Symbolism

The Eyes of Doctor T. J Eckleburg

A particular feature of the valley of ashes described at the start of chapter two (see the setting notes for further details) is the faded advertisement portraying a pair of blue and gigantic eyes looking through a pair of enormous spectacles.

The oculist who placed the 'Eyes' there has either gone out of business, or forgot them and moved away, but the huge eyes remain, staring emptily out over the wasteland.

Later, in chapter eight, Wilson, although he is not a man with any religious faith, tells his neighbour Michaelis that:

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'God sees everything'... Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg.

He has to remind Wilson 'That's an advertisement'.

Question

What is the symbolic significance of the eyes?

Various interpretations of the symbolic significance of the eyes have been put forward:

  • The fact that "they look out of no face" symbolises the emptiness and lack of hope in the valley of ashes.
  • They may suggest that belief in God has been replaced by capitalism and materialism.

The image of the watching eyes which continue to brood over the desolate landscape is a haunting one, suggesting that the licentious behaviour of the jazz age is being assessed and judged, but the fact that there is no soul behind the eyes conveys a troubling sense that nothing will be done to amend matters. The idea of the advertisement being forgotten anticipates the way in which Gatsby himself will be consigned to oblivion by the people who make free with his hospitality.

Weather

In chapter five, changes in the weather correspond with the development of the characters' moods. This is known as pathetic fallacy.

A photo of rain on a window

On the day arranged for the meeting of Gatsby and Daisy there was pouring rain: Gatsby is worried that she will not come and he is described as "pale as death".

When things go well,

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he literally glowed... a new well-being radiated from him".

Correspondingly, the rain stopped and:

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there were twinkle-bells of sunshine in the room.

Later in the chapter, however, it begins to rain again and Gatsby tells Daisy that the mist obscures the green light across the bay, symbolising the fading of the dream.

In chapter seven, heat is used as a symbol for the emotional climax of the novel. The weather is described as broiling. Nick notes the shimmering hush at noon as he returns from New York in the train before going to Daisy's house.

He mentions how the straw seats of the car (railway carriage) hovered on the edge of combustion. He means that the seats have got so hot it seems they will burst into flames. This example of hyperbole suggests the emotional heat to follow as Daisy's affair with Gatsby is about to be discovered by Tom, and a furious confrontation will take place between the two men in the Plaza Hotel.