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Dr. Joyce Kinkead on The Eyes of The World
Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

<<< continued from previous page        

          Wright is highly critical of those artists and writers who "prostitute--their talents to gratify our [the patrons] vanity."[1]  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, p. 210).

            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, p. 157) 

Their 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 importance.  (Eyes, pp. 304-05) 

She 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, pp. 40-41) 

The 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.[2]

            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 prayerbook."[3]  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 billboard doctor.

            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.


Back to The Eyes of the World


    [1]Harold Bell Wright, The Eyes of the World (Chicago:  Book Supply, 1914), p. 155.  Subsequent references to this book will be incorporated into the body of the text as Eyes and pagination.

    [2]Dale B. J. Randall, "The 'Seer' and 'Seen' Themes in Gatsby and Some of Their Parallels in Eliot and Wright," Twentieth Century Literature, 10 (1964), 61.

    [3]F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Jelly-Bean," in Reading the Short Story, ed. Harry Shaw and Douglas Bement (New York:  Harper, 1941), p. 349.

 Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission. 

       

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