The main character in the story is Eddie Carbone, an Italian American longshoreman, who lives with his wife, Beatrice and his orphaned niece, Catherine. They live in an insular, self-ruled neighborhood known as a polis. As the play begins, Eddie is protective and kind toward Catherine, although his feelings grow into something more than avuncular as the play develops. His attachment to her is brought into perspective by the arrival from Italy of Beatrice’s two cousins, Marco and Rodolpho. They have entered the country illegally, hoping to leave behind hunger and unemployment for a better life in America. Whereas Marco is a physically strong man with a starving family back home, charming Rodolpho is young, good-looking, blonde, and single, and he sings and dances; Catherine instantly falls for him.
After three weeks, the pair have been dating, and Eddie sets about pointing out all of Rodolpho’s flaws to Catherine and Beatrice. He persistently complains that Rodolpho is “not right,” referring to Rodolpho’s effeminate qualities, such as sewing, cooking and singing. He is embarrassed by Rodolpho’s reputation for singing during work.
When Catherine decides to marry Rodolpho, Eddie becomes desperate and begs his lawyer, Alfieri (who is also the narrator), to help him. However, he is told that the only way the law is able to help him is if he informs the Immigration Bureau of the presence of the two illegal immigrants. Due to his earlier assertion that “it’s an honor” to give the men refuge, he refuses to betray them. At home he continues to passively insult Rodolpho, and ends up getting Rodolpho to fight in a boxing match. In retaliation, Marco challenges Eddie to lift a chair from the bottom of its leg, when Eddie fails to do this, Marco picks up the chair with one hand from the bottom of its leg and lifts it above his head. This demonstates Marco’s superior strength, mentally and physically to Eddie.
In the second Act, Eddie catches Rodolpho making love to Catherine, he sees Alfieri a second time. Eddie ignores his lawyer’s advice to let events run their course, and calls the Immigration Bureau. This betrayal proves disastrous: he comes back to learn that Catherine and Rodolpho are engaged, and Beatrice informs him two more illegal immigrants have moved into the upstairs apartment. When the Immigration Officers arrive and arrest the four immigrants, Marco spits in Eddie’s face in front of a street full of people. His betrayal of the two men causes Eddie to lose the respect of his neighbors, friends, and his family.
Rodolpho is allowed to stay in the country due to his marriage, but Marco faces imminent deportation. Reluctantly, he promises Alfieri not to take revenge on Eddie (as is the Sicilian custom) and is let out on bail. In the final scene of the play, Eddie is shown to be furious with his humiliation and refuses to attend the wedding. He rejects Rodolpho’s offer to reconcile and refuses to get out of the house when he learns Marco is arriving.
The play ends with a fight between Eddie and Marco, in a street filled with his friends and family. Eddie brandishes a knife and attacks Marco, who turns the blade onto Eddie, killing him. It is not known whether Marco actually intended to stab Eddie, and his reaction is not described. Eddie dies as the curtain falls, calling out to Beatrice.