What does the last sentence in chapter 9 mean? Keeping the last three paragraphs in mind, what does this sentence mean? Does it refer to death?

The last line of The Great Gatsby is often thought to refer to Gatsby's constant need to recapture the past, as is epitomized in his quest to win back Daisy's love. The last line reemphasizes this essential theme of the book.

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The Great Gatsby concludes with one of the most famous lines in all of literature:

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

Gatsby invested all of his efforts to win the heart of Daisy, unable to see that he had lost her in the past in a way that could never be recaptured. He ignores the fact that Daisy is married and that she has had a child with Tom; Gatsby instead chooses to cling to the idea that he can return to the past, wishing to transform his future by somehow overcoming his failures in the past.

In this way, Gatsby represents all of humanity, as Nick points out in closing. As we navigate the river of life, we base our sense of future on events and people whom we have left behind. We enthusiastically "stretch out our arms" toward a future where we might be able to finally capture the "green light" which represents all of our hopes—but which is ultimately forever out of reach because it is inextricably bound to a past which no longer exists.

Gatsby, like all of us, utilizes a great deal of energy fighting against the "current" of life, which is forever moving forward. He is constantly moving farther away from his goal; however, he is so focused on the past that he cannot consider a future which does not include Daisy, who only exists in the past in the ways Gatsby envisions her. Nick believes that we are all as equally disillusioned as Gatsby, blinded by our failures and forever determined to overcome our past shortcomings and misfortunes. Thus, we all look "ceaselessly into the past," expending incredible efforts in our fight against the forward-moving current of life.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 10, 2020
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This is an elusive statement, but if we put it into the context of the three paragraphs preceding it, we get some clues as to what Fitzgerald means.

As Nick stands looking out across the sound in the shadowy twilight, the houses fade away, and he is able to imagine he is in the past, at the time when the first Dutch sailors saw the "fresh, green breast of the new world" and were filled with wonder. Nick then, in the next paragraph, turns to Gatsby's dream, which, like the green breast of the new world, is a green light representing enchantment—in his case, Daisy.

In both instances, the sailors and Gatsby are faced with the possibility of realizing a magnificent dream. Here is an untouched (or so the sailors thought) new continent where Europeans could start afresh and undo the mistakes of the past. Gatsby too wants to turn back the clock and start over with Daisy, to undo the past and, with a fresh start, create a better future.

In the end, like Gatsby, we all race toward a future that we will hope will right the past. "We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past": it is the desire to right the past that drives us, and yet, inevitably, we are drawn back into it, repeating its mistakes. Dreams are illusions, but as we know from the novel's opening, it is Gatsby's dream that inspires Nick's deep admiration. It is the dream that keeps us paddling and is ultimately important.

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In The Great Gatsby, the last sentence reads:

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

This refers to the dualities of Gatsby and America.

At the end of the novel, Nick aligns himself Gatsby.  Nick says Gatsby is worth the whole damn bunch (the Buchanans and Jordan, et al) put together.  So, Nick is saying he will get into Gatsby's boat, the one that only sailed backwards on the sea of history--into the past to recapture his childhood dreams.  Why do you think Nick goes back to his home, the Midwest and narrates the entire novel from there?  It's an idealistic, quixotic quest--both Romantic and hopeless.

Gatsby looked like a Romantic hero to Nick: he was a self-made man, a rags to riches story, a symbol of the American dream.  But, when Nick get close enough, he saw that Gatsby was illegitimate.  Nick found out that Gatsby used any means necessary to try to repeat the past.

Earlier, Nick paraphrases Gatsby's story of falling in love, perhaps for the first time, and the last time, when he met Daisy.  Since then, Gatsby admits, his life has been disoriented.  This is obviously before World War I, when he (and America) was young, boyish, innocent, idealistic, and romantic.

Gatsby is symbolic of America: his innocence in America's.  Daisy is symbolic of his past.  His longing to return to his past is akin to the Lost Generation wanting to recapture their lost boyhoods.  Since then, they've lost their identities over on the battlefields of Europe, while rich kids (Tom) stole their girls (Daisy) back home.

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In The Great Gatsby, the final line of the novel echoes what Gatsby does throughout the novel, as well as what he was doing in the five years preceding the opening of the narrative:  trying to recapture the past.

In the paragraphs leading to the final line, Gatsby metaphorically compares the wonder felt by discoverers seeing a continent for the first time, with Gatsby's wonder seeing Daisy's home in the distance for the first time.  At that moment Gatsby would have been closer to his dream than he had been for five years.  He would have felt that he was almost there, almost arrived, so to speak.

Specifically, in the final line, Nick compares men rowing in wonder toward a discovered land, to Gatsby, specifically, and all people, generally, struggling endlessly toward a past that he and we want to recapture.  And notice that the struggle is carried on "ceaselessly."  It is a winless struggle. 

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I do not think it means death.  To me, it is Fitzgerald's commentary on the meaning of the novel.

Your question says to look back at the previous three paragraphs.  To me, those paragraphs are about how, in the past, it was more possible to dream big dreams (like the Dutch sailors did).  But now, the world that those Dutch sailors saw has gone.  Its trees have been cut down to make way for things like Gatsby's house.

We, as people, are forced to try to get back to this past.  Our humanity makes us want to go back to a time when dreams were possible.  The problem is that we really can't get there.

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