English & EAL

On the Waterfront by Elia Kazan

Lisa Tran

October 21, 2020

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This blog was updated on 23/10/2020.

Contents

1. Context

2. Themes

3. Symbolism

4. Important Quotes (Parts 1-4)

5. Sample Essay Topics

6. Essay Topic Breakdown

On the Waterfront is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.

Context

On the Waterfront is a part drama, part gangster film that’s authentic and powerful in its approach. Set on New York’s oppressive waterfront docks, longshoremen are forced to play a game where the odds are always stacked against them. The film approaches concepts such as trade unionism, corruption, and racketeering, and is a story that stitches together other stories. As discussed later, Kazan used Terry Malloy as a representation for his own real-life struggles against the powers above. The film is also a depiction of the hardships of life on the docks in 1940s America.

Inspired by real-life incidents, Kazan has created a world where workers live under the iron fist of corrupt trade union bosses. Let’s take a deeper dive into what this world looks like and the events that form the basis of the film.

Themes

Power Corruption

Johnny Friendly’s maintenance of power involves controlling several aspects on the waterfront – from the operations to the stevedores. Firstly, threats are repeatedly made against all the longshoremen in an effort to ensure that if anyone dares to act out against Friendly, they are sure to meet dire consequences. Their fear is reinforced through the various murders committed by the gang, most of which are the deaths another longshoremen, thus warning the workers that any one of them may be next. Although Friendly is clearly behind the homicides, the longshoremen and their families are unwilling to speak to the authorities, as they know full well that they would be risking their lives. This demonstrates their lack of protection and vulnerability in the hands of the union leader, which is exactly what he has aimed to establish.

Faith

Faith is a strong underlying theme set forth by Father Barry and the church. The priest’s constant remainder of what is right and wrong urges the men to step outside Friendy’s grasp and begin to think about themselves. When Father Barry conducts the congregation, the interruption caused by the mob falters the longshoremen’s hopes, since Friendly’s power can even reach as far as a church, where people are supposed to be ‘safe’. To do what is morally correct is a simple concept but one that is difficult for the longshoremen to embrace. It is only when they begin to have faith in their actions that things begin to change on the waterfront.

Loyalty

The film poses the question, what is true loyalty? Friendly pretends to be looking after the longshoremen by sending out loans and offering them better work positions, for example, Terry on the loft. However, in reality Friendly uses this action to manipulate the men to his advantage. It is a tactic to ensure that the longshoremen believe that they in return, have to support Friendly. An additional tactic of Friendly’s manipulation is shown though the infiltration of the longshoremen’s minds. The words ‘rat’ and ‘stool’ prevent the men from speaking out since they believe that they will betray one another. Terry believes that he will ‘rat’ on his friends when in fact, he is simply telling the truth. He ultimately learns that instead of abiding by Friendly, he needs to be loyal to himself, and this eventually saves himself and the other longshoremen from the clutches of the union leader. The name ‘Friendly’ is ironic since he is hardly a ‘friend’ but a ‘nemesis’ of all those who reside on the waterfront.

Ambivalence

Throughout Terry’s personal journey, it is clear that he is uncertain about his feelings and thoughts in regards to various aspects of his life, from his low-ranking position as a stevedore, Joey’s death and Friendly’s involvement, the longshoremen’s lack of rights, to Edie’s unique perspective. His initial ambivalence after Joey’s death is highlighted through the thick mist that covers the city and consequently obscures the people’s vision. At the end of the film when he is finally resolute on overthrowing Friendly, the omnipresent fog that sweeps over Hoboken suddenly disappears, reflecting that his mind has now ‘cleared up’ or that he has an ‘unclouded vision’. His behaviour shifts from an introverted person who appears uncomfortable in his own skin as he refuses to look people eye-to-eye and constantly chews gum, to someone who possesses a confident stance, standing tall and proud.

Redemption

On the Waterfront emphasises that it is never too late to redeem oneself. The religious imagery of Joey, Dugan and Charley ascending to heaven demonstrate that although they had spent much of their life turning a blind eye to the indiscretions of Friendly and his men, their actions at the very end of their lifespan allowed them to compensate for their sins.

Symbolism

Birds

Bird symbolism is heavily embedded throughout On the Waterfront. The longshoremen represent pigeons, as they are docile and delicate in the hands of Friendly, who is portrayed as the ‘hawk’ who swoops above at them, keeping his watchful eyes on each and every pigeon in case they misbehave. Kazan often films Terry positioned behind Joey’s Coop fence, therefore characterising Terry as a pigeon stuck in a cage, as if bound by Friendly into a small world that he cannot escape. When the longshoremen await work on the docks, the recurrent high-angle shots peer down at them, depicting them as a flock of birds, rummaging around. Much like pigeons, they compete with one another when ‘pecking’ at the tabs that Big Mac throws at them, as if the tabs are like ‘seeds’.

Instead of being ‘D and D’, those who ‘sing’ or in other words, speak out against Friendly are labeled ‘canaries’, since these birds are most notably recognised for their singing behaviour. Canaries were once used as a barometer for air quality down in mines. If there were toxic gases in the mines, this would subsequently lead to the canary’s death as this type of bird is extremely sensitive to air borne pollutants. Thus, this would be an indication for miners of whether or not it was safe to work in the pit. The bird’s self-sacrifice parallels that of Joey and Dugan, who tried their best to help out the other longshoremen, yet both met their deaths after ‘singing’ out against Johnny Friendly.

Hooks

Originally named The Hook but eventually changed to On the Waterfront, the sharp tool is an important representative of Friendly’s power over the men. All the longshoremen carry silver hooks on their shoulders as part of their work on the docks, but from another view, it is as though Friendly has ‘hooked’ onto the men – and thus, they cannot escape the union leader. Like many other words used in the film, it is a pun, as ‘hook’ is also a term used in boxing, meaning a short swinging punch with the elbow bent.

Hudson River and New York City

The river is always subtly lurking in the background of several scenes throughout the film. It acts as a metaphorical barrier that prevents the men from escaping Friendly’s grasp as they appear to be ‘trapped’ on the Hoboken docks. The ever-present fog is a veil that manages to conceal Manhattan on the other side of the river. Since the city’s silhouette barely peeps through, it portrays a sense of mystery and unknown to the stevedores who can seemingly never leave Hoboken. At the end of the film however, when Friendly no longer exerts any control over the men, the shot of the Hudson River and the city on the other side is crystal clear. The outlines of the skyscrapers, which were once unidentifiable, are now easy to recognise, demonstrating that the men are free, as their vision is no longer clouded by Friendly.

Gloves

Gloves have significant meaning in two key scenes in On the Waterfront. Most notably, Edie’s white glove symbolises a ‘good’ world, a place that is peaceful and pure. It reflects Edie’s personality as she conducts herself virtuously and with amiability. When Terry wears one of her gloves, it demonstrates that he is ‘trying on’ her perspective of life, where ‘everybody [should] care about everybody else’. On the other hand, when Charley and Terry share an intimate conversation in the taxi, Charley’s black gloves represent Friendly’s ‘evil’ world. Charley begins to feel uncomfortable in his clothing and removes a glove when he confronts the truth about being solely responsible for coercing Terry into forfeiting his career and subsequently becoming just another longshoremen. His removal of the glove depicts the notion that Charley will no longer be manipulated and controlled by Friendly, and is essentially, taking a step out of Friendly’s oppressive world.

Windbreaker

On the surface, the windbreaker is simply a jacket that is passed amongst the longshoremen, in particular, from Joey to Dugan to Terry. The sharing of the jacket represents camaraderie and brotherhood, since the men have little money to spend on buying warm clothes and as a result, most of their clothing has been worn through. This is a stark comparison with the mob, who are proud owners of long thick coats with scarves, hats and gloves to protect them from the Hoboken bitter cold weather. Symbolically, the jacket motivates the three men stand up to Friendly. Firstly, Joey talks to the Crime Commission yet before he is able to do any damage to the mob, he is found dead. As a result, his jacket is passed to Dugan, who later on musters the courage to continue in Joey’s shoes and reveal thirty-nine pages worth of notes about Friendly’s operations to the Crime Commission. Unfortunately, Friendly manages to successfully silence Dugan. The windbreaker is ultimately passed to Terry who testifies in court and defeats Friendly once and for all. The jacket demonstrates that even with murder, the truth cannot be silenced.

Important Quotes

Joey's Death (Part 1)

"Maybe he could sing but he couldn’t fly."
"I kept telling him, "Don’t say nothing. Keep quiet, you’ll live longer.""
‘I’ve been on the docks all my life boy, and there’s one thing I learned. You don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions unless you want to wind up like that."
"Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?"
"We got the fattest piers in the fattest harbour in the world."

Joey’s Coop (Part 2)

"They sure got it made. Eating, sleeping, flying around like crazy, raising gobs of squabs."
"Be careful. Don’t spill no water on the floor. I don’t want them to catch a cold."
"Johnny Friendly the “great labour worker.""
"Why don’t you keep that big mouth of yours shut."
"I’m poorer now than when I started."

Terry and Edie (Part 3)

"Your brother was a saint, the only one who ever tried to get me compensation."
"You don’t buy me. You’re still a bum."
"Who’s calling me a bum?"
"Don’t pay no attention to him. He’s drunk, he’s falling down. Everything. He’s just a juicehead that hands around the neighbourhood. Don’t pay no attention."
"It isn’t just brains. It’s how you use them."

Terry’s Confession (Part 4)

"Favour, who am I kidding? It’s “do it or else.”’
"It’s like carrying a monkey on my back."
"Question of “who rides who.”’
"If I spill, my life ain’t worth a nickel."
"And how much is your soul worth if you don’t?"

Sample Essay Topics

1. Edie is depicted as an angel that saves Terry. To what extent do you agree?

2. On the Waterfront portrays a world where people are only successful through money and violence.

3. We are able to understand the moral struggles of the characters through the cinematic devices used in On the Waterfront.

4. On the Waterfront demonstrates that silence cannot be achieved through murder.

5. The actions of only a few individuals can result in a revolution. Discuss.

Now it's your turn! Give these essay topics a go. For more sample essay topics, head over to our On the Waterfront Study Guide to practice writing essays using the analysis you've learnt in this blog!

Essay Topic Breakdown

Whenever you get a new essay topic, you can use LSG’s THINK and EXECUTE strategy, a technique to help you write better VCE essays. This essay topic breakdown will focus on the THINK part of the strategy. If you’re unfamiliar with this strategy, then check it out in How To Write A Killer Text Response.

Within the THINK strategy, we have 3 steps, or ABC. These ABC components are:

Step 1: Analyse

Step 2: Brainstorm

Step 3: Create a Plan

Theme-Based Essay Prompt: On the Waterfront shows that power and money can destroy a man’s soul.

Step 1: Analyse 

This essay prompt is an example of a theme-based prompt. It specifies ‘power’, ‘money’, and ‘soul’ as ideas for you to consider. When faced with a theme prompt, I find it most helpful to brainstorm characters and author’s views that are relevant to the given themes, as well as considering more relevant themes that may not have been mentioned in the prompt itself.

Here are some of my thoughts scribbled down:

  • We cannot discuss power without also touching on redemption, as those that subscribe to power corruption are morally defeated, whereas the characters that reject power and money are somewhat martyred. Faith is also important: what happens to those who place faith in money and power versus those with religious faith? 
  • The prompt is asking us to show (and essentially prove) the point that power and money are destructive. 
  • How are power and money intertwined? 
  • Souls are ambiguous and intangible, although in this film it can be interpreted as the character’s moral code and how the film validates those morals. 
  • A soul destroyed is one that has been chipped away, whittled down and eventually broken to pieces. Power doesn’t wear a soul down in an instant, it’s progressive. 

Step 2: Brainstorm

Power & money 
  • In capitalism, money is a tangible representation of power. Money talks. Having lots of it seemingly makes you powerful over those that don’t. 
  • Friendly controls the docks because he has the money (and the power) to do so. 
  • Chasing money (for survival, status or ego) can lead a man to do unethical and problematic things.
Those that chase power & money 
  • Charley, Friendly and the rest of the mobsters. They’re faithless.  
  • Terry to a certain point. His loyalty is “bought” and “owned”.  
  • Charley follows Friendly wholeheartedly which results in his own bitter end. 
  • Friendly embodies power & money and ends up beaten and alone. 
  • Mr. Upstairs turns on Friendly in an instant. 
By contrast, those that reject power & money 
  • Edie, Father Barry
  • Dugan and Joey, both die for their beliefs. The film validates their actions by treating them as martyrs throughout. 
  • Dugan’s body ascending with Father Barry after he dies under whiskey barrels 
  • Joey’s jacket being handed down from one heroic dockworker to another 
  • Terry after a certain point

Step 3: Create a Plan

Contention: On the Waterfront uses its characters to show that having faith in power and money can destroy a man’s soul, whereas having faith in the greater good can lead to redemption. 

P1: Having faith in power & money destroys Johnny Friendly and Charley.

P2: Rejecting power & money and having faith in the good of people is rewarded (Dugan, Joey, Edie, Father Barry, for example).

P3: Terry sits in between these two notions for most of the film. His soul is redeemed when he rejects power & money and chooses to do the right thing. 

As you can see, in this structure, each paragraph grapples with the theme in a way that links each character and the film’s treatment of them.

If you find this essay breakdown helpful, then you might want to check out our On the Waterfront Study Guide where we cover 5 A+ sample essays with EVERY essay annotated and broken down on HOW and WHY these essays achieved A+ so you reach your English goals! Let's get started.

Resources

The Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response

How To Write A Killer Text Response Study Guide

How to embed quotes in your essay like a boss

How to turn your Text Response essays from average to A+

5 Tips for a mic drop worthy essay conclusion

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