I’m sitting at the doctor’s office today waiting for an eye exam. Around me posters with giant veiny bulbous diagrams remind me how complicated (and gross) things can be when you open them up and look inside. Labels on these off-putting eyeball pictures say things like Zinn’s Zonule, which sounds like an artifact a hero might seek in a scifi space adventure, and Schlemm’s canal. I imagine this to be a narrow passage in a book about escaping from pirates.
This graphic decor gets me thinking about eyes, though, and how they’re often used in literature. Eyes play a prominent part in my book, The Travelers, in which a group of witches must move their souls from body to body to hide from others who want them dead. In the book, the eyes are the only part a Traveler retains from one body to the next. I did this for a reason. The eyes are the “windows to the soul,” as they say, a marker of identity.
Eyes are a huge focus of our culture, even if you don’t realize it. We have countless idioms about eyes/sight. I can be up to my eyeballs in work. My daughter is the apple of my eye. The pumpkin was so big I couldn’t believe my eyes. That actor is easy on the eyes. That movie about climate change was eye opening. Justice is blind. (Supposedly. I’d like a new “ruling” on that one.)
In literature, “eyes” represent more than just the part of our anatomy through which we see the world. Some notable novels even focus on eyes in the title, such as
- Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
- The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
- Tiger Eyes, Judy Blume
In stories like these, eyes and vision are used as a metaphor for something else – feelings, emotions, a state of being. Additionally, “eyes” can serve as a metaphor for finding truth, something often employed in classic literature through the use of irony.
In Oedipus Rex, for example, only the blind soothsayer can “see” the future. Oedipus himself stabs out his own eyes because he can’t look at the horrors he’s created.
“You, you’ll see no more the pain I suffered, all the pain I caused! Too long you looked on the ones you never should have seen, blind to the ones you longed to see, to know! Blind from this hour on! Blind in the darkness-blind!” – Oedipus
Side note: Greek mythology in general is a big fan of the blind soothsayer. Tiresias is a blind prophet of Apollo. Seer Ophioneus is born blind. Phineus chooses blindness and long life over sight. The Greeks had a thing for truth and irony after all…
Shakespeare’s King Lear is another example of the central metaphor of eyes and sight. Lear commits several acts demonstrating severe metaphorical blindness, in that he cannot see right from wrong or good from bad. In the end, his blindness results in several deaths, including his own. However, it is Gloucester, with his famous line “I stumbled when I saw,” who was blind to the reality of his sons when he had sight and only saw their true nature after having his eyes plucked out by the Duke of Cornwall.
“I stumbled when I saw” – Gloucester in King Lear
More recently, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See, which I read as part of my amazing book club (great pick!), explored sight and vision with two blind protagonists. The physically blind young girl, Marie-Laure, can sense and observe the changes and horrors of a world on the brink and then at war. Doerr contrasts this against a young boy, Werner, who can literally see the world through his eyes, but is blind to its changes and his own contributions to the atrocities of WWII.
“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.” – All the Light We Cannot See
Why this examination of “eyes” in literature? I don’t know. Blame the eye doctor and my book club. (Love you Nightlighters!) They make me think about this stuff. But, it is interesting how we can take a gooey, strange piece of our anatomy and turn it into something beautiful and poignant in literature. Take that pinky toe. What have you done for me lately?