So We Beat on
This final sentence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has puzzled readers and inspired essayists since the novel’s original publication in 1925: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (189). The line’s dizzying rhythm and striking alliteration give it a unique poetic quality. It is a complex sentence, loaded with deep meanings and clever symbolism that readers have interpreted and reinterpreted through the decades since Fitzgerald masterfully wrote it in the midst of the Roaring Twenties. Through his use of poetic devices and symbolism, Fitzgerald challenges audiences to reflect on their lives to see if they, like Gatsby, have at some point in their lives attempted to relive the past.
First of all, it is important to note the poetic devices Fitzgerald uses to draw attention to the last sentence. The sentence is unusual in that it is more like three lines of poetry than a single sentence of prose. It is composed of three short sections: one clause and two phrases. The clause is “So we beat on,” and the two phrases are “boats against the current” and “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald could have easily split this one sentence into two or three choppy sentences by using periods, but he wrote it as one sentence with two commas to create a smooth flow of words. Several sentences separated by periods would feel stiff and mechanical since all of the sentences would be short and choppy instead of graceful and fluid. More importantly, readers would be allowed for some time to think in between sentences. The commas, however, necessitate a flowing reading of the sentence. Readers naturally want to reach the period at the end to complete both the sentence and the novel, so they read the sentence quickly.
Fitzgerald’s use of smooth, quick flow of words helps the sentence to stand out since it forces audiences to read more quickly than they can comprehend; the audience must read the sentence again and again since they read it too quickly the first time. The reader is faced with several complicated ideas but cannot pause to contemplate on any one of them until he or she reaches the period at the end. This forced continued reading in the presence of complicated ideas creates a dizzying effect. It is too much at once, and the reader is forced to re-read the sentence over and over again to derive some meaning.
Another poetic effect Fitzgerald uses in the last line is the noticeable alliteration of the “B” sound. This alliteration begins with the word “beat” and repeats with the words “boats,” “borne,” and “back.” The “B” sound emphasizes forcefulness since it makes a smacking sound when spoken. The forceful “B” sound matches all of these words it starts since they are short, guttural words. The reader pictures an image of a boat which does not just float on peacefully- it angrily beats on against the current. The boat does not drift smoothly into the past- it is violently and ceaselessly borne back into the past. Fitzgerald’s choice of guttural words and forceful “B” sound alliteration indicate the existence of a conflict or struggle since there is a collision of forces between the boat and the current.
That conflict illustrated by alliteration is apparent when one reads the sentence in the context of the novel. The boat struggling against a current is a symbol for Gatsby struggling to go toward the past. Two examples of Gatsby struggling to regain the past occur on the night when Tom attends Gatsby’s party with Daisy. Nick stays after everyone leaves and talks to Gatsby. During this conversation, Gatsby tells Nick he wishes Daisy would divorce Tom. After the divorce, Gatsby and Daisy would return to Louisville and “be married from her house- just as if it were five years ago” (116). Not only does Gatsby want to marry Daisy, but he also demands that their wedding resemble the ceremony they would have had five years ago if Gatsby had not gone to war. It is not enough to move forward with his life and marry in New York; he believes he must go backwards and marry in Louisville.
Later in the same conversation, Nick tries to be the voice of reason with Gatsby, explaining that Gatsby cannot repeat the past. Yet Gatsby quickly denies it: “‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!’” (116). Gatsby refuses to believe he cannot repeat the situation that existed five years before, this time getting married instead of going to war. He is incredulous because he does not consider failure to be even a faint possibility. After all, he is in the same business of fixing as Wolfshiem, who fixed the World Series of Baseball. As a fixer, Gatsby believes he has the situation of regaining his past with Daisy under control, and therefore cannot understand why Nick would believe otherwise.
In effect, Gatsby is a boat headed toward the past, but Nick is a current heading toward the present. While Gatsby yearns to go back to his past of visiting Daisy in Louisville, Nick tries to make Gatsby realize he is in present-day New York City. As Nick said in the post-party conversation, “You can’t repeat the past” (116). Nick understood that the limits of fixing did not extend into the past, but Gatsby did not believe it.
Nevertheless, Nick’s efforts do not faze Gatsby. If anything, they make Gatsby more dead-set on reliving the past. “‘I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,’ [Gatsby] said, nodding determinedly” (117). Here Gatsby reaffirms “determinedly” that he will, indeed, experience the old situation again. When he claims he can “fix everything the way it was before,” Gatsby demonstrates that he somehow feels capable of single-handedly make his past occur again with his powers of fixing. Nick’s common sense is a current toward the present that is not strong enough to hold Gatsby back from his dream of sailing to the past. Therefore, Gatsby is a boat that beats blindly against the current of the present and the current of reality, and he beats on, borne determinedly and ceaselessly into the past.
As previously stated, the closing sentence of the novel is written so as to be quick and confusing. Almost lost in the last sentence’s dizzying folds of symbolism and alliteration is the important fact that Nick uses the word “we” in the last sentence’s clause: “So we beat on” (189). He uses “we” to indicate he is not only speaking about Gatsby and himself, but he is also referring to his reading audience. The “we” triggers the reader’s reaction to step back from the novel and look at his or her own life.
Therefore, Nick claims the audience is, like Gatsby, prone to going against common logic in an attempt to regain the past. Everyone is a boat raging against the currents in his or her life. Everyone ignores the boundaries of time and the evidence that he or she cannot fix things to be how they once were, just as Gatsby ignored Nick’s sound advice to remember that one cannot repeat the past. Because the “we” in the final sentence includes Gatsby and the audience, Gatsby becomes symbol for anyone who has ever wanted to repeat and repair a moment in his or her life that he or she could never have again. At one time or another, everyone has determinedly borne themselves back into the past despite the ever-present current that flows toward the present.
Fitzgerald wrote the final line the way he did for a reason. Without the jazzy rhythm, confusion, and alliteration to draw attention to the line, audiences worldwide might not have taken the time to reread the sentence to understand the symbolic significance of the boat and the current. To be sure, Fitzgerald is a master of his craft; he used poetry in a book of prose in order to compact pages upon pages of meaning into fourteen words that are just begging to be read and re-read by generations to come.