In the mid-1920s, a young Danny Fisher and his family move into a new house in a Brooklyn suburb. Within a few years, however, the Great Depression hits and Danny is forced to use his one talent, boxing, as a means of supporting his family.
After a few years, the family have lost their house and are living in a mean apartment in the City. Danny continues to box, much against his father's wish, and dates a young Italian Catholic girl, Nellie Petito, much to the chagrin of his mother. Danny's boxing skills attract the attention of hoodlums, and he is offered a large sum of money to throw the Golden Gloves championship, a fight he could win easily and which would bring him professional fame as well as, he hopes, his father's acceptance.
Danny accepts the bribe but beats his opponent. After going on the run for two years in Coney Island, he returns to marry his sweetheart. Their early married life is marred by the death of their first-born child Vicky, in poverty.
Danny seeks out his former manager and goes into business with him as a black marketeer. This activity brings him into contact with the very criminals he previously cheated.
The title is taken from a saying of Jesus, "Which of you is a father whose son will ask him for bread and would hand him a stone, and if he asks him for a fish will, instead of a fish, hand him a snake?" The movie version hones in on the tension between the father, a withdrawn, cold father and barely successful pharmacy employee and his son, a rebellious teenager whose failures in high school are largely a passive-aggressive response to his father, masking the need for daddy's approval.