In What Ways Are the Characters of “on the Waterfront” Transformed by Life on the Docks?

Elia Kanzan’s social realist drama, “On the Waterfront” presents an exploration of life in the post war era of 1950s Hoboken. Throughout the course of the film, Kazan places particular emphasis on the harsh waterfront setting and provides insight into the ways in which it influences and transforms each of his characters. The result of this ruthless landscape as shown by Kazan is the inception and birth of a generally apathetic culture in which one seeks only to better oneself.

Terry Malloy, the unquestioned protagonist of the film, is shown to be without drive or ambition; a “bum”. Terry’s admission, “I always figured I’d live longer without [ambition],” reveals to the audience the suppressive nature the docks of Hoboken can have on one’s desires to succeed. The constant referral to Terry as a “bum” and a “kid” only reinforces Terry’s lack of ambition as he is enabled to continue living a life without consequences, concerned with only himself and his needs. Kazan demonstrates that it is the environment of Hoboken and the associated “D and D” culture that has engendered these sentiments in Terry through conversations Terry has with both Edie and Fr. Barry. Terry’s confessions of a troubled childhood, where education was “beaten” into him, and the resulting, “do it to him before he does it to you,” ethos is accredited to his difficult upbringing in a challenging neighbourhood which transformed him into the relatively apathetic creature he is seen to be at the commencement of the film. Terry’s lack of ambition is then starkly contrasted against Johnny Friendly who because of his years growing up on the docks, is seen to be powerfully driven to success.

In revealing Johnny Friendly’s difficult childhood to the audience, Kazan invites the notion that it is this that motivated him to succeed and resultantly morphed him into the ruthless villain he is. Friendly’s difficult past, being raised “on a stickin’ watchmen’s pension” supplied Friendly with the motivation...