On the Waterfront
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Informing as the Correct Moral Choice
Terry Malloy obeys moral authority by choosing to inform on the corrupt union officials—that is, in the film he clearly makes the morally correct decision. Those on his side include a Catholic priest and a kind-hearted teacher trainee, and these endorsements increase the audience’s sympathy for one side over the other. Vicious doubt and derision about his potential choice affect Terry and all his friendships throughout the film, since the men are understandably concerned about their own jobs and their own lives. The closing scene, however, changes these feelings profoundly. The entire work crew follows the bleeding Terry back to work, leaving Johnny Friendly alone, indicating that they’ve chosen a new leader to follow. Their group action confirms that, deep down, they all wanted Terry to do what he did. All of the previous discord, then, merely generates suspense until this mass action plays out.
The choice Terry makes to inform on the union officials echoes the choice Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan made to inform before HUAC on former communists, but Terry achieves results that are far less morally ambiguous than the results Kazan and Schulberg achieved. Kazan and Schulberg effectively blacklisted for decades many of their creative, intelligent, and politically active peers. The only loser from Terry’s decision is Johnny Friendly, a merciless bully who clearly deserves what he gets. Kazan’s testimony allowed him to pursue a directing career undisturbed. However, many of his subsequent films deal with themes similar to those in On the Waterfront, which suggests that his HUAC decision haunted him, even in the creative realm, for at least a decade. The recurring themes also suggest that Kazan felt a need to continually assert the right of the individual’s conscience over that of a mob or governmental authority. At the end of On the Waterfront, Terry is surrounded with people who admire and respect him. His informing has elevated him in the longshoremen’s eyes, and he has no reason to doubt his decision. Kazan, though he built a successful career, was never fully embraced by Hollywood, and his own decision to inform stranded him in morally ambiguous territory.
The Transforming Power of Faith
Edie and Father Barry, the two characters who most help Terry figure things out, have faith in something intangible. Edie maintains faith in her belief that people care about the well-being of others and want to do the right thing. Father Barry maintains faith that acting as a representative of God can help others do the right thing. They both base their actions on these beliefs, and the film validates the value of living by certain principles. Essentially, Terry redeems himself by justifying their faith. The other characters do not have faith like Edie and Father Barry do, resulting in a distinct dichotomy. On one side are Father Barry and Edie, who have faith in concepts that are completely invisible. On the other side are the corrupt union officers, who have faith in money and power, acquisitions that are measurable. Though this delineation of good versus evil threatens to be overly transparent, the ways that faith changes Terry and forces Charlie to face his own moral wavering bring new depth and texture to the idea of what it means to be faithful and faithless.
Though the film sympathizes with Johnny Friendly and his rough upbringing, it shows that his taste for power has left him morally bankrupt. This idea that power corrupts does not apply only to Johnny Friendly, however. Mr. Upstairs, for example, turns on Johnny Friendly in an instant. In the game of power, the film says, there are no true friends, just the acquisition of more power and the defense of that power. Johnny Friendly cannot make even one decision that’s not related to maintaining his power or acquiring more. Even when he stuffs $50 into Terry’s shirt in a seemingly caring gesture, he is really buying Terry by obligating him to repay the favor with loyalty.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Rooftop as Retreat from the World
Whenever Terry Malloy feels pressure from the outside world, he retreats to the rooftop of the tenement. The rooftop is so far away from the docks that he can pretend it’s another world. On the rooftop, Terry can be a dreamer. He’s closer to the clouds, and he has a view of the city—and seeing the city from afar places him somehow outside it and above it. Terry’s goal is, in a sense, to stay up on the roof—that is, to be at all times the person he is when he’s there. Joey Doyle spent time on the roof, too, raising pigeons, and he made a similar decision to testify to the commission. The rooftop serves as a place where characters can go to scrutinize their own morals and choices without the pressures of the world below.
Father Barry often compares the deaths of innocent longshoremen and crucifixions, thus making their martyrdom explicit. Father Barry orders the longshoremen (as well as the viewer) to account for actions and non-actions, such as silence, that he considers sins. Joey Doyle and Dugan both died for the sins of the longshoremen, and religious imagery accompanies these deaths. Edie cradles Joey’s corpse like Mary cradled Jesus’ body, Father Barry rises out of the cargo hold with Dugan’s body as if ascending to heaven, and Charlie’s corpse hangs by a hook, all of which are visual references to Christ’s body on the cross.
“D & D”: Deaf and Dumb
The longshoremen try to portray their silence as part of a code, but the film suggests that it’s merely mob-approved cowardice. “D & D” runs throughout the dialogue, and the phrase is so familiar that men on all sides use it. Dugan the longshoreman and Johnny Friendly the union chief each refer to the phrase naturally. The words in the phrase suggest a kind of slavery. Those who are deaf and dumb have no articulate voice, and they are allowed to channel everything they see and feel only into work. Those who are deaf and dumb become work machines without identities. Part of Terry’s transformation in the film involves shaking up the accepted pattern of abiding by the code and thinking for himself, thereby forging an identity. He thinks, therefore he is.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Hudson River separates Hoboken, New Jersey, from New York City. Manhattan may as well be a thousand miles away, since the Manhattan life the longshoremen imagine is so different from daily life on the waterfront. The river is a border, an edge that the longshoremen will never be able to cross. The Hudson brings in the ships, and the edge of the Hudson is where the Longshoreman’s Local Union runs its corrupt operations. Others are free to come and go, but the Hudson reigns in the stevedores. Across the Hudson, the Empire State Building looms like the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz, distant and strange. It represents dreams and a different life, yet it’s always glimpsed through a fog. Its sleek jutting frame contrasts dramatically with the ramshackle rooftops of Hoboken, with their discolored patches and mismatched roof levels.
The pigeons are cooped up in a cage. They’re fragile. Their natural impulse is to fly, but they’ve been trained not to. They represent a different, more elemental lifestyle, flying and eating and playing and sleeping. In all of these ways, they perfectly symbolize Terry Malloy. Though he’s a tough former boxer, his excessive care for these birds indicates a special affinity between them. The imagery of him actually inside the cage himself, evident when he tends the birds, suggests this affinity as well. Malloy is a dreamer, a delicate and sensitive man, and much of the conversation that Brando has with Edie about hawks and pigeons can be translated into words about each other. In many ways, Malloy essentially is a pigeon—that is, he lives on the rooftops. We never once see him in his apartment. His home is the roof.
The pigeons also have a negative connotation: stool pigeon, a slang term used to describe informers. The term comes from the combination of stale, a fifteenth-century English word used to describe one person who acted to catch another, and pigeon, which has always been used to describe someone who lets himself be swindled. A pigeon is a sucker. Every time a character uses the term stool pigeon or its abbreviation, stoolie, Terry Malloy’s conflict boils to the surface.
The sharp metallic hooks that the longshoremen use to help them load and empty pallets hang over their shoulders menacingly. These hooks represent the forces that literally hang over them in the form of Johnny Friendly’s goons. Over the course of the film, Terry, Dugan, Luke, and many other longshoremen have the hawk-like talon of the hook pressing against their chests.
Gloves appear only twice in On the Waterfront, but each time the symbolism is crucial to both the reading of the scene and the film as a whole. Gloves indicate a shift in the dynamics of a scene, exposing a new layer of a character’s anxiety, sexuality, or vulnerability. When Edie drops her pure white glove in the park, Terry picks it up and plays with it casually, frustrating Edie’s sense of order and decorum. In a way, he is touching an extension of her, especially when he inserts his hand into the glove. The gesture is both sexual and intimate, friendly and aggressive.
Gloves appear a second time when Charlie plays with his in the taxi with Terry. Charlie is scarved and buttoned up tight in his camel-hair coat and proper hat, but he takes one glove off and fiddles with it nervously for the duration of the ride. This gesture indicates his anxiety and suggests that he is bound to face something uncomfortable. Compared with Charlie’s tightly dressed body, his one naked hand suggests a small vulnerability. Part of him has slipped out of its tight wrapping, and in that sense the glove contributes to the crushing intimacy of the scene.
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