The film starts with Terry's expectations being disrupted. While Johnny Friendly has told Terry to get Joey Doyle to go to the roof so that they can give him a talking-to, minutes after Terry leaves the scene Joey is pushed from the roof. While Terry had believed that Johnny's men would just exchange some words with Joey and tell him not to inform the police, they actually end up murdering him and implicating Terry in that murder. This situation puts Terry ill at ease, and he realizes that he is complicit with a corrupt system, which sets the entire trajectory of the film in motion.
"I Coulda Been a Contender" (Situational Irony)
In his day, Terry was an expert champion fighter, able to win acclaim and success on his own merit. However, once Johnny Friendly "bought a piece" of him, he no longer had the simple agency of a skilled athlete. Rather, he got tangled up in Johnny's web of corruption, which led him to have to quit boxing. The irony of his plight is that he "coulda been a contender" if Johnny had never even come into his life. Even though Johnny makes it seem as though he has improved Terry's life and is giving him a lot of opportunities, the reality is that Johnny has only held Terry back, depriving him of the glory and the boxing career that could have delivered him from poverty and kept his reputation clean. Johnny's entire mode of corruption is making it seem as though he is being generous, when actually he is just holding back the people whom he purports to protect.
Deaf and Dumb (Situational Irony)
The waterfront is clearly a corrupt place, as one can be killed even for planning to speak the truth. While the longshoremen all want a change to happen on the docks so that they can get equal work and equal rights, they are intimidated into staying quiet. This is another layer of Johnny's tyrannical powers. If just one of them were able to speak up, they would be able to change their circumstances, but they have all been conditioned to fear Johnny and his henchmen, so they keep accepting their lowly station anyway.
The irony of the men's loyalty to a system that keeps them down comes to a head when Terry finally speaks up. Even though he testified in front of the Waterfront Crime Commission, forcing Johnny to change his corrupt ways and improving the conditions for his fellow dockworkers, Terry finds himself isolated and ignored by the men who call themselves his friends. His neighbor doesn't say hello to him, the young boys who work at the rooftop pigeon coop belittle him for being a "stool pigeon," and his fellow dockworkers eye him warily. The irony is that while Terry believed that he would become a hero after testifying, and that he would improve everyone's lives, the men are so used to adhering to the fearful logic of Johnny's tyranny—remaining "deaf and dumb"—his act is not appreciated.
Charley Saves His Brother and Sacrifices his Life (Situational Irony)
After Terry details the fact that it was Johnny's gambling that lost him a career as a professional boxer all those years ago, Charley decides to do the right thing and let Terry get out of the car. Having made a case for the ways that Johnny has limited them, Terry is free to go, but Charley is not so lucky. The irony is that even though Charley has been Johnny's loyal right hand throughout, remorselessly doing his bidding, by now saving Terry's life, Charley risks his own. After all of his years of loyalty to Johnny, Charley ends up dying so that his own brother can live.
On the Waterfront Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for On the Waterfront is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.