The last line of The Great Gatsby never fails to provoke the reader to reflect and analyze. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece was published in 1925 and is nearing its 100th birthday, yet it continues to tease the mind.
What did Scott Fitzgerald want to tell his readers? In this article, we’ll dig deeper into the meaning and interpretations of the last line in the novel.
What Is The Great Gatsby’s Closing Line?
In the novel, narrator Nick Carraway’s last line is, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Time has a funny way of changing not only our language but the way society views people and their actions.
For example, when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in 1600, Hamlet tells Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery.” We know that a nunnery is a place where nuns live, but in 1600, the word nunnery meant a whore house.
Today, we frown at any form of slavery, but centuries ago, it was well established in societies all over the world, from ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire to Europe and the Americas in modern times.
So in the context of how language and views change, we look at the last line of the Great Gatsby and see that it’s poetic no doubt. However, the words may have lost some of their meanings or original intent over time.
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The Great Gatsby’s Last Line, Meaning
Let’s read it one more time.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
This last line summarizes everything about Gatsby – he is forever frozen in the past by his obsession for Daisy, and no matter what he does or how hard he tries, he will always be stuck in that past.
Let’s dissect how F. Scott Fitzgerald worded this final line.
The word “borne” is little used today, so you need to read it in the right context. “Borne” can mean to bear a great burden, or it can mean to bring a person into this world, to be born.
In this phrase, the word is used as a metaphor for rowing against the current, or rowing upstream, if you will. Imagine trying to physically row a boat upstream. You would tire quickly and end up back from where you started.
Of course, we aren’t physically in a boat. Rather, we’re rowing upstream on a river called life, and this metaphor helps us understand what F. Scott Fitzgerald was talking about. We keep on with life, trying to move forward, but we’re continually pushed back to the beginning.
Readers will have their own interpretations, too, depending on how they’ve internalized the novel, especially the ending. We have our own take on that in the section below.
Interpreting the Last Sentence of the Great Gatsby
You can view F. Scott Fitzgerald’s metaphorical closing line in different lights. You can see his message as any of the following:
- Uplifting or Hopeful – Most people find inspiration in a “fighter” who won’t quit. If you should “beat on”, as Fitzgerald writes, regardless of what life throws at you, you’re not a quitter. You’ll gain admiration and respect for not giving up or giving in, ever hopeful that you will be the victor.
- Depressing and Gloomy – If you take the word “borne” to mean a burden that you must bear and cannot rid yourself of, you’ll no doubt find this final line a depressing tale. You can fight on end against things you object to, but you will always be back to square one and never win.
- Objective Description of the Human Condition – You may also view this as a simple fact about human nature. Some people seem unable to break out of their past or past thoughts and desires, no matter how hard they try. It’s not uplifting or depressing – it’s just a fact of life.
Book endings tend to reveal what the meaning of the entire book was about (or in some instance, what it wasn’t about). For all the money and effort Gatsby put into his attempt to regain Daisy and her love, he ended up with neither.
You could say that Gatsby lived and died for naught, but you can’t deny that he did what he did because of the things that he believed in.
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What Gatsby Believed
Gatsby believed that if he could recreate a beautiful location, if he was rich enough to give Daisy anything she wanted, and if he could make her remember when they fell in love, then he could gain back Daisy, and together they’ll live happily ever after.
With Gatsby’s death, his dream dies with him. This gives the book a quite fatalistic and depressing tone that regardless of all that Gatsby did and planned for, he would never have Daisy in his new world.
Let’s see more about what Gatsby believed in and the symbolisms that F. Scott Fitzgerald used.
The Green Light and the Blue Lawn
Several lines use color adjectives to describe certain items, but again, these are symbolisms.
Gatsby believed in the green light – the one he saw from the end of Daisy’s dock. It signifies the color of money and also hope. Gatsby believed that as long as he could see that green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, he could find her.
The color green also represents lush and freshness in nearly all things. Lush jungles, fresh new leaves, all symbolize a new beginning
The blue lawn Fitzgerald writes about is also symbolic. When Cody buys Jay a new, upper-class coat, it’s a blue one. This symbolizes that Jay is changing who he is. Imagine removing an old grey-colored coat for an expensive new blue one. You might feel like a new person.
The book also mentions that Gatsby’s house is mostly blue in color. The blue lawn is the water that separates Daisy’s home and Gatsby’s. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, blue appears to symbolize illusions. Gatsby appears to believe that by putting on a blue coat, he’s a different man. If he could sail across that blue lawn to Daisy’s home and return with her to his house, Gatsby believed that he would have achieved his dreams.
The American Dream
Some people feel that this novel is an analysis of the great American Dream – to come to America, work hard, buy a house, and earn plenty of money.
Gatsby truly lives the American dream in this story. He is born poor, joins the army, and works hard to achieve great wealth. The only thing that Gatsby lacks is a wife and children, or at the very least, someone who loves him.
It is Jay Gatsby’s love for Daisy that pushes him to achieve more and more while seeking his ultimate dream of living with her. Sadly, this part of Gatsby’s dream will never come true.
This book does show that no matter how much money you may earn or how high your social standing may be, you can’t force someone to love you.
It’s often said that in their search for ever-greater material things, Americans lose the love they seek. This is certainly true with Gatsby.
Nick can clearly see that Daisy is like a handful of sand. The tighter Jay tries to hold on to her, the more she slips through his fingers. Unfortunately, Gatsby does not see this and ultimately loses her.
The Dream Comes Apart
Over the course of the book, Nick explains how Gatsby went about constructing his American Dream. However, once Gatsby finally reunites with Daisy, the dream begins to crumble.
The reader discovers that Gatsby didn’t come from the old-money class but amassed his wealth from bootlegging. The book implies that Gatsby runs speakeasies behind his drug store facades.
Many of the stories that Gatsby has told about himself are only half truths, or sometimes, complete lies. Jay Gatsby is nothing but a fraud, even though his love for Daisy appears to be real.
Gatsby is so obsessed with his love for Daisy that he fails to see that Daisy has moved on. When Gatsby died, Daisy didn’t even remember to send flowers to his funeral.
What Is Jay Gatsby’s Infamous Line?
There are several lines that Gatsby repeats over and over again, and he’s always heard using the words “old sport.” He greets nearly all the men with a hearty, “Hello, old sport.”
This term is quite handy when you don’t know someone’s name while showing friendship and an agreeable nature. Gatsby learned this phrase from Cody, to be sure.
Another line from Gatsby that made a mark was when he told Nick, “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course, you can!”
While he only says this once, this single sentence is vital when it comes to understanding Gatsby.
Gatsby’s greatest downfall is his belief that he could not only repeat the past and make Daisy fall in love with him again, but he also believed that he could make Daisy forget that she was ever married to Tom Buchanan or ever loved her husband.
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What Is Fitzgerald’s Message to the Reader?
F. Scott Fitzgerald speaks to the reader mainly through the characters of Gatsby and Nick Carraway but more through the latter.
Money Doesn’t Buy It All
For instance, Nick’s (and therefore Fitzgerald’s) message is clear that regardless of how much money one has, no matter how successful a person might be, it is virtually impossible to have it all. That something must be surrendered in order to achieve the maximum in other areas.
The book reveals to us everything in Nick’s mind as opposed to Gatsby’s mysterious musings, allowing us to sneak into Fitzgerald’s thoughts and opinions.
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Honesty & Loyalty Are Not Virtues of the Rich
At the end of Chapter 3, Nick declares that his honesty is his cardinal virtue. While we only have Nick’s word to go on this early in the novel, it does appear that Nick is brutally honest, at least with his loyalty.
He can clearly see that while the “orgastic future” is always fluid, always changing, he also understands that for the very rich, like Tom and Daisy Buchanan, loyalty and promises are not what they are for the average person.
When Gatsby dies, none of his “friends” shows up. Only Nick stays to attend Gatsby’s wake and funeral besides Gatsby’s father and a few servants.
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Throughout the book, Nick has his doubts regarding Gatsby, whether he is what he says he is, and how he made his fortune. However, since he considers Jay his friend, he is honest and loyal to him right to the very end, something that can’t be said of Daisy or even his business partner Meyer Wolfsheim.
What Were Nick’s Thoughts about Jay Gatsby?
As mentioned, Carraway has always expressed doubts about Gatsby and his rags-to-riches narrative, but in one instance, he gives Gatsby his unequivocal approval.
Nick’s Last Words to Gatsby
In chapter 8, Nick speaks to Gatsby for what would be the last time saying, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together!”
While the book does not mention what Gatsby thought about these words, the reader gets the impression that this was a compliment from Nick and, in fact, the only one that Nick gives him.
These are significant words as Nick comes to realize that both Daisy and Tom are going to let Gatsby take the fall for the car accident. Nick reflects on this and apparently comes to believe that Gatsby is a better person than his rich cousin and her husband.
Nick Tells Gatsby to Give Up His Dream
Does Gatsby ever give up his dream? It’s difficult to say, but it’s easier to believe that Jay Gatsby never truly gives up his dream of having Daisy. Even on that last moment in the swimming pool, he is there to wait for Daisy’s call.
In the passage that reads, “I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
It may seem trivial, but Nick notices how Gatsby’s wonder and imagination keep him motivated and focused on his pursuits.
Nick muses on what the Dutch sailors must have seen and felt when they first laid eyes on the land that now contains Daisy’s and Gatsby’s house.
At the same time, when Nick suggests to Gatsby that he leaves town for a while, Gatsby appears to be ambivalent about leaving. On one hand, he is certain that Daisy will call him or return to his arms, but on the other hand, Gatsby probably realizes that Nick is correct.
Nick Sees How Daisy Doesn’t Really Love Gatsby
Let us go back a few chapters earlier. For all of Gatsby’s wild and extravagant parties, no one defends him, and no one is there for him at the end, except for Nick. Gatsby spends an untold fortune on these parties in hopes that Daisy will appear, which she does only once because she finds the parties distasteful.
Then Daisy gets into the accident that kills Myrtle. Even after Gatsby covers for her, she doesn’t care to call even just to say goodbye.
Daisy can’t even be bothered to send flowers or attend the funeral, even though she claims to have loved him so much that she considered, briefly, leaving Tom to be with Gatsby.
Lesson Summary on the Last Line of the Great Gatsby
While the novel ends with Gatsby’s murder and George’s suicide, the final few lines are Nick’s observations not only about the entire summer but also life and people in general.
To “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” is Fitzgerald’s way of expressing the following –
Pessimism about the American Dream
In the final few pages, the narrator not only reflects on what Dutch sailors may have seen, but also how the American Dream had soured for many.
The Dutch had cleared the trees so that Gatsby could build his home and pursue his ultimate dream of riches and Daisy. It’s an analogy to how the Dutch had paved the way for many to chase the American Dream, working hard to rise to the top but only to fail in the end.
It tells readers to think and ask such questions as:
- What is the point of having untold wealth when you don’t have love?
- If you have love but are poor, can you say that you have achieved the American Dream?
Fitzgerald uses Nick to tie Gatsby and Daisy’s love to the failed American Dream. It seems as though Fitzgerald was saying that you can’t have your ice cream and cake at the same time, or in other words, you can have money or love, but you can’t have both.
Optimism about the Future
Just before the last line about boats against the current, Fitzgerald talks about the orgastic future. There’s optimism in there – that “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther”.
However, even this optimism fails to make Gatsby’s dream a reality. While it might appear that Gatsby was planning for the future, he was, in fact, taking himself “ceaselessly into the past.“
You Can’t Chase the Future By Living in the Past
Failure is often a person’s own undoing – especially if you chase the future but continue to live in the past, as Gatsby does in the novel.
In Nick’s last lines, he says that Gatsby “had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.”
Nick comes to see that both Gatsby and America are tragic because they believe they are moving forward when they are actually trapped in the past, in a dream, that has not and may never become a reality.
Whether you will see these last lines as tragic, uplifting, or simply facts about human nature entirely depends on your current paradigm. The thing is to learn from the past and be motivated by the future, but always recognize defeat when you see it coming.