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.