Here's a famous quote from the book that says:

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

Could someone please explain it in easy words? Here's the full context:

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 then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

  • 8
    You'd have better luck with this question if you explained a little bit more about why you are confused. Are you confused about the boats part? The meaning of beat on? The overall meaning? If it's the overall meaning, it sure would be nice to have a litlte extra context. And please do this by editing (and adding to) your question, not by answering my comment with another comment.
    – J.R.
    Aug 12, 2015 at 9:31
  • Do i really have to provide the context, i just googled the book and this quote came up. I only wanted to know the meaning.
    – Ardis Ell
    Aug 12, 2015 at 15:00
  • 5
    No, you don't have to provide the context, but it would help if you did. Words and phrases mean different things in different contexts. What does Mary had a little lamb mean? That Mary owned a young sheep? Or that Mary went out to dinner last night, and she ate a little lamb with a side of zucchini and a glass of wine? Oftentimes, when trying to answer a what-does-this-mean question, the first step is to attempt to find the passage in a longer context – and it would be better if you did that, if possible. More at this meta post.
    – J.R.
    Aug 12, 2015 at 16:43
  • There are too many euphemisms, idioms and archaic phraseology to provide a more accurate answer then those already provided.
    – user19179
    Jun 18, 2021 at 23:02

5 Answers 5


Some sailing terminology might help here. A sailboat cannot sail directly upwind. It can sail within approx. 45° of upwind (depending on the boat). In order to go upwind you must sail a zig-zag pattern commonly called tacking or beating upwind. If conditions are poor, or if you are a bad sailor, you can spend a lot of time moving quite quickly over the water, feeling like you are making good speed, but actually making very little overall progress (or even ending up downwind).

I think this sentence is meant to evoke the same kind of vigorous, directed, yet ultimately futile activity as a sailor who is trying but failing to move against the wind or water current.


To get the full meaning, you will need greater context.

"So we beat on" could imply a lot of things, but when you add in the next phrase, "boats against the current", it implies they are rowing, their paddles beating against the waves, trying to row upstream or against the tide. More completely, "So we on" means that they have been doing this thing, they do not want to do this thing, but despite of or because of whatever was explained before this sentence, they continue to do so anyway.

But when it concludes "borne back ceaselessly into the past" we can tell this is going somewhere metaphorical. "The past" is not a real place, and one can not be physically brought there, so this phrase has to be metaphor. The most obvious reading is that "we", as in all people, row hard against the current of life, trying to get ahead, but inevitably we are brought back to face our past. Or it could mean that they are literally rowing boats against the tide, but they are constantly brought back to where they have already been, "the past".

The surrounding paragraphs would better tell you how to interpret this sentence as a metaphor, and then the more context you can add, the more you can understand the nuance of the metaphor and what it meant both to the fictional narrator and to the author and to you. Sometimes truly understanding a metaphor involves understanding not just the book that its in, but the history and culture of the author, the history of the subject being explored, nuances of how language is used by the speakers in the book, or any number of other things.

So you can get a meaning out of just a quote, but the more context you have, the more meaning you can get.


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 then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The green light, although initially was referred to as our dreams and aspirations(in Gatsby's case, his hopes to woo Daisy and be with her forever), by the end of the novel, had lost it's meaning completely. In the context, Nick had referred to it as being a hopeless future that we is plausible only in our dreams, which drifts further everyday( year by year recedes before us). We are eluded into thinking that we will have a better tomorrow, fighting for a better future(tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther), but it is indeed futile.

We will continue our struggle(So we beat on) face all the hardships of reality, against everything life puts us through(boats against the current), only to end up close to where we started. (borne back ceaselessly into the past). My interpretation is that no matter what you do to convince yourself that you can change for a better life, in the end your past is going to dictate what you do in life and there is no other way about it.

This is again only as per my understanding, do let me know about what you think XD


I don't think you can properly understand this quote without looking at the GDP growth rates for the 1920s. The Great Gatsby is set in 1922, perhaps not co-incidentally the year with the highest growth of the 1920s. That year, things were getting better and better extremely fast, and I'm sure if you were living at that time you expected (or at least wanted to expect) it to continue.

Many people in the 1920s were convinced they were on the verge of a 'New Era', where all normal rules were suspended, and new technologies would lead to another 100 years of dazzling ultraprosperity, not unlike the 'New Economy' of the 1990s tech bubble.

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The novel itself was written 1924-25, a couple of years after the giddy expectations of 1922 had probably burned off. It's interesting he chose to set the novel in that particular year. Following the 90s analogy, it would be like someone writing a novel in early 2000s about the year 1999 - in the same sort of cultural era, but with a darker, more sober mood.

The extrapolative expectations of the "orgastic future" was what made the plot of The Great Gatsby possible. Would any of the characters have been so willing to gloss over their deep personal problems otherwise? "It was an easy, quick adventurous age, good to be young in, and yet coming out of it, one felt a sense of relief, as on coming out of a room too full of talk and people into the sunlight of the winter streets" said Malcolm Cowley, on the end of the 1920s. They lived for the moment, deferring serious problems for later.

The frivolous, extravagant lifestyle of the novel only makes sense with the assumption the future was taken care of. But it seems like people even during that era suspected it would soon come to an end. Like this popular poem, written in 1920:

"My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— It gives a lovely light!"

It seems like they were on some level choosing to suspend judgement - to believe in that orgastic future. As F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 'Echoes the Jazz Age' in 1931: "But moralizing is easy now and it was pleasant to be in one's twenties in such a certain and unworried time". Sadly, that ultraprosperous future that Gatsby believed in didn't arrive for another 20-30 years, and another world war.


Just like any metaphor, what the sentence really mean can only be left to interpretation. For me, it resonated with all the happy memories that I have in the past, and the grieve of having them lost to time. A lot of us strive to recreate the intense positive experiences or missed opportunities we had in the past despite our perfect understanding that things have changed. Don't we all have that something we always wanted as a kid, that we now still carry a weird affection towards?

We all understand that we cannot reverse time, yet most of us put in the fruitless effort in trying to re-live that "some moment" we so cherished in our hearts. For Gatsby, the memories and dreams he was trying to recreate is his time with Daisy, as signified by the green light across the shore. Daisy was his past and his dream, and the unreachable ideal that he sailboated towards without hesitation or regret. We all to some extent are affected by this same unfortunate infatuation to pursue a past ideal of our minds, so we beat on, boats against the current, moving both forwardly and backwardly to the utopian destiny we have set for ourselves.

Hope this helps!~ <3


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