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Doctor TJ Eckleburg and The Great Gatsby Eyes
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.
Had you ever heard of Francis Cugat?
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.