Eyes and seeing

There are several images of eyes and seeing or blindness in the text, which may reflect ideas about perception, understanding and even spiritual awareness. 

The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg

The most notable image is the billboard in the valley of ashes, representing the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg (‘blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high’). They are separated from any face but look through ‘enormous yellow spectacles’ implying that there is an issue with sight, which of course a purchase of glasses can correct. Consumerism, as some critics have noted, is emerging as a powerful social force in the 1920s, with advertising of this kind shaping the desires and behaviour of its target audience. When George Wilson forces his wife to look at this billboard, he uses it to demonstrate to her that ‘God sees everything’, suggesting both that consumerism is replacing religion and that Wilson has a distorted perception of reality (Michaelis does not share his perception).

Physical and moral blindness

Blindness and impaired vision are also directly associated with confusing or highly charged situations. The party in Tom’s apartment causes discomfort to Myrtle’s dog:

The little dog was … looking with blind eyes through the smoke, … groaning faintly.

Lack of awareness because of alcohol is also commented on by Jordan, as she says:

It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard-drinking people… you can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don’t see or care.

Daisy, when forced to acknowledge her ‘irregularity’ with Gatsby, is ironically described as looking at Gatsby ‘blindly’ and her eyes in this chapter reveal her true feelings for both Tom and Gatsby. 

Blindness and perceptiveness

In Chapter 8, Henry C. Gatz arrives at his dead son’s house and is overwhelmed with emotion, pride and old age. The phrase, ‘his eyes, seeing nothing, moved ceaselessly about the room’, implies that he is unable to comprehend the unfamiliar environment he is in. He is contrasted with Owl Eyes, who appears at the funeral, wiping his glasses to see the burial and perhaps symbolically to understand the truth of Gatsby’s rejection by others. 

Owl Eyes is first introduced as extremely drunk at Gatsby’s party in Chapter 3 but is clearly interested in establishing what is real, as he examines the books in the library and is delighted to find that they are ‘absolutely real’. Nevertheless, despite his drunkenness, he is still very perceptive and astute in his judgement that Gatsby is a ‘regular Belasco … What thoroughness! What realism!’ recognising that the library is a well-executed illusion by someone as capable as David Belasco, known at the time for his naturalistic theatre sets.

Nick acknowledges that he struggles to overcome the ‘quality of distortion’ that he identifies as particular to the East. He says that Gatsby’s death meant that the East was ‘distorted beyond my eyes’ power of correction.’ He sees clearly the nature of Tom and Daisy, however, as ‘careless people’ and draws on his inner perception to understand the nature of Gatsby in his final lines.

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