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What is an interpretation of the "boats borne ceaselessly" passage in The Great...

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kkp886 | (Level 2) Honors

Posted May 25, 2012 at 5:12 PM via web

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What is an interpretation of the "boats borne ceaselessly" passage in The Great Gatsby?

How to explain "old, unknown world"and "So we beat on, boats against ..., borne back ceaselessly into the past"?

"And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He 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, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

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 — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

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Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted May 25, 2012 at 5:40 PM (Answer #1)

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The adage, "Those who fail to learn from their pasts are bound to repeat them," is one way of thinking about the interpretation of this famous passage. Another adage also can be applied here, that is, "Repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity."

The world the characters live in is "old" but they do not learn from their mistakes. They are so unwilling or unable to examine their pasts in a clear light that the events they have lived through seem "unknown." They keep on trying to re-live the past, in a deluded and nostalgic way thinking the past was pure happiness, but also, simultaneously and contradictorily, trying to overcome it. This duality and conflicting desire is apparent in the earlier portion of this quote, "tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . .” They find themselves, then, rowing against the current and staying in virtually the same place. 

The green light is a symbol of envy and jealousy but also of the unattainable. This light can be applied not only to the desires of Gatsby but to the American dream itself. It always seems so close yet just beyond reach, promising fulfillment but delivering frustration. 

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