The Boys in the Boat

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Themes and Colors
Teamwork and Trust Theme Icon
Sports, Politics, and Community Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
East Versus West Theme Icon
Propaganda Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Boys in the Boat, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Class Theme Icon

Another major theme of The Boys in the Boat is class, and particularly the conflict between different socioeconomic classes. The book takes place during the Great Depression, an era when the collapse of the stock market and the decline of industry threatened to wipe out the middle class. Many families that had never wanted for food were thrust into poverty for the first time. At a school such as the University of Washington, where the book is set, the divide between the wealthiest and the poorest Americans was particularly stark. Some of the university’s students had never worked a day in their lives, while others, such as Joe Rantz, could only be university students because they’d previously been working full-time jobs. Through the character of Joe Rantz, Daniel James Brown studies the bullying and discrimination that working-class Americans often have to endure, and how some Americans succeeded in overcoming their persecution.

At the University of Washington, Joe encountered endless class discrimination. He came from a poor family, and he had to support himself since the age of fifteen, often working full-time just to feed himself and put a roof over his head. On the other hand, some of his classmates came from wealthy families, and had no experience working for a living. They teased Joe for his frumpy clothing, his unpolished manners, and other things that signified his working-class roots. Joe was particularly conscious of the divide between upper-class and working-class as a member of the university rowing team. Traditionally, rowing is one of the most elitist, exclusive sports, available only for those who can afford to buy boats or pay membership at elite athletic clubs. Thus, when he tried out for the team as a freshmen, Joe drew snickers from other, wealthier rowing hopefuls.

Over the course of the book, however, Joe and his working-class teammates fought back against class discrimination in a few different ways. To begin with, Joe came to understand that he wasn’t alone in his working-class roots; indeed, most of the other talented underclassman rowers hailed from relatively poor families, and had to work for a living. Thus, Joe developed strong friendships with his teammates, based on their talents but also their common heritage. In doing so, Joe and his friends challenged the old stereotype that crew was a “rich man’s sport.” Most basically of all, however, Joe and his friends fought against classism simply by being better than anyone else. As Joe went through college, winning impressive rowing titles, his wealthier peers teased him less and less; indeed, he became a citywide hero because of his talents. (Of course, this optimistic theme then has a darker side to it—that less privileged people have to be better-than-average just to be considered the equals of their more privileged peers.)

The book further suggests that Joe became a great rower because of his working-class roots; in rowing, he found the perfect outlet for his toughness, his focus, and his ability to withstand pain. Not only did he try out for the richest, most elitist sport on campus; he found ways of turning his poor, decidedly non-elite origins into a major advantage when he played the sport. In the end, The Boys in the Boat tells an optimistic, inspiring story about class in America. Even if few Americans are as talented as Joe and his teammates, they can use their ambition, talent, and determination to find success, defying the entitled bullies who tell them they’ll never amount to anything.

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Class ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Class appears in each Chapter of The Boys in the Boat. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Class Quotes in The Boys in the Boat

Below you will find the important quotes in The Boys in the Boat related to the theme of Class.
Chapter 1 Quotes

And perhaps that was the worst of it. Whether you were a banker or a baker, a homemaker or homeless, it was with you night and day—a terrible, unrelenting uncertainty about the future, a feeling that the ground could drop out from under you for good at any moment.

Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage sets the scene for the rest of book, which takes place during the Great Depression, a time when the American economy was tanking and industry and agriculture were barely surviving. Millions of Americans were out of work, and the overall spirit of the country was slowly fading away: Americans looked ahead to the future with a general sense of dread.

It’s important for the book to situate its narrative in the Great Depression, since, in many ways, Joe and his teammates became symbols of hope for millions of Americans who desperate for it. At the time, rowing was a highly popular sport, and when the University of Washington crew team began doing well on the national stage, Americans across the country tuned in to the radio to learn about their successes. In times of crisis, people need entertainment more than ever—and in the 1930s, rowing was one of the America’s favorite forms of entertainment.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

The hurting was taking its toll, and that was just fine with Joe. Hurting was nothing new to him.

Related Characters: Joe Rantz
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

During his freshman year, Joe Rantz tried out for the University of Washington crew team. He was told, again and again, that trying out for crew would be one of the most challenging things he ever did. While rowing every evening for three hours—as the freshman hopefuls were required to do—was taxing, Joe didn’t mind the physical pain as much as some of his classmates did. Joe grew up in an impoverished home, and he was accustomed to taking care of himself, going hungry, etc. In short, Joe braved more adversity in his first eighteen years than some people do in their entire lives. As a result, the physical challenges of rowing were nothing new to him. The passage is especially important because it suggests that Joe’s difficult childhood—for which he was mocked and teased again and again during his time in college—was actually an asset when it came to rowing, because it conditioned him to work hard and never give up.

Chapter 6 Quotes

It didn’t help that [Joe Rantz] continued to feel like everyone’s poor cousin. With the weather remaining cool, he still had to wear his ragged sweater to practice almost every day, and the boys still teased him continuously for it.

Related Characters: Joe Rantz
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Joe Rantz continued to succeed as a rower, he faced considerable adversity on the University of Washington campus. His classmates, many of whom hailed from wealthy families in big cities, mocked Joe for his cheap, ragged clothing and somewhat unpolished manners. The teasing that Joe endured at college took a significant toll on his life overall. He began to question whether he belonged at college in the first place, and he found that he wasn’t able to focus on rowing—he was too distracted by his own insecurities. In short, in order to succeed as an Olympic rower, Joe didn’t only have to train extensively; he had to strengthen his psychological defenses against bullying and build self-confidence.

Chapter 11 Quotes

For the most part, though, they stayed in Grand Coulee, where they could toss a football around in the sagebrush, chuck rocks off the edges of the cliffs, bask shirtless on stone ledges in the warm morning sun, sit bleary-eyed in the smoke around a campfire at night telling ghost stories as coyotes yelped in the distance, and generally act like the teenagers they actually were—free and easy boys, cut loose in the wide expanse of the western desert.

Related Characters: Joe Rantz, Johnny White, Chuck Day
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

The summer after his sophomore year, Joe worked on the Grand Coulee dam, a major engineering project announced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Just as Roosevelt predicted, the building of the Coulee damn wouldn’t just provide power for the Washington community; it also united many people together in a common cause. That summer, Joe worked alongside two of his teammates from the Washington crew program. Together, they bonded, learned to respect one another, and—perhaps most importantly of all—had a good time. In this poignant passage, Brown describes how Joe and his friends fooled around and had a good time, like the teenagers they were—reminding readers that Joe, in spite of his youth, had never had much time to be a kid.

The passage is important to the book because it shows Joe beginning to bond with his teammates and, at the same time, becoming more of a team player. By learning to trust his friends, Joe learned to row more efficiently and contribute more to his boat’s success.

Chapter 15 Quotes

Ulbrickson knew full well that money more or less grew on the trees at Yale, and that funds had been vastly easier to come by in 1928, before the Depression, than in 1936.

Related Characters: Al Ulbrickson
Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:

After qualifying for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the University of Washington rowing team faced a difficult challenge—it had to figure out how to pay its way across the Atlantic. At the time, traveling to Europe from America was no mean feat, especially considering that the country was still in the grips of the Great Depression, meaning that public funds were scarce.

For 21st century readers of The Boys in the Boat, it probably seems remarkable that there was a time in recent American history when the country couldn’t afford to send its own athletes to the Olympics—and indeed, it’s a sign of the ravages of the Great Depression that the University of Washington almost failed to make it to Germany in 1936. However, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce eventually provided the funds for the voyage to Germany, perhaps recognizing that, by sponsoring the crew team, it would bring glory to the city of Seattle and the entire state of Washington.

Chapter 19 Quotes

In the white-hot emotional furnace of those final meters at Grünau, Joe and the boys had finally forged the prize they had sought all season, the prize Joe had sought nearly all his life. Now he felt whole. He was ready to go home.

Related Characters: Joe Rantz
Page Number: 355
Explanation and Analysis:

At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Joe Rantz and his teammates from the University of Washington won Olympic gold in a climactic race. As the passage suggests, they succeeded not simply because of their athletic prowess, but because they learned to work as a team. In part, the athletes worked so well together because they came from similar backgrounds—any of them were from impoverished West Coast families, and they were familiar with working hard to survive. In any event, the passage sums up the central theme of the book: the importance of teamwork. Joe sat in bed the night after winning his medal, thinking about everything he’d learned. He finally felt “whole,” in the sense that he had close friends who trusted and respected him. For someone like Joe, who’d grown up lonely and insecure, this realization was nothing short of an epiphany.