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Doctor TJ Eckleburg and The Great Gatsby Eyes

Updated on May 31, 2013
1921 drawing of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Gordon Bryant
1921 drawing of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Gordon Bryant | Source

But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

For those who may be wondering, there never was a Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. F. Scott Fitzgerald created this wild wag of an oculist who is mentioned several times in The Great Gatsby merely for symbolic purposes. Eckleburg’s enormous and to some extent hideous eyes are painted on a decaying billboard in the valley of ashes and therefore witness some of the most important and tense parts of the novel. In some ways the billboard seems to represent the eyes of God. Eckleburg is mentioned by name in two situations: first when Nick Carraway meets Myrtle and then later on when the climax of the story is set up by Tom Buchanan stopping to buy gas for Gatsby’s yellow car.

It is thought that Fitzgerald’s inspiration for the ominous eyes came at least in part from the cover art for his book. The well known blue cover, known as Celestial Eyes, was created by artist Francis Cugat (1893-1981) before Fitzgerald had even completed the book. Cugat was, and still is, virtually unknown. During the 1920s, about the only thing he did which gained him any form of recognition was creating theater posters for a Chicago opera company. How or why he was commissioned to create artwork for The Great Gatsby is unknown.

As Cugat would have had very little knowledge of the more intricate parts of the story, it is unlikely either he or Fitzgerald meant for the cover to represent Doctor T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes. One major indicator of this is that the eyes are not framed by a pair of enormous yellow spectacles, as Eckleburg’s are. It is more likely the cover it meant to be one of the novel’s more tragic characters, as there appears to be a tear sliding down from the right eye. Whatever the reason, F. Scott Fitzgerald absolutely loved Cugat’s Celestial Eyes and claimed he made use of the general idea of the picture within the novel.

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby film obviously makes use of the novel’s original cover (which, by the way, has been printed on more recent reissues by Scribner/Simon and Schuster). In Luhrmann’s movie, Eckleburg’s eyes are shown much as Fitzgerald described; the billboard also has a background of the identical shade of blue as Cugat’s original work.

For some odd reason, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s enthusiasm over Cugat’s Celestial Eyes did not last. Part of the reason for this might have been that The Great Gatsby was not half as successful as Fitzgerald would have liked. The novel did not sell very well and it is nothing short of a miracle that it did not drop into obscurity.

Beacon Towers, a building which served as inspiration for The Great Gatsby. This photograph is from 1922, around the time F. Scott Fitzgerald would have seen the house.
Beacon Towers, a building which served as inspiration for The Great Gatsby. This photograph is from 1922, around the time F. Scott Fitzgerald would have seen the house. | Source

Had you ever heard of Francis Cugat?

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This miracle, however, did not come about for Francis Cugat. Cugat had always been a bit of a displaced person: he was born in Spain, immigrated to Cuba, eventually came to the United States, and never achieved much fame. He did manage to keep bread on the table by working as a Hollywood designer. But he never has and probably never will receive the credit he deserves for his work on The Great Gatsby.

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    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 4 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      On your recommendation, last Rose, I'll seek it out and watch it.

      It just struck me as being exactly as I had envisioned it.

      And you know how a particular scene or depiction really grabs you; the depiction of Myrtle Wilson by Karen Black always comes to my mind when I think of the film.

      The sleaze, the heat, the whole atmosphere.

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image
      Author

      LastRoseofSummer2 4 years ago from Arizona

      Twilight Lawns - I have seen the most recent Gatsby film and I loved every minute of it. Admittedly, it has a much more modern feel and is not so 100% by the book as the Robert Redford one. However, they did not by any means ruin the story.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 4 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Very interesting hub. I didn't manage to see the DiCaprio film. i think that 'Teh Great Gatsby' is possibly one pf my four most favourite novels of all time... but as I haven't finished reading yet. there may be more time in my life to add another one or two.

      I wonder of the DiCaprio film could be as good as the Robert Redford,, Mia farrow version. This is the film that I saw and thought, "This is exactly as I saw it in my mind's eye while I was reading it."

      Thank you again, for a very interesting hub.