What is the significance of the last sentence of The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly to the past." Support your position with evidence.

Expert Answers
William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Near the end of Chapter 6, Nick and Gatsby have the following exchange:

"I wouldn't ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can't repeat the past."

"Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can."

Fitzgerald's novel is mainly about how Gatsby was trying to repeat the past and how he was defeated by the passage of time. Daisy had gotten married and had had a child. The concluding sentence of The Great Gatsby suggests that all of us are ultimately defeated by time. The "current" against which we are beating our oars is the relentless passage of time. We make some forward progress, while in the meantime we are carried backward. The present is turning into the past with each passing moment, and we are all borne back along with it. We realize our mistakes only after it is too late to repair them. The most beautiful stanza in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

After Nick shook hands with Gatsby for the last time and started back towards his cottage, he "remembered something and turned around."

"They're a rotten crowd," I shouted across the lawn. "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together."

Nick is sincere. He admires Gatsby. He sees him as a latter-day epic hero, or possibly more as a Byronic hero. Gatsby piles up a fortune and builds a mansion, but he cares nothing about money; he is only motivated by love. This makes him seem like one of King Arthur's or Charlemagne's knights. He defies everything, including time. He might be described as a tragic hero, and his tragic flaw would have to be his humble origin. He is very much like Orpheus who goes down into Hades to bring Eurydice back into the sunlight. In the end he is defeated, but he is defeated in an heroic quest.

"Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can."

Fitzgerald has created an interesting multidimensional character who is both corrupt and pure. Gatsby's idealism and romanticism seem to have made him rise above his shady associates, his ungrateful and parasitical guests, and the old-money people who will always despise him. He stands in contrast to the America of the Roaring Twenties which Fitzgerald depicts as surrounding him.

Read the study guide:
The Great Gatsby

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question