The Martian

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The Potatoes Symbol Analysis

The Potatoes Symbol Icon

For most of his time on Mars, Watney subsists on his crop of potatoes. It’s fitting that the potatoes he uses to sow the crop were intended for the Ares 3 crew’s Thanksgiving dinner; Thanksgiving celebrates the pilgrims’ survival in a new land, and just as the Native Americans’ generosity and humanity saved the pilgrims from starvation, Watney is saved from starvation in a strange new place by the supplies for a Thanksgiving dinner. The potatoes were intended by NASA’s psychologists to foster a sense of fellowship among the astronauts, and this nod to the importance of humanity and community turns out to sustain Watney in a much more physical sense. In this way, the potatoes symbolize the tenacity of life, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

The Potatoes Quotes in The Martian

The The Martian quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Potatoes. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Broadway Books edition of The Martian published in 2014.
Chapter 3 Quotes

Why did NASA send twelve whole potatoes, refrigerated but not frozen? And why send them along with us as in-pressure cargo rather than in a crate with the rest of the Hab supplies? Because Thanksgiving was going to happen while we were doing surface operations, and NASA’s shrinks thought it would be good for us to make a meal together. Not just to eat it, but to actually prepare it.

Related Characters: Mark Watney (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Potatoes
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

By Chapter 3, Watney has worked out a way to extend his food supply: he has created “compost” out of Earth soil samples, his feces, and Martian soil, and he has transformed the Hab into a greenhouse where he can grow potatoes. Astronauts usually eat freeze-dried food, so it’s a stroke of luck that he has potatoes that he can plant.

It’s significant that the potatoes were sent so that the Ares 3 crew could prepare a Thanksgiving meal. Thanksgiving celebrates how early American colonists avoided starvation; now Thanksgiving potatoes save Watney, a colonist on Mars, from starvation, too. The meal was intended to give the crew a chance to bond with one another and to allow them to share in the holiday their families and friends were celebrating at home. Watney is now gaining physical sustenance from something intended to preserve his emotional health, reminding readers that Watney’s survival depends on his remaining symbolically and practically connected to life on Earth.

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Chapter 17 Quotes

There’s still soil everywhere. No point in lugging it back outside. Lacking anything better to do, I ran some tests on it. Amazingly, some of the bacteria survived. […] it only takes one survivor to stave off extinction. Life is amazingly tenacious. They don’t want to die any more than I do.

Related Characters: Mark Watney (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Potatoes
Page Number: 224
Explanation and Analysis:

Watney’s potato plants died when the Hab canvas breached in Chapter 14. Watney was able to mend the Hab, but he had assumed that all of the bacteria in the soil had died, too. Now, discovering that the bacteria is alive is a seemingly miraculous surprise. Watney does not often wax poetic, but here he sees the bacteria’s survival as an analogue to his own situation. It’s a fluke of luck that he, like the bacteria, is still alive on Mars—and yet, somehow, they’ve managed it. Weir uses the bacteria as a symbol for the persistence of living things, suggesting to readers that, like bacteria, human beings are driven by a basic instinct to survive against all odds.

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The Potatoes Symbol Timeline in The Martian

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Potatoes appears in The Martian. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
...floor of the Hab (92 square meters) with crop soil and plant beans, peas, and potatoes, which he has found in the Hab food supply. Since he has vitamins, he just... (full context)
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Solitude and the Human Need for Connection Theme Icon
...music, which she left behind in the evacuation. Doing some math, Watney realizes that the potatoes he grows on his 62.5 square meters will only feed him for 90 days. This... (full context)
Chapter 3
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Solitude and the Human Need for Connection Theme Icon
...the Hab to grow his supply of crop soil, and starts his seed crop of potatoes. Watney explains that NASA sent twelve whole potatoes so that the crew could make and... (full context)
Chapter 5
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
...the bacteria alive, but not enough to maintain a fire. The cold will kill the potatoes, though, so Watney needs to put them in bags of soil and move them to... (full context)
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
The Betrayal of the Familiar Theme Icon
...episode of Dukes of Hazzard from Lewis’ memory stick. On Sol 42, Watney moves the potato plants back into the Hab. He still has to make another 470 liters of water,... (full context)
Chapter 7
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
...up the log-entry structure. It is Sol 63. Watney has finished making water and the potatoes are growing. He describes things as “stable.” His new goal is to find a way... (full context)
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Solitude and the Human Need for Connection Theme Icon
...out on the ground beside the rover. Returning to the Hab, Watney digs up the potatoes, cuts them up into pieces with one eye each, and reseeds them. At the end... (full context)
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
...the Ares 4 MAV, but he doesn’t yet say what it is. To keep the potatoes alive, he’ll make the Hab very humid and vent in carbon dioxide from the MAV... (full context)
Chapter 9
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Solitude and the Human Need for Connection Theme Icon
...Hab, he’ll run the urine through the water reclaimer and compost his “manure” for the potato farm. The RTG, the solar cells, and batteries are working as planned. While the solar... (full context)
Chapter 10
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Bureaucracy vs. Human Endeavour Theme Icon
...thrilled to be back in the Hab, where he has room to move around. The potatoes are growing well, and he adds his “manure” to them. Watney turns the Hab oxygenator... (full context)
Chapter 11
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Solitude and the Human Need for Connection Theme Icon
...of messages, Watney explains that he is healthy, the Hab is working, and he’s growing potatoes. He emphasizes that the Ares 3 crew was not at fault for leaving him behind,... (full context)
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Bureaucracy vs. Human Endeavour Theme Icon
Solitude and the Human Need for Connection Theme Icon
The Media Theme Icon
...not at fault in abandoning him and says, “Hi, Mom!” He updates Venkat on his potato-growing plan, explaining that he now has food through Sol 900. When Venkat tells him that... (full context)
Chapter 13
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Bureaucracy vs. Human Endeavour Theme Icon
Solitude and the Human Need for Connection Theme Icon
Sol 116. Watney harvests, freezes, and stores his potatoes. Watney receives an email from Venkat advising him to listen to NASA’s advice on botany,... (full context)
Chapter 14
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
The Betrayal of the Familiar Theme Icon
...he can get Pathfinder back online. His real problem is that the soil and young potato plants are now dead. The supply probe will arrive Sol 856, but he now only... (full context)
Chapter 15
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Back at JPL, Bruce meets with his staff. The dead potato farm has changed their timeline: for a supply probe to reach Watney by Sol 584,... (full context)
Chapter 21
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
...working well—Watney can set it up and stow it again relatively quickly. He eats a potato for breakfast and does an EVA to gather and stow the solar cells. He drives... (full context)
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Solitude and the Human Need for Connection Theme Icon
Sol 449. Watney is about to leave for Shiaparelli. To avoid eating raw potatoes, he’s microwaved them all and frozen them again. Watney shuts down the Hab following the... (full context)
Chapter 25
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
...in the MAV in his EVA suit, awaiting the launch. He’s leaving behind his remaining potatoes and the soil and rock samples he collected on his journey. He knows that, if... (full context)