On the Waterfront (1954)

Brief Intro

“On the Waterfront,” directed by Elia Kazan, is a 1954 film that delves into the gritty world of longshoremen in New York. The story centers on Terry Malloy, an ex-boxer struggling with his conscience amidst corruption and violence on the docks. The film’s powerful narrative, bolstered by Marlon Brando’s iconic performance, explores themes of redemption, power, and morality.

Literary Devices Used in On the Waterfront

1. Symbolism

Movie SceneDevice Example
Pigeons in Terry’s loftSymbolize innocence and purity, contrasting the corruption on the docks.
The waterfront itselfRepresents the moral battleground where characters face ethical dilemmas.

2. Foreshadowing

Movie SceneDevice Example
Joey Doyle’s murderHints at the violent control of the union over the dockworkers.
Father Barry’s sermonPredicts the moral awakening and subsequent actions of Terry Malloy.

3. Metaphor

Movie SceneDevice Example
“D&D – Deaf and Dumb”Metaphor for the dockworkers’ enforced silence.
Terry’s boxing pastSymbolizes his internal struggle and fight for redemption.

4. Irony

Movie SceneDevice Example
Terry’s role in Joey’s murderDespite being complicit, he becomes the one to challenge the corruption.
Johnny Friendly’s nameIronically contrasts his violent and ruthless nature.

5. Allusion

Movie SceneDevice Example
Father Barry’s speechAlludes to Christ’s suffering, emphasizing moral righteousness.
Terry’s line “I coulda been a contender”References the lost potential and wasted life.

6. Juxtaposition

Movie SceneDevice Example
Terry’s tender moments with EdieContrast with his violent interactions with the mob.
The peaceful church vs. the violent docksHighlights the moral and ethical divide.

7. Flashback

Movie SceneDevice Example
Terry recalling his boxing careerProvides insight into his lost dreams and current disillusionment.
Edie remembering JoeyReinforces the personal loss and stakes of the conflict.

8. Motif

Movie SceneDevice Example
PigeonsRecurrent motif representing purity and sacrifice.
WhistleSignals impending danger and actions on the waterfront.

9. Allegory

Movie SceneDevice Example
The docks as a microcosmRepresents broader social and political corruption.
Terry’s stand against Johnny FriendlyAllegory for the fight against oppression and injustice.

10. Dialogue

Movie SceneDevice Example
Terry and Charlie’s cab sceneReveals deep emotional and ethical conflicts.
Father Barry’s speechesUse persuasive dialogue to inspire moral action.

Character Analysis Through Literary Devices

Terry Malloy

SymbolismTerry’s pigeons symbolize his lost innocence and desire for purity amidst corruption.
MetaphorHis boxing past serves as a metaphor for his internal struggle and quest for redemption.

Edie Doyle

JuxtapositionEdie’s innocence and moral clarity contrast sharply with the harsh reality of the docks.
IronyHer relationship with Terry, the man involved in her brother’s death, highlights the complexity of forgiveness.

Johnny Friendly

IronyHis name contrasts with his brutal, unfriendly nature.
AllegoryRepresents the corrupt power structures that oppress the working class.

Father Barry

AllusionHis speeches allude to Christ’s suffering, emphasizing the fight for justice.
SymbolismActs as a symbol of moral righteousness and the power of faith.

Thematic Analysis

Power and Corruption

SymbolismThe docks symbolize a battleground of power struggles.
AllegoryThe union’s control over the workers allegorizes broader social and political corruption.


MetaphorTerry’s boxing past as a metaphor for his fight for redemption.
JuxtapositionTerry’s past actions versus his current moral awakening highlight the theme of redemption.

Moral Courage

DialogueFather Barry’s speeches inspire moral courage among the workers.
SymbolismTerry’s pigeons symbolize his journey towards moral clarity and courage.

Cinematic Techniques That Enhance Literary Devices

Literary DeviceTechniqueExplanation
SymbolismClose-up shotsClose-ups of the pigeons emphasize their symbolic importance.
ForeshadowingLighting and shadowsUse of shadows to foreshadow impending danger and moral darkness.
MetaphorSet designThe boxing gym reflects Terry’s internal struggle and past.
IronySound designContrasts in sound, like the serene church bells versus the chaotic docks, highlight irony.
JuxtapositionCross-cuttingJuxtaposes different scenes to highlight contrasting themes, like the church and docks.

Key Scene Analysis

Scene: Terry and Charlie in the Cab

Watch the scene on YouTube

  • Breakdown: This scene utilizes powerful dialogue and tight framing to convey the emotional and ethical conflict between Terry and Charlie. The cab’s confined space heightens the tension, and the iconic line “I coulda been a contender” underscores Terry’s sense of lost potential and regret.

Scene: Father Barry’s Sermon on the Docks

Watch the scene on YouTube

  • Breakdown: Father Barry’s sermon is a pivotal moment that uses persuasive dialogue and strong imagery to galvanize the dockworkers. The contrast between the peaceful church and the violent docks is highlighted through cross-cutting, emphasizing the moral and ethical divide.


Test your knowledge with our interactive quiz!

  1. Which literary device is used when the pigeons symbolize innocence?
  2. What is the primary metaphor for Terry’s internal struggle?
    • A) His relationship with Edie
    • B) His boxing past
    • C) The waterfront
  3. How does the film use irony in Johnny Friendly’s character?
    • A) Through his name
    • B) Through his actions
    • C) Through his dialogue
  4. What does the whistle symbolize in the movie?
    • A) Freedom
    • B) Danger
    • C) Justice
  5. Which scene highlights the theme of moral courage?
    • A) Terry and Charlie in the cab
    • B) Father Barry’s sermon
    • C) Joey Doyle’s murder