The Last Line of The Great Gatsby: “So We Beat On…”

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Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

This is going to be an exegesis on the famous last line of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I’m friends with a lot of high school English teachers, and so many of them have quoted this line to me over the years, and with a passion second only to Melville’s first line of Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael,” that when I read Fitzgerald’s myself, I could hear their various voices, and of course Nick’s, and Daisy’s, and Gatsby’s.

The Last Line of The Great Gatsby: "So We Beat On, Boats Against the Current..." Quote | Book Riot

It’s a great last line. Melancholic. Wrapping up the human condition with a tidy little boat metaphor, bumping, lapping, with a wave-like alliteration on “b.” Did I think so in high school? Nope. What past had I to be borne back into? My toddlerhood? Junior high school? Junior high ain’t no beckoning green light on the dock, let me tell you.

The last line of The Great Gatsby only makes sense if you’re over 30, or better yet, even older than that. Being “une femme d’un certain age” has few benefits, but here’s one of them: books with complex plots revolving around obsession, and drinking, and self-delusion, and accidents make more sense. You have to be old enough to have a past and to have tried to do things that did not pan out. You have to know in your bones from experience that uncontrollable shit happens.

How I choose to read “against the current” is Taoistly (if that’s not a word, I shake my fist). There’s the current, and we’re beating against it with our little wooden oars of grasping ego and money and pride; we’re not going with it like every other piece of flotsam. It’s our curse. It’s a cold ending. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.