Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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, whichsuggests 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.
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.