Study Guide

West Side Story Themes

  • Love

    It wouldn't be a Romeo and Juliet riff if it didn't talk about love, and frankly, this Tony-Maria couple is one of the most "aww"-inducing we've ever seen. Tony and Maria start out on different sides of an ethnic turf war, and their love blooms to show everyone that fighting isn't the answer. That makes their doomed romance all the more tragic, but it also makes it very powerful: fostered in the middle of great hate and all the stronger for the negative emotions surrounding it.

    Love's a complicated thing in West Side Story. On one hand, it's blind, impulsive, irrational, foolish, unrealistic, and just plain dangerous. OTOH, it's all that matters. That sounds about right to us.

    Can love conquer all? We report, you decide.

    Questions About Love

    1. How does love strengthen Tony and Maria? How does it make them vulnerable?
    2. How is Bernardo and Anita's romance different than Tony and Maria's? How is it the same?
    3. In what ways do characters show non-romantic love for each other?
    4. Does love triumph at the end? Or is Maria right that it's all hate?

    Chew on This

    Love makes the characters do foolish things that endanger them.

    Love strengthens the characters and helps them endure their trials.

  • Loyalty

    When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way. And the Sharks have plenty of loyalty on their own side as well. It works, but it leads to a lot of conflict. Most of the Big Moments in West Side Story come when someone's loyalty is tested or betrayed. Tony's expected to stick by the Jets even though he's not one of them anymore, while Maria's expected to start hating Tony after her brother Bernardo gets killed. Her loyalty to Tony wins out, but it's one of the themes that produces the conflict in the film.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. When is loyalty to your brothers a good thing? When is it a bad thing?
    2. At which points in the movie does a character do something out of loyalty rather than actually wanting to themselves? What kind of repercussions do those decisions have?
    3. At what points are the characters' loyalties pulled between one person and another?

    Chew on This

    Loyalty provides a sense of purpose to the gang members in the film, who don't have much else going for them.

    Loyalty is a hollow concept in this film because it's based on nothing except hate.

  • Revenge

    The Sharks started it. No, the Jets started it. But Bernardo killed Riff. Right, but then Tony killed Bernardo and Chino killed Tony. Lieutenant Schrank would like to see the whole lot of 'em locked up.

    Everybody wants a piece of somebody in West Side Story.

    Revenge is what drives the violence in the film. The audience arrives in the middle of an ongoing turf war that leads to one reprisal after another and keeps the cycle of violence alive and well. It's impossible to know where it really began, and it probably doesn't matter. Young men still die in the streets by the thousands because of this kind of senseless payback cycle—you can read about in the newspapers (or newsfeeds or whatever) every single day.

    Shmoop would like to find out whose fault all this is, because if we ever get our hands on them, we'd…well, never mind.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Does anyone in the film actually benefit from taking revenge? What does it usually lead to?
    2. What kinds of incidents provoke the characters into wanting revenge? Are there any common features in those incidents?
    3. Which characters choose not to take revenge and why?
    4. Is revenge a means of expressing power in this film? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The need for revenge empowers the characters to act in the face of a threat.

    Revenge is seen as self-defeating: causing problems rather than solving them.

  • Society and Class

    The Jets and the Sharks may be dueling over their particular little piece of turf, but in point of fact they're all losers in that game. They're all poor. They're powerless. And while they fight over ownership of those streets, the real forces of power—the cops and the higher-ups represented by said cops—remind them that they can get squashed like bugs anytime the Man feels like it. The two gangs in West Side Story are essentially fighting against that as much as they're fighting against each other, and all of them secretly know how it's going to turn out.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How does living in a lower class neighborhood make the battle between the gangs worse?
    2. What are the gangs really battling over? How much of that it limited by the fact that they're poor?
    3. Who are the only figures in the film not from the lower classes? What role do they play and what are their common features (if any)?
    4. Is there any real hope for the characters to improve their social standing? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The conflict between the gangs comes down to the fact that they're both have nothing going for them and no hope for change.

    The battle between the gangs is largely fueled by ethnic conflict.

  • Youth

    Kids these days…

    Romeo and Juliet is about the folly of youth: how everything is so new and fresh and intense that you end up doing foolish things like stabbing yourself when that boy you met a week ago seems to have died.

    West Side Story is a little kinder towards its protagonists, but they're all definitely very young, and have the passions and impulsivity that comes with it. They live in the moment. That's what makes Tony and Maria pledge their lives to each other two hours after they meet, or why the Jets and the Sharks are so happy to prove who's boss once and for all over and over again. They're all full of energy and yet they don't think things through like they should: a tragedy that always hits the hardest when young people are involved.

    Chew on This

    The young people in the film get nowhere because they're foolish, impulsive, and contemptuous of authority.

    Tony and Maria's youth is what allows them to love and hope.

  • Race

    The Jets are white. The Sharks are Puerto Rican.

    West Side Story's first and foremost a love story, but the themes of immigration and racism seethe below the surface. The song "America," in part, is about how American culture treats Puerto Ricans like second-class citizens, and the tensions between the two gangs sometimes boils down to "your skin is a different color than mine."

    The film itself, and the play before it, came under fire from some quarters for being a little racist itself. When Stephen Sondheim was first asked to join the team, he said, "I can't do this show…I've never been that poor and I've never even known a Puerto Rican." (source).

    So how did he create his characters? How could he present an authentic view of the Puerto Rican experience in America?

    Some people think he didn't. The lyrics in "America" ("and the natives steaming"); the failure to use Puerto Rican actors; the hyper-sexuality of Anita and Bernardo; Anita's dismissal of Puerto Rico as primitive and oppressive; Bernardo's refusal to accept Tony's offer of friendship; the depiction of the Sharks as the aggressors—all these can work to create stereotypes of Puerto Ricans as the "Other."

    Of course, our society today has totally gotten over any anti-immigrant sentiment, and our cities are now peaceful melting-pot havens.

    Oh, wait…

    Questions About Race

    1. How much harder does Schrank come down on the Sharks than the Jets?
    2. What is it about the Puerto Ricans that sets them apart? Why do the Jets hate them?
    3. At what points do characters like Schrank drop the cover and just admit that they're racist?
    4. Are the Sharks racist as well? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Racism is one of the central problems in this story, the thing that sets the Jets and the Sharks against each other.

    Race is just one part of the battle going on here. It's really about two groups at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder trying to prove that they're at least better than someone.