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Is there a symbolic meaning of for "a snub-nosed motor boat that bumped the tide off...

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coutelle | Valedictorian

Posted November 4, 2013 at 4:59 PM via web

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Is there a symbolic meaning of for "a snub-nosed motor boat that bumped the tide off shore" in the following excerpt from the first chapter of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald? Perhaps the description of this boat bumping the tide is symbolic of Tom’s incapacity (like a snub-nosed boat, "always leaning aggressively forward" and haughty) to adapt himself to the present ("the tide")?

Turning me around by one arm he moved a broad flat hand along the front vista, including in its sweep a sunken Italian garden, a half acre of deep pungent roses and a snub-nosed motor boat that bumped the tide off shore.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted November 4, 2013 at 6:25 PM (Answer #1)

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While it is important not to stretch possible symbolism too far, a snub-nosed boat it the perfect boat for Tom to own. In chapter one of the F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick, goes to the fashionable East Egg to visit his cousin Daisy Buchanan. She is married to Tom, someone whom Nick knew in college, and it is does not take us long to develop a certain impression of Tom.

The Buchanans are "enormously wealthy" and their house is a magnificent display of that wealth. When Nick drives up, he sees Tom "standing with his legs apart on the front porch." Physically, Tom makes himself a deliberately imposing figure.

[H]e was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body-he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage-a cruel body.

Despite his substantial and aggressive physical presence, when Tom speaks we begin to see him somewhat differently:

His speaking voice, a gruff husky tenor, added to the impression of fractiousness he conveyed. There was a touch of paternal contempt in it, even toward people he liked.

So Tom Buchanan is physically imposing and aggressive when we first see him, and that impression does not change over the course of the novel--except perhaps to grow stronger. We know he bruised Daisy's finger and we see him get violent with his mistress, Myrtle; he is not afraid to use brute strength, even against women. A good word to describe him is pugnacious: he is always aggressive and kind of looking to pick a fight with anyone. 

His house is symbolic of both him and Daisy. Look, for example, at all the white imagery surrounding Daisy and all the red, angry symbolism connected to Tom. If it is true that their house reflects them, it would not be surprising to find that Tom's boat is a reflection of him, as well. Just before the passage describing the boat, Tom greets Nick and demonstrates again his rather aggressive attitude. While most people would wait for a visitor to compliment their house, Tom defies convention and haughtily says "I've got a nice place here." Again, Tom is the kind of person who rather aggressively bumps up against people, pushing himself forward and other people backward.

Tom owns "a snub-nosed motor boat that bumped the tide off shore," and we are struck with the similarity between the boat and its owner. "Snubbing" and "bumping" are words that could just as easily describe the owner of the boat, of course, and certainly Fitzgerald chose the image to deliberately reflect Tom Buchanan's person and attitude.

While the boat may not be a particular symbolic, it is an apt (fitting) thing for Tom to own because it reflects his own aggressive person and pugnacious attitude toward others. The only other thing that might be a better reflection of Tom's person and personality would be a huge, garish, gaudy, and over-the-top yacht which he thinks would be a reflection of his position and importance in society; however, the smaller boat is best because it more accurately depicts his position as a small man ineffectually bumping up against an unyielding shore. 

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