The Use of Pigeons as a Symbol in On the Waterfront
Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is a story about redemption and justice, powered by extended symbolism. The movie is less about the waterfront than it is about Terry Malloy’s transformation from a naïve and confused thug who allows himself to be manipulated by a corrupt labor union into a self-sacrificing champion of truth and righteousness for the workers on the docks. Throughout the film, Terry struggles between doing the right thing—testifying against the corrupt longshoremen’s labor union in order to ensure a murder is met with justice and the docks are managed appropriately—and being faithful to his allies, family, and values—whom he would implicate with his testimony.
Perhaps the most emphasized symbolism is that of pigeons. They represent the longshoremen who are kept from testifying by the mob. The connection should be clear: those who testify—or “squeal”—are “stool pigeons.” Joey Doyle’s murder, the first scene in the movie, is orchestrated by the mob, in response to Joey’s plans to testify against his labor union. The mob uses Terry to lure Joey to an apartment roof, where Terry believes he will be intimidated into recanting his testimony. Terry accomplishes this by exploiting Joey’s affection towards pigeons; Terry claims to have found one of Joey’s lost. Terry is later grieved to learn he actually lured Joey to his death. Terry’s feelings are genuine, but suppressed. The symbolism here is subtle: Terry allows the pigeon he uses to lure Joey to the roof to fly free, while it is the mob which pushes Joey to his death.
Several people in the film involve themselves with pigeons. Aside from Joey’s murder, which happens at the mob’s hands at the place Joey keeps his pigeons, there are also Terry, the Golden Warriors, and the Crime Commission investigator. After Joey’s death, Terry is often seen caring for the pigeons in Joey’s coop. It is a clear contrast to the opening scene of the movie: Terry, naïve to the mob’s willingness to kill those who oppose it, lets the pigeon he uses to lure Joey to his death fly free; yet, from that point on, Terry is frequently seen next to pigeons in a cage. Terry is slowly realizing his relationship with the mob, and more and more feels caged and controlled.
Just as pigeons could be free, Terry “could have been a contender,” but his own brother, a henchman for the mob, persuades him to sacrifice a career of success for short-term gains for the mob. Terry should not be seen as the only symbolic pigeon in the film. All longshoremen are pigeons, controlled by the mob. When speaking to Edie, Terry inadvertently offers a profound insight on the world of the longshoremen: “You know this city’s full of hawks? There must be twenty thousand of ‘em. They perch on top of the big hotels and swoop down on the pigeons in the park.” Throughout the movie, the longshoremen are victimized similarly: they wear their hooks over their shoulders, pressing into their backs, as a hawk would carry its prey; Kayo is killed by the mob’s thugs, who drop cargo on him from above, as a hawk descending on a pigeon; Terry’s brother Charley is murdered and his body hung from a longshoreman’s hook, the hawk’s talon.
Terry’s rooftop visits with the pigeons he raises is at one point interrupted by a Crime Commission investigator. As Terry is inside the pigeon coop, spreading feed, the investigator waits for him from across the roof. Terry eats a small portion of the seeds meant for the pigeons, affirming himself as one of them, then leaves the coops—escapes the cage—to speak with the investigator. Terry then leads the investigator back to the coop, and they begin their conversation with Terry inside his cage. Outside of the cage, the investigator says he remembers Terry losing a boxing match a few years prior. This specific incident is referenced again when Terry confronts his brother Charley about it, and it is revealed that the mob pressured Charley to persuade Terry to lose on purpose; the mob benefited from a fixed bet, but this loss cost Terry his fighting career. It is a fitting memory to recall while Terry is in a cage amongst pigeons. The investigator’s asks Terry if he struck his opponent in the ring with a “hook or an uppercut,” and Terry insists it wasn’t a hook; his reasoning is he is “strictly a short puncher,” but the symbolic reasoning is pigeons don’t have talons.
Terry’s decision to testify against his former friends in the mob is met with much resistance, and he is forsaken by all he used to call friends. At the end of the film, Terry visits the rooftop pigeon coop, where he meets Jimmy. Jimmy, disappointed at Terry for his betrayal of the mob’s—and the Golden Warriors’—belief in not “squealing,” throws a dead pigeon at Terry, crying “a pigeon for a pigeon!” Terry is now being confronted with a pigeon that did not stand up for itself. Terry goes to the coop and finds Jimmy has killed every pigeon. Whilst Terry grieves over the death of all the pigeons, Edie begs him to run away. As Terry pulls a longshoreman’s hook—the hawk’s talon—out of the door next to the dead pigeons, it becomes clear that Terry intends on continuing his fight, and taking it straight to Johnny Friendly. The rationale here is if the individual pigeon does not fight for itself, every pigeon will die.