In The Great Gatsby, in the middle of a strange, gray landscape, hovers a giant billboard of eyes without a face—the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. It's a creepy image, and the fact that several characters seem disturbed by it means that it is very significant in the novel. But did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald didn't make up this advertisement? If you image search "oculist shop sign," you'll see that this disembodied eyes thing was a pretty standard way to advertise places that sold glasses!
So how does The Great Gatsby transform what would have a reasonable everyday image into a sign of the macabre? And why does this billboard affect the characters who see them so much? In this article, I'll talk about the places where the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are mentioned in the novel, explain their symbolic meaning, connect them with the novel's themes and characters, and also give you some jumping-off points for writing essays.
Quick Note on Our Citations
Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book. To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter) or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.
What Are the Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby?
Before delving into the deeper meaning of this image, let's get a general idea of what this object is.
In the middle of Queens, along the road the characters take to get from West Egg to Manhattan, near George Wilson's garage, there is a billboard. The billboard is an ad for an optometrist (called an "oculist" in the 1920s). The image on the ad is a pair of giant disembodied blue eyes (each iris is about a yard in diameter), which are covered by yellow spectacles. The rest of the face isn't pictured, and the billboard is dirty with paint that has faded from being weathered.
Key Quotes About the Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Eyes
Before we can figure out what the eyes mean as a symbol, let's do some close reading of the moments where they pop up in The Great Gatsby.
The first time we come across Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and his eerie eyes, we are in the midst of a double whammy of terribleness. First, Nick has just described Queens as a depressing, crumbling "valley of ashes" that is "grotesque" and "desolate" (2.1). Second, Tom is about to introduce Nick to Myrtle Wilson, his married mistress.
But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground… I followed [Tom] over a low white-washed railroad fence and we walked back a hundred yards along the road under Doctor Eckleburg's persistent stare... "Terrible place, isn't it," said Tom, exchanging a frown with Doctor Eckleburg. (2.1-20)
Instead of simply saying that there is a giant billboard, Nick first spends several sentences describing seemingly living giant eyes that are hovering in mid-air.
Unlike the very gray, drab, and monochrome surroundings, the eyes are blue and yellow. In a novel that is methodically color-coded, this brightness is a little surreal and connects the eyes to other blue and yellow objects.
Moreover, the description has elements of horror. The "gigantic" eyes are disembodied, with "no face" and a "nonexistent nose."
Adding to this creepy feel is the fact that even after we learn that the eyes are actually part of an advertisement, they are given agency and emotions. They don't simply exist in space, but "look out" and "persistently stare," the miserable landscape causes them to "brood," and they are even able to "exchange a frown" with Tom despite the fact that they have no mouth.
It's clear from this personification of an inanimate object that these eyes stand for something else—a huge, displeased watcher.
The second time T.J. Eckleburg's eyes appear, Tom, Nick, and Jordan are stopping at Wilson's garage on their way to Manhattan to have it out with Daisy and Gatsby.
We were all irritable now with the fading ale and, aware of it, we drove for a while in silence. Then as Doctor T. J. Eckleburg's faded eyes came into sight down the road, I remembered Gatsby's caution about gasoline….That locality was always vaguely disquieting, even in the broad glare of afternoon, and now I turned my head as though I had been warned of something behind. Over the ashheaps the giant eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg kept their vigil but I perceived, after a moment, that other eyes were regarding us with peculiar intensity from less than twenty feet away.
In one of the windows over the garage the curtains had been moved aside a little and Myrtle Wilson was peering down at the car. (7.136-163)
This time, the eyes are a warning to Nick that something is wrong. He thinks the problem is that the car is low on gas, but as we learn, the real problem at the garage is that George Wilson has found out that Myrtle is having an affair.
Of course, Nick is quickly distracted from the billboard's "vigil" by the fact that Myrtle is staring at the car from the room where George has imprisoned her. She is holding her own "vigil" of sorts, staring out the window at what she thinks is the yellow car of Tom, her would-be savior, and also giving Jordan a death stare under the misguided impression that Jordan is Daisy.
The word "vigil" is important here. It refers to staying awake for a religious purpose, or to keep watch over a stressful and significant time. Here, though, both of those meanings don't quite apply, and the word is used sarcastically.
The billboard eyes can't interact with the characters, but they do point to—or stand in for—a potential higher authority whose "brooding" and "caution" could also be accompanied by judgment. Their useless vigil is echoed by Myrtle's mistaken one—she is vigilant enough to spot Tom driving, but she is wrong to put her trust in him. Later, this trust in Tom and the yellow car is what gets her killed.
Our last visit to the eyes happens during a private moment between the coffee shop owner Michaelis and George Wilson. Since Nick isn't actually there, this must be Nick's version of Michaelis's testimony to the police after the murder-suicide.
"Have you got a church you go to sometimes, George? Maybe even if you haven't been there for a long time? Maybe I could call up the church and get a priest to come over and he could talk to you, see?"
"Don't belong to any." ...
Wilson's glazed eyes turned out to the ashheaps, where small grey clouds took on fantastic shape and scurried here and there in the faint dawn wind.
"I spoke to her," he muttered, after a long silence. "I told her she might fool me but she couldn't fool God. I took her to the window--" With an effort he got up and walked to the rear window and leaned with his face pressed against it, "--and I said 'God knows what you've been doing, everything you've been doing. You may fool me but you can't fool God!' "
Standing behind him Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg which had just emerged pale and enormous from the dissolving night.
"God sees everything," repeated Wilson.
"That's an advertisement," Michaelis assured him. Something made him turn away from the window and look back into the room. But Wilson stood there a long time, his face close to the window pane, nodding into the twilight. (8.72-105)
Here, finally, the true meaning of the odd billboard that everyone finds so disquieting is revealed.
To the unhinged George Wilson, first totally distraught over Myrtle's affair and then driven past his breaking point by her death, the billboard's eyes are a watchful God. Wilson doesn't go to church, and thus doesn't have access to the moral instruction that will help him control his darker impulses. Still, it seems that Wilson wants God, or at least a God-like influence, in his life—based on him trying to convert the watching eyes of the billboard into a God that will make Myrtle feel bad about "everything [she's] been doing."
In the way George stares "into the twilight" by himself, there is an echo of what we've often seen Gatsby doing—staring at the green light on Daisy's dock. Both men want something unreachable, and both imbue ordinary objects with overwhelming amounts of meaning.
So in the same way Myrtle couldn't see the truth above, this lack of a larger moral compass here guides George (or at least leave him vulnerable) to committing the murder/suicide. Even when characters reach out for a guiding truth in their lives, not only are they denied one, but they are also led instead toward tragedy.
The characters have no access to any of these.
The Meaning and Significance of the Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby
In the world of The Great Gatsby, there is no moral center. Every character is shown to be selfish, delusional, or violent. Even Nick, who, as our narrator, is ostensibly meant to reflect on who is good and who is bad, turns out to be kind of a misogynist bigot. It's not surprising that none of these characters is shown to have faith of any kind. The closest any of them come to being led by an outside force, or voice of authority, is when Tom seems swayed by the super racist arguments of a book about how minorities are about to overwhelm whites.
So it makes sense that Nick, whose job it is to watch everyone else and describe their actions, pays attention to something else that seems to also be watching—the billboard with the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg.
The billboard watches the site of the novel's biggest moral failures. On a more local level, the garage is the place where Daisy kills Myrtle. But on a bigger scale, the "ash heaps" of Queens show what happens to those who cannot succeed in the ambitious, self-serving, predatory world of the Roaring 20's that Fitzgerald finds so objectionable.
The problem, of course, is that this billboard, this completely inanimate object, cannot stand in for a civilizing and moral influence, however much the characters who notice it cower under its gaze. Tom frowns when he feels himself being watched, but this feeling does not alter his actions in any way. Wilson wants Myrtle to be shaken up by the idea of this watcher, a God-like presence that is unfoolable, but she is also undeterred. Even Wilson himself, who seems to feel the billboard is some kind of brake on his inner turmoil, is easily persuaded that it's just "an advertisement," and so nothing stands in the way of his violent acting out.
Like Gatsby, who is also compared to "the advertisement of the man" (7.83), the billboard is a sham representation of a deeper idea. People want to read God or at least an overseeing presence into it, but, in the end, they are simply externalizing their anxiety about the moral vacuum at the center of their world.
Not quite the kind of vacuum we're talking about here.
Characters, Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Connected to the Eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg
Nick Carraway. Nick is the first to notice the billboard and describe it as a watchful presence. He finds it a discomfiting cap on the misery and desolation of the "ash heaps" that separate Long Island from Manhattan. In a way, the billboard does what Nick could never do—be a completely impartial, completely objective observer of the events around it.
George Wilson. George seems to conflate the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg with his idea of an ever-present, all-seeing God. He reveals to Michaelis that part of his reaction to Myrtle's affair was to try to make her be afraid of a God who is watching her every move like the billboard does. In the end, after he seems completely unhinged by Myrtle's death, George stares at the billboard in the same way that Gatsby stares at the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. It's possible to conclude that when Michaelis tells George that the eyes are just an advertisement, he removes the last barrier preventing George from acting out his violent intention.
Morality and Ethics. The values of the world within the novel seem to simply be: get whatever you want for yourself, as much as you can, in any way you can, and don't get caught. No one has an internal moral compass, and there is no external one either apparently. The eyes of TJ Eckleburg come closest to being an external motivator for characters to at least consider the morality of their actions, as they squirm and become uncomfortable under the eyes' gaze.
Money and Materialism. The billboard is there in the first place as an advertisement, and thus also reflects the huge capitalist influence in everyone's lives. The real reason that there is no moral or ethical underpinning to the lives of these characters is that their world is based on a greedy, money-based notion of success. Even the object that is the closest thing to a religious figure is in reality trying to compel those who see it to buy something and make someone else richer.
The Valley of Ashes. The billboard of the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg is located in the middle of what Nick calls "the valley of ashes"—the industrial section of Queens that connects the rich neighborhoods of the Eggs on Long Island and the similarly booming Manhattan. That the eyes watch over this neighborhood in particular is an indictment of the way those who can't claw their way to the top get left behind in the lawless Wild East, shaming those passing through who are taking advantage of the hard work of the poor.
What makes the world of The Great Gatsby go around.
Essay Ideas and Tips for Writing About the Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg
Now that we've discussed the significance of the billboard advertising the oculist Doctor Eckleburg, let's figure out the best way to approach this symbol in an essay.
Here are some tips for how to write an essay about the role of a symbol in a novel:
- Build from the text out. In this article, I first looked at the eyes in context and discussed the billboard's meaning in the exact places where it appears, and only afterward wrote about their general significance in the novel. Keep the same system in mind for your own essay: progress from small ideas to big ones to bolster your argument.
- Make an argument. It's not enough to just describe the symbol and explain its possible meanings. Instead, you have to make sure that you're making some kind of point about why/how the symbol works. How do you know if you're making an argument and not just saying the obvious? If you can imagine someone arguing the opposite of what you're saying, then you've got an argument on your hands.
- Don't overthink it. Sure, the billboard's giant eyes can be said to represent lots of things: God, moral failings, or the lack of ethical oversight on the East Coast. But that doesn't mean that it also stands for Gatsby's father, the freedom of sailing, or Daisy's childhood. In other words, watch out for stretching your symbol analysis too far from what the text is telling you.
Here are some possible essay arguments. You can build from them as-is, argue their opposite, or use them as jumping-off points for your own interpretation.
What Wilson really wants when he's staring at the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg is the kind of intervention that a third-person narrator would normally provide: someone to punish the bad characters and reward the good ones. Because there's no supervising authority like that in the novel, Wilson takes justice into his own hands.
The problem isn't that there aren't any moral rules in the world of the novel, but that everyone is so flawed that it would be impossible to figure out who is right and who is wrong. That's why the only appropriate God figure is an inanimate object.
The eyes are placed on the road between Manhattan and West Egg rather than in one of those places because this road is a place where characters could make different choices, and where they can make the decisions that affect their lives in either one of those destinations.
Who has the most options in the novel? Who has the least?
The Bottom Line
- The Eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg is a billboard advertising an oculist that features a pair of giant disembodied blue eyes covered by yellow spectacles.
- The eyes pop up in:
- The beginning of Chapter 2, when Nick's personification of the inanimate eyes implies that they represent a huge, displeased watcher or the characters' moral failures.
- In the middle of Chapter 7, when the eyes are a warning to Nick, who perceives them as an image of a higher authority sitting in judgment.
- In the middle of Chapter 8, when Michaelis's explanation that the billboard isn't actually God releases the violence Wilson has been holding in check.
- The oculist's billboard and its creepy eyes watch over a world without a moral center, where every character is shown to be selfish, delusional, or violent, and it is positioned on the site of the novel's biggest moral failures.
- This billboard, a completely inanimate object, cannot stand in for a civilizing and moral influence, however much the characters want to read God or at least an overseeing presence into it.
- The Eyes of Doctor Eckleburg are associated with:
- Nick Carraway, who notices it because the billboard does what Nick could never do—be a completely impartial, completely objective observer of the events around it.
- George Wilson, who conflates the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg with his idea of an ever-present, all-seeing God.
- Morality and ethics, which don't exist in a world where the rules are: get whatever you want for yourself, as much as you can, in any way you can, and don't get caught.
- The Valley of Ashes, an industrial neighborhood that is an indictment of the way those who can't claw their way to the top get left behind in the lawless Wild East.
- Money and materialism, since the billboard reflects the huge capitalist influence in everyone's lives.
Compare and contrast Tom and George to see why they react to the billboard's unsettling eyes in such different ways.
Check out all the other symbols that enrich The Great Gatsby.
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.