F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most popular (and most commercially successful) title was undoubtedly The Great Gatsby, having found its place not only in the modern American canon, but also on the silver screen in two film adaptations.
Whether you’re a high school English student in need of a little help with your book report, or simply a Leonardo DiCaprio fan trying to figure out what the heck those chilling last lines uttered by Tobey Maguire are supposed to mean, understanding the last line of The Great Gatsby can help you to better appreciate the story and also comprehend the author’s message.
The Last Line of The Great Gatsby
Before we jump into our analysis, let’s take a minute to review that oft-quoted last line, which is delivered by the story’s narrator, Nick Carraway.
The last line of Gatsby reads:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Now, taken out of context, that line can seem pretty cryptic, or at best ambiguous. And when it is placed in the context of the full story, it can still seem, well… pretty ambiguous.
But what you can do to better understand these final words is apply your knowledge of literary devices and techniques to decode Fitz’s message.
The first thing you might notice if you read this line aloud or in your head is the repetition of ‘b’ sounds: beat, boats, borne, back.
However, alliteration can do more than just make things sound pretty: it’s also used to draw emphasis on certain ideas. The repetition of the ‘b’ sound, especially when read aloud, almost evokes the feeling of being beaten down or pushed back, which emphasizes the characters’ futile pursuits of success.
In order to fully appreciate the ending of the novel, it would be helpful to review the symbolism used earlier in the same passage.
Immediately before the final line, Nick observes:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-
Throughout the story, Jay Gatsby spends almost every evening looking out across the bay to Daisy’s home, where a green light shines from her dock.
The color green symbolizes money, greed, and materialism, which are all recurring themes in the story.
Jay Gatsby built a life of material excess in hopes of winning Daisy’s heart, but in building a life this way, our narrator reminds us that no matter how hard he beats against the current, he will only be “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Daisy’s love, which hides behind the green light, will continue to elude him.
The tone of the final line can best be described as melancholic. The author’s word choice certainly doesn’t offer an optimistic outlook, with the adverb “ceaselessly” and the words “borne back against” suggesting an endless, futile struggle.
The word “we” suggests that this struggle is universal; Nick is clearly not talking just about Gatsby, himself, or any of the dysfunctional characters in the novel. Rather, this struggle is one that most of us can relate to in one way or another, whether we have chased love, success, or money.
We can see several major recurring themes throughout the story. These include the so-called “American Dream,” societal and class differences, wealth and excess, and a decline in moral and ethical values.
We might say that these themes are culminated in the final line of the novel, using the other literary devices explored above.
Gatsby pursued the American dream—and its promises of wealth, love, happiness, and success—through some morally questionable means in order to finally win Daisy’s heart.
Gatsby pushed on, like a boat against the current, but his efforts to win the heart of a woman who placed material wealth above all else proved to be in vain—because after Gatsby’s death, we see what kind of people Daisy and her husband really are: selfish and shallow opportunists, with no love to give to others.
What Is Nick’s Final Message to the Reader?
Ultimately, the last line of The Great Gatsby can be seen as a metaphor for the elusive American dream. Remember that Fitzgerald wrote the novel during the “Roaring 20s,” a time of great financial success and booming expansion in the United States, but also when many old values were seemingly left behind.
Nick’s observation in the final line is a reflection on how, no matter how much wealth or success we may accumulate, we’ll always chase after more in our futile efforts to “have it all.”
However, there is an infinite number of ways to interpret any one work of literature, as a single passage can mean something different to different people.
The analysis presented above is merely a reflection of my own point of view, but by using a similar approach (analyzing key literary elements and techniques), you can draw your own conclusions.
Using Literary Techniques to Understand Literature
By applying your knowledge of literary devices and narrative techniques, you can analyze works of literature on a deeper level.
This makes for a more rewarding and enjoyable reading experience, which will also help you to think critically and become a better writer!
How do you interpret the last line of The Great Gatsby? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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