Retinas One Yard High: Textual Impressions of a Memorable Face

Early in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby (1925), readers encounter the strange, disembodied gaze of the fictional oculist Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, looking out over the ‘grey land and spasms of bleak dust’ of West Egg, a town modelled on Great Neck in Long Island, New York.  

Peering out from an imposing billboard – the quintessential symbol of early twentieth-century material culture – Eckleburg’s eyes are ‘blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high.’  Fitzgerald writes: 

‘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.’ 

Eckleburg’s eerie eyes (The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann film adaptation)

For many readers, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg leave a sharp and lasting impression on the imagination, not just because they reappear throughout The Great Gatsby’s key scenes or even necessarily because of Fitzgerald’s evocative exaggerated prose. Rather, it is the eerie incongruity of the giant blue eyes against the backdrop of whitewashed railroad fences, commercial wastelands and ash-heaps that seems to haunt most people.  

For some, Eckleburg’s persistent stare represents scientific rationality and the specialized knowledge of a trained physician, while for others the eyes stand in for the all-seeing eye of God. Fading in and out of sight against the mise en scène of Fitzgerald’s eerie industrial hellscape, the eyes have become synonymous with the novel itself, appearing on book covers, in films and in other iconography.  

The Great Gatsby (cover image) Wikimedia Commons

The textual impressions of a memorable face are quite different from those we recall of the faces we pass in the street or see on TV. The ability to remember faces we see out in the world even has its own scientific designation under the category of ‘super-recognizers,’ a term that researchers have used to describe people who have ‘superior face recognition abilities’ (Russell et al. 2009).  

When it comes to literary texts, why do we remember some faces better than others? And what techniques do writers use to impress upon us a lasting image of a memorable face? Unlike in cinema, where we usually instantaneously take in the complete visual frame of a character’s face, writers must construct a descriptive mosaic that pieces together various facial components to form an imaginative whole. These could be thought of as ‘faciality traits,’ to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term; parts that ‘the face holds within its rectangle or circle.’ 

In contrast to the disembodied eyes of Fitzgerald’s billboard, the well-remembered portrait of Satan in Dante’s Inferno is conjured through symbolic colours (red, black and whiteish-yellow), that move in and out of one another as if in a state of decay amid grotesque configurations of facial parts: 

⁠When I beheld three faces on his head! 
⁠The one in front, and that vermilion was; 
Two were the others, that were joined with this  
⁠Above the middle part of either shoulder, 
⁠And they were joined together at the crest; 
And the right-hand one seemed ‘twixt white and yellow; 
⁠The left was such to look upon as those 
⁠Who come from where the Nile falls valley-ward. 

Many readers recall the strangeness of the figure’s three heads, one gazing outwards while the other two rise from each shoulder. Later, from three chins and six eyes trickle ‘tear-drops’ and a ‘bloody drivel.’ The poet and critic T.S. Eliot found this literary face so disturbing to the modern sensibility that he even advised students reading the Inferno for the first time to ‘omit the last canto and return to the beginning of Canto III.’  

Inferno 34 (Digital Dante)

Whether we recall heightened individual features or remember Satan as a single, epic spectacle, it is the dramatic interplay between parts that Dante enacts in these lines that nevertheless leaves a lasting impression on the mind.  

And yet, some literary faces are etched into the reading consciousness not because of their descriptive intensity but instead because they present us with an enigma. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine Jane Eyre captivates the literary imagination precisely because of Brontë’s ability to use conflicting and contrasting perspectives to enchant us with her plainness. Self-described as ‘poor, obscure, plain and little,’ Jane is at one point complimented by Mr. Rochester for her ‘hazel eyes and hazel hair,’ only to inform the reader that her eyes ‘are in fact green.’  

Later in the novel, as she stands in front of a mirror arranging her hair, Jane’s characteristic introspection further complicates the mental image readers have of her visage: 

‘I looked at my face in the glass, and felt it was no longer plain: there was hope in its aspect and life in its colour; and my eyes seemed as if they had beheld the fount of fruition, and borrowed beams from the lustrous ripple.’  

As we see Jane through her own eyes, the impression of the face becomes mutable or is, at the very least, brought into question as we consider the accuracy of impressions encountered in earlier pages. Jane views her face differently after Rochester has declared his love for her and we are led to believe that her physical appearance comes to mirror her internal state. And yet Brontë’s choice of language – borrowed beams and lustrous ripple – is highly dreamlike and ethereal. Readers are positioned to question the veracity of this visual display and wonder whether Jane has been swept up in an illusion of her own making. 

   Orson Welles & Joan Fontaine (1943 adaptation, Jane Eyre)

But perhaps the impression of Jane’s face in this scene is less to do with specific visual markers and more to do with how it makes us feel. A great deal of what we remember about significant faces in literature is indexical to the emotive response we have when we first encounter them on the printed page.  

Like Tom Buchanan, who exchanges a frown with the static glare of Doctor Eckleburg, the imaginative interchange made possible in literary texts means that we often interact with the faces in them as if we were actually there.  

Tyne Daile Sumner

  • Brontë, C. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin, 2006.  
  • Dante, A. The Divine Comedy. Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 1867.  
  • Deleuze, G. and Félix Guattari. ‘Year Zero: Faciality.’ In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987: 167-191. 
  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. London: Penguin, 2013.  
  • Russell, R., Brad Duchane and Ken Nakayama. ‘Super-recognizers: People with extraordinary face recognition ability.’ Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 16.2(2009): 252-257. 

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