The Boys in the Boat Symbols and Motifs

Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat

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The Boys in the Boat Symbols and Motifs

Cauliflower Mushroom

At ten years old, Joe finds himself abandoned by his father and stepmother and is forced to fend for himself. He takes up residence at his schoolhouse. One day, his teacher takes the class to the woods and shows them a cauliflower mushroom—Sparassis radicata. His teacher explains that though the “rounded, convoluted mass” (37) appears unappealing, it can be “delicious when stewed” (37). Joe is amazed to discover that free food is all around him, and that he “just might find something valuable in the most unlikely of places” (37). Though the mushroom appears odd, it is immensely valuable. The mushroom mirrors Joe’s status on the crew team—he appears odd to his teammates, with his single sweater and guarded nature, but proves indispensable to the team. Joe, like the cauliflower mushroom, is a diamond in the rough, and it requires a thoughtful person—like Pocock or Ulbrickson—to “recognize a good thing…no matter who else might just walk away and leave it behind” (37).

Four-Leaf Clover

Four-leaf clovers pop up several times in the novel, as they are one of Joe’s personal symbols. After an adolescence spent foraging, Joe develops an “uncanny knack for finding four-leaf clovers” (68). Though Joyce is apt to call Joe’s ability luck, he disagrees, saying it’s a matter of “keeping your eyes open” (69). If you stop looking for clovers, you’ll never find one. Joe later uses the ruse of a four-leaf clover hunt to propose to Joyce, and Joyce sends Joe off to the Olympic preliminaries with a four-leaf clover sign. As Joyce nervously listens to the results of the Berlin Olympics, she lays the clover Joe gave her “atop the radio” (339). When Joe and his team win the gold medal, she takes the clover down, “crying unabashedly, rapturously” (351). Joe’s four leaf clover appears at key moments in his life—his engagement to Joyce, the final Poughkeepsie Regatta, and the Olympic games. Throughout, the clover represents Joe’s particular combination of luck and willpower. Joe has grown up decidedly unlucky, but refuses to let his situation cow him. He achieves remarkable things through determination, represented by…

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