On the Waterfront

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs
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.

Crucifixion Dialogue

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.