob's immoral lifestyle?
    2. Why is Karen so upset by Henry's infidelity? She seems pretty cool with his committing of bucket loads of crime, so what's the difference?
    3. Why can't Henry just pay off the detectives who bust him for drugs in his driveway? How is that situation different from bribing prison guards or Jimmy paying off the cops while hijacking the cigarette truck?
    4. Is Henry a sociopath or just a product of a culture full of them?

    Chew on This

    The wiseguys in Goodfellas don't view themselves as criminals; they view themselves as outlaws.

    For Henry, entering the Witness Protection Program is akin to a death sentence.

  • Violence

    Kill or be killed: that's the law of the jungle, popularized by Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (and less so by Disney's adorable adaptation). It's also the law of Goodfellas' New York underworld. "Violence is like a drumbeat under every scene," notes Roger Ebert. It's casual, it's shocking, and sometimes it's even played for laughs. The violence in Goodfellas isn't all about animalistic bloodlust. Rather, it's how these wiseguys prove both their masculinity and their place in the family. It's how they punish betrayal. It's a means to an end. It forces viewers to ask the same question that Karen's mother asks: What kind of people are these? These guys who can make a pit stop in the middle of hiding a freshly whacked body to chow down on a home-cooked meal?

    Questions About Violence

    1. Why does Jimmy start crying after he finds out Tommy is dead? Is it for the loss of his friend? Is it because he feels helpless in light of the mob's rules about murdering a made man? Or is it something else entirely?
    2. Why does Karen reconsider Jimmy's offer to go pick out something nice for her mother from the shop on the corner?
    3. What are three ways that violence establishes a wiseguy's manhood?
    4. How do Henry's views on violence differ from Tommy's? How about from Jimmy's?

    Chew on This

    In Goodfellas, masculinity is proven through brute force.

    Part of Scorsese's cinematic genius is getting us to sympathize to some degree with characters who are cold-blooded murderers.