Wright is highly critical of those artists and writers who
"prostitute--their talents to gratify our [the patrons]
The author fails both writers and artists who write and paint
what their audiences want to read and see.
They sacrifice the quality of their work for success.
In literature, what the people want approaches the realm of
pornography, or what Wright refers to as "filthy stories in good
English" (Eyes, p. 57).
Wright is criticizing realism and naturalism in the literary
expression of the time which brought spiritual unrest and skepticism
to the reading public. The
famous author, Conrad Lagrange, characterized in The Eyes of the
World, regretfully describes his work:
I am a literary scavenger.
I haunt the intellectual slaughter pens, and live by the putrid
offal that self-respecting writers reject.
I glean the stinking materials for my stories from the sewers
and cesspools of life. For
the dollars they pay, I furnish my readers with those thrills that
public decency forbids them to experience at first hand.
I am a procurer for the purposes of mental prostitution.
My books breed moral pestilence and spiritual disease.
The unholy filth I write fouls the minds and pollutes the
imaginations of my readers. I
am an instigator of degrading immorality and unmentionable crimes.
(Eyes, p. 42)
Lagrange wistfully looks back to his own youth when he had the
opportunity to write idealistic books; however, since idealism did not
sell, he turned to realism and consequently feels he has sold his
soul. This situation
causes him to have a physical breakdown which sends him to California,
where he meets Aaron King, a young artist about to make an artistic
decision. If the artist
decides to take the false road to success by pleasing his patrons,
then, his paintings also will be false because he will be selling
himself by using art (Eyes, p. 160).
Lagrange and King become friends immediately because of the
older man's friendship with Aaron's mother, who only recently died.
Lagrange serves as counselor to the young man, for he knows the
pitfalls of success from his own experience.
He informs Aaron of what to expect as an artist because the
young, wealthy patron of the arts, Mrs. Taine, has noticed him and
wants to help him gain success, in addition to including him in her
retinue of lovers. Lagrange
explains her power: "Pull
wins. Our creed is Graft.
By Influence we stand, by Influence we fall.
It leases Mrs. Taine to be, in the world of art, a
lobbyist" (Eyes, pp. 50-51).
For Aaron to succeed as an artist, he must paint portraits that
make the patron look the way he or she wants to be painted.
When Aaron learns from his mother on her deathbed that she
wants him to be successful and bring honor to the family name, he
thinks that she means material wealth.
Thus, he travels to a wealthy community in California to
accomplish that goal. Joining
Lagrange, he sets up his studio with the wealthy Mrs. Taine as his
first subject. She
appears for her first sitting dressed in Quaker gray, but the dress
cannot hide, nor does she want it to, her voluptuous figure.
In fact, she flaunts her body at Aaron (Eyes, p. 73).
He paints her not as a knowledgeable woman but as an innocent,
religious maiden (Eyes, p. 117).
When Lagrange sees the picture, he blasts the artist for not
being true to himself and suggests a trip to the mountains where Aaron
may possibly gain peace and knowledge.
The mountain trip, which lasts the entire summer, helps Aaron
to see the beauty of nature, in contrast to the artificial beauty of
Mrs. Taine. While
camping, the two men meet their next door neighbors who are also
vacationing in the mountains--Sibyl Andres and her guardian, Myra
Willard. Sibyl is quite
simply an incorrupt child of nature who has been sheltered by Miss
Willard, a beautiful woman whose face is partially disfigured. Sibyl immediately likes the artist, but she is wary of the
novelist because she has read some of his books, and they have no
appeal for her. She is
surprised to find that he is not "horrid," as she thought he
would be from her knowledge of his books.
He explains with shame that he writes them simply to make money
(Eyes, p. 129). Sibyl's
passion is her music, and to it she is true, refusing to debase her
art as have Lagrange and King. An
excellent violinist, she tells Aaron, "You do not really think
that being known to the world and greatness are the same" (Eyes,
The beauty of the mountains and the honest simplicity of the
girl awaken Aaron to the fact that he has been false to himself.
The vacationers return to civilization, and Aaron finds his
true artistic worth when he paints Sibyl in her rose garden.
He contrasts the girl with Mrs. Taine's picture of innocence
and sees that he has been wrong. He redoes Mrs. Taine's portrait, this time including her true
character of lust, greed, and decadence.
When she returns to see the finished portrait, she informs him
that she has prepared his entrance into the art world.
When he explains that he cannot accommodate her desires, she,
thinking him modest, encourages him:
But if you are worried about the quality of your work--forget
it, my dear boy. Once I
have made you the rage, no one will stop to think whether your
pictures are good or bad. The
art is not in what you do, but in how you get it before the world. (Eyes, p. 445)
After seeing her altered portrait, she destroys it with a
knife. She tries to ruin
his name by falsely gossiping about his relationship with Sibyl, but
before she can do so, Miss Willard reveals the story of her own and
Mrs. Taine's past which successfully blocks Mrs. Taine's move.
In her youth, Miss Willard had been tricked into a sham
marriage with James Rutlidge and has had a child.
The real Mrs. Rutlidge finds Miss Willard, throws acid on her
face, and then kills herself. Rutlidge
takes the baby and rears it, implying that the baby belongs to a
relative. That baby is
Mrs. Taine. Lagrange
threatens to use the story in a yellow journalism tabloid if Mrs.
Taine does not retreat. Fearful
of any scandal associated with her name, Mrs. Taine does not block
Aaron's career (Eyes, p. 457).
Consequently, Aaron becomes a success while remaining true to
his art, and he and Sibyl marry.
He learns "that one may not prostitute his genius to the
immoral purposes of a diseased age, without reaping a prostitute's
reward" (Eyes, p. 312).
Although Wright criticizes the popularity of pornography
written for "the vicious, grossly sensual and bestial
imaginations" of readers (Eyes, p. 132), his novel
contains elements of violence. Sibyl
is nearly raped three different times by Jim Rutlidge, the well-known
art critic those father has betrayed Miss Willard.
Thinking that Sibyl and Aaron are already lovers, Rutlidge
traps her in the artist's studio (Eyes, p. 166); he also
approaches her in the mountains (Eyes, p. 275); and finally, in
desperation, he kidnaps her and takes her to the mountains where he
plans to rape her and thus force her to marry him (Eyes, p.
420). Despite these rape
attempts, the girl retains her virtue and her sincere outlook on life.
In the novel, the author provides names for his characters that
in some way identify their personality traits; for example, the
licentious characters and their nicknames are Jim Rutlidge, Sr.
(Lust), Jim Rutlidge, Jr. (Sensual), Edward J. Taine (Materialism),
Mrs. Taine (The Age [since the age is decadent]), and Louise Taine
(Ragtime). In contrast,
Aaron represents Art; Sibyl, Nature; and Miss Willard, Symbol, because
of her face. Lagrange is
Civilization, although he
really serves the function of seer (Eyes, p. 52-53). The elder Rutlidge gained a reputation for his many
seductions, and his son, having grown up in that immoral atmosphere,
tries to imitate his father. Taine,
an elderly gentleman, "buys" his wife from her guardian and
so indulges his lustful nature. However,
as he approaches his death, though he still lusts for his young wife,
he is impotent, and his wife taunts him with her body and her lovers:
You have had your day with me.
You have had what you paid for.
What right have you to deny me, now, an hour's forgetfulness?
When I think of what I might have been, but for you, I wonder
that I have cared to live, and I would not--except for the poor sport
of torturing you. (Eyes,
marriage and their lives have been idle, vicious, and luxurious, and
their only concern has been to avoid the "appearance of
evil" (Eyes, p. 156). Taine's daughter, Louise, is the product of a loveless
marriage. She is a
witless girl who voices "ohs" and "ahs" on cue as
do the rest of her witless friends (Eyes, p. 117).
As evidenced by the Taine marriage, one of the themes of the
novel is appearance and reality.
Aaron is supposed to make his subjects appear unlike they truly
are (Eyes, pp. 44-45). Mrs.
Taine's creed also relies on falsity:
It is not at all what one is, or what one may accomplish that
matters; it is wholly what one may skillfully appear to be, and
what one may skillfully provoke the world to say, that is of vital
also dresses very modestly, never allowing her shoulders to be bared.
However, her well-clothed body becomes more provoking because
she does not expose herself. In
reality, her modesty is based on the fact that her shoulder is
disfigured from the acid thrown at her mother.
In a similar case, Rutlidge is famous for his knowledge of the
art world but hides his debased character from the public.
In contrast, Lagrange is thought to be an evil person by the
public because of his pornographic novels, but he is, as Sibyl
discovers, a very sensitive person whose heart is in the mountains.
A final example of deceptive appearances is a convict in the
mountains who is saved by Rutlidge and is then asked to help in
Sibyl's abduction and seduction.
When he thinks that his benefactor's plans are honorable, he
cooperates, but when he sees Rutlidge's true plans for the innocent
girl, he kills him, proving that the convict is more of a gentleman
than the famous critic (Eyes, p. 430).
In keeping with the theme of appearance and reality, Wright
adroitly develops the motif of eyes and seeing.
In this novel Lagrange serves as seer, or viewer, a character
apparent in other Wright novels:
the Shepherd in The Shepherd of the Hills, the
Interpreter in Helen of the Old House, the doctor in The
Calling of Dan Matthews, and even the Seer in The Winning of
Barbara Worth. Lagrange,
as seer to Aaron, warns him of the duplicity of high society. The truth of his warning is seen in the relationship of the
Taines. When her husband
scolds her about her lovers, he says, "You take damned good care
. . . that the world sees nothing; but you have never troubled to hide
it from me" (Eyes, p. 59).
In a later argument, she also replies in reference to the
world: "by the rules
of our game, so long as the world sees nothing, I shall do what
pleases me" (Eyes, p. 157). Finally, Lagrange can trap Mrs. Taine at the end of the book
by warning her, "The one thing on earth, that you fear, madam
[is] . . . the eyes of the world" (Eyes, p. 454).
On the other hand, Sibyl, whose name reinforces the seer theme,
represents Nature in its pure force while Mrs. Taine is corrupt
Society. Wright poses the
two ideas with the purpose of persuading his readers to return to the
pure influence of Nature. Again,
Wright uses the theme of West and East to explore the dichotomous
nature of the two. The seer, who has been sent to the West for his health,
discusses the characteristics of geography:
This West country will produce some mighty artists, Mr. King.
By far the greater part of this land must remain, always, in
its primitive naturalness. It
will always be easier, here, than in the city crowded East, for a man
to be himself. (Eyes,
West--especially the mountains--is another Eden, for there an artist
can return to the nature and refuse to prostitute himself to an
audience or the critics. Even love is better in nature, for the wild is free of the
"hot-house passion we call civilization" (Eyes, p.
390), and thus, it is appropriate that Aaron and Sibyl fall in love
while on vacation in the mountains.
The novel is very visual in its descriptions.
This reliance on vision is best seen in the profession of the
artist who must picture his paintings in his mind before he puts them
on canvas. Aaron's best
picture is a large painting of a dinner party which he attends at the
Taine home. While there, he memorizes the vulgar, crude, and lustful
characters around the dinner table and also the opulent setting.
He then effectively contrasts them with Sibyl, who provides the
evening's entertainment with her violin (Eyes, p. 336).
A striking similarity to the visual theme in F. Scott
Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) is noted by Dale B. J.
Randall. The seer in The Great Gatsby is Dr. T. J. Eckleberg,
who looks over the wasteland of ashes, West Egg, and East Egg.
For both Wright and Fitzgerald, the East is a moral wasteland.
The West holds the only hope.
Both writers are concerned with "the relationship between
falseness and fame," the decadence of the age, and the man's
straying from what is natural and good.
Scholars cannot be certain of Wright's influence on Fitzgerald,
but Fitzgerald mentions Wright, specifically The Eyes of the World,
in "The Jelly-Bean," a short story written just before he
wrote The Great Gatsby. In
the short story, a copy of Wright's novel is placed in "a bleak
room" over a garage, where it lies next to "an ancient
The dust cover of The Eyes of the World features eyes
and thus may have created in Fitzgerald's mind the idea of using the
Whatever Wright's influence, Fitzgerald succeeds better with
the visual theme than Wright does.
However, Wright's emphasis on the eyes motif is successful for
his own novel and represents a more sophisticated symbolism than he
uses in any of his other novels.
The seer makes not only Aaron, but the readers, see the falsity
of much of society, and Wright hopes these readers will learn to
become discerning critics on their own without relying entirely on
artistic and literary critics such of Jim Rutlidge.