How could a character or symbol be seen differently in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Chapter 3 of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic of American literature The Great Gatsby, the reader, the novel’s narrator, Nick Carroway, and Jordan Baker are introduced to a rather peculiar gentleman during a lavish party at Gatsby’s mansion.  Having wandered into the library, Nick is surprised by this gentleman, who unhesitatingly engages the two new-comers in conversation regarding the façade this library represents:

“A stout middle-aged man with enormous owl-like spectacles was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books.  As we entered, he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.

‘What do you think?’ he demanded impetuously.

‘About what?’

He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.

‘About that.  As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain.  I’ve ascertained.  They’re real.’

‘The books?’

He nodded. 

‘Absolutely real – have pages and everything.  I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard.  Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real.’”

This “owl-eyed” gentleman, who will remain nameless, continues to dissect, in a most derogatory manner, the apparent superficiality of the evening’s host:

“‘It fooled me.  This fella’s a regular Belasco.  It’s a triumph.  What thoroughness!  What realism!  Knew when to stop, too – didn’t cut the pages.’”

Owl Eyes, as Nick will later refer to him, has cut through the veneer of respectability that Jay Gatsby has so meticulously constructed around himself.  Handing one of the books from the shelves to Nick to examine so as to prove his point, he then utters an aside that summarizes Gatsby’s existence:

“He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.”

Owl Eyes has deconstructed Gatsby.  His reference to “Belasco,” a playwright, director and producer active during the late-19th and early-20th Centuries, is intended to label Gatsby a showman rather than a man of substance – precisely the exact opposite of Gatsby’s intentions.  Later, in Chapter 5, Nick has acquiesced in Gatsby’s plan to arrange an encounter between the latter and Daisy Buchanan, with whom Gatsby is deeply infatuated.  A get-together among the three that begins at Nick’s house eventually relocates to Gatsby’s nearby mansion, where the mysterious suitor leads his guests on a guided tour of his estate.  Nick, having been exposed to the intricacies of his neighbor, is now able to see through Gatsby’s façade and, in so doing, recalls his earlier encounter with Owl Eyes:

“And inside, as we wandered through Marie Antoinette music rooms and Restoration salons I felt that there were guests concealed behind every couch and table, under orders to be breathlessly silent until we had passed through.  As Gatsby closed the door of the ‘Merton College Library’, I could have sworn I heard the owl-eyed man break into ghostly laughter.”

The Merton College Library is one of Britain’s oldest, and is located at Oxford, the revered English academic institution at which Gatsby has claimed to have been educated.  Nick’s reference to it is a sign of the extent to which he has begun to view Gatsby less as a fascinating enigma and more as the slightly pathetic phony he increasingly appears to be.  The reference to the “owl-eyed man,” again, reinforces the superficiality of the façade behind which Gatsby conceals his true character.  Owl Eyes has assumed the role of omniscient observer and commentator, despite his absence from most of the novel.  He reappears, however, toward the end of The Great Gatsby, when Nick encounters him once again, only this time at the funeral for the now-deceased Gatsby:

“As we started through the gate into the cemetery I heard a car stop and then the sound of someone splashing after us over the soggy ground.  I looked around.  It was the man with owl-eyed glasses whom I had found marveling over Gatsby’s books in the library one night three months before.  I’d never seen him since then.”

Finally, Nick and Owl Eyes pause to speak following the grave-side service:

“Owl Eyes spoke to me by the gate.

‘I couldn’t get to the house,’ he remarked.

‘Neither could anybody else.’

‘Go on!’ he started. ‘Why, my God, they used to go there by the hundreds.’

He took of his glasses and wiped them again outside and in.

‘The poor son-of-a-bitch,’ he said.”

“Owl Eyes” is an interesting character for Fitzgerald to have inserted into his story.  He seems to exist to debunk the myth of Jay Gatsby.  It might be reading too much into a minor character, but, in a way, Owl Eyes serves as a bit of a Greek Chorus, albeit in a very brief series of appearances.  He does not, in his inebriated state, shrink from ripping the façade from Jay Gatsby, but he does, as his final comment illustrates, display a degree of humanity, as if everyone, no matter how vile or phony, gets a free ride out of town when their time comes.  His practice of removing and cleaning is glasses could – again, this might be reading too much into the character – represent the struggle of Gatsby’s admirers and of the mere curious who ate his food and drank his booze while sharing in the act, to metaphorically remove the veil from their eyes and view this mysterious, tragic figure through clear lenses.  It is entirely possible that Fitzgerald intended this minor figure to represent a much greater meaning. 

Read the study guide:
The Great Gatsby

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