Eyes in The Great Gatsby: Significance & Analysis

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores the motif of eyes and the themes of looking and watching in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece, ''The Great Gatsby.'' The lesson confirms the notion that eyes play a significant role as Fitzgerald's characters strive to see and be seen.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald

To See and Be Seen: Eyes in The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, abounds with images of eyes. This is because The Great Gatsby is a novel about appearances. Set in The Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties, it focuses on the events of beautiful people as they lead glamorous lives.

From Jay Gatsby and his ostentatious displays of newly-acquired wealth to the old money sheen of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Fitzgerald's novel is populated by characters seeking to be seen, characters driven by the gilded surfaces of life and their own fabulous images in that luxurious glow. And yet, Fitzgerald's novel suggests that very few of its characters truly see what's going on, for they are blind to themselves and to the world around them.

1925 First Edition Book Jacket
Great Gatsby

The Eyes Have It: Looking, Seeing, and Watching in The Great Gatsby

Dr. T.J. Eckleburg: God? Man? Money-maker?

One of The Great Gatsby's most haunting symbols is the billboard looming over The Valley of Ashes, the impoverished community ringing the border of the affluent suburbs of East Egg and West Egg, New York. Of course, Jay Gatsby lives a life of luxury in West Egg; Tom and Daisy Buchanan live comfortably in the more fashionable East Egg.

In the Valley of Ashes, however, George and Myrtle Wilson live a life of desperation, struggling to keep the gas station they own afloat.

Presiding over these daily battles is the image of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, an aging advertisement for a presumably now defunct optometrist. The image consists of no face, only a massive pair of bespectacled eyes, several stories high, and faded now by decades of exposure to the sun.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this ubiquitous, inescapable image is its ambiguity. It is an imposing image, its presence felt everywhere in the Valley of Ashes; it is immediate, undeniable, and inescapable. Even when the characters are not within the direct sightline of this billboard, its existence haunts the text like a riddle which the characters, and the plot itself, must unravel.

At its heart, the image of Dr. Eckleburg's massive billboard symbolizes the tension between spirituality and materiality in the modern world. The novel is set during the Roaring Twenties, a period of decadence, debauchery, and crass materialism, a time when old traditions--including faith and spirituality--were being tested and frequently abandoned.

The eyes, staring unblinkingly at the travails, the misdeeds, and the suffering of rich and poor alike, may in this respect suggest the eyes of an omniscient (or all-knowing) God, a God who sees everything, a God whose vision, like the colossal proportions of the billboard itself, reaches farther and further than humanly possible. George Wilson's friend, Michaelis, appeals to such an image when trying to comfort Wilson after the death of his wife.

Wilson rejects this image, however, asserting that the billboard is nothing more than an advertisement, neither a symbol nor a reminder of the watchful presence of God. In spurning Michaelis's comfort, Wilson privileges the materialist reading of the symbol. In the tension between the spiritual and the material in The Jazz Age, it is the material, Wilson suggests, that wins every time.

Thus, these eyes suggest the priority of appearance over truth, the greater power of the image over the man. These eyes are actually not eyes at all, only simulation. They have no power to see, to discern, or to judge. They are artifice, not substance.

Perhaps even more significant is their true purpose: to make money. Dr. Eckleburg's billboard is an advertisement, created solely for the purpose of selling. In the highly competitive world where the affluence of West Egg and East Egg clash against the deprivation of the Valley of Ashes, it seems that the material, not the moral, is what matters.

Owl Eyes: Do you see what I see?

Gatsby's nameless but unforgettable guest, described only by Nick Carraway as 'Owl Eyes,' plays a small but important role in exploring the conflict between the artificial and the real in the novel. Owl Eyes is introduced the first time Nick attends one of Gatsby's legendary parties. Nick finds him alone in Gatsby's library, marveling at the realness of the books.

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