Seth Cassel
May 2008


Wolfsheim the Realist and Gatsby the Dreamer


In F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby, Meyer Wolfsheim is a villain who, when compared with Gatsby, a new money character, has a different outlook on the pursuit of the American Dream. Brushing shoulders with the high society wealth of West and East Egg, Wolfsheim's dubious integrity is exemplified by the mob-like organization he seems to be running and his fixing of the World Series. Although Wolfsheim is certainly not a new money individual in the novel, his character does bear some striking resemblances to them. However, as a result of his criminal behavior, Wolfsheim is an outsider to the new money world of the 1920's, and from this perspective on life, he is focused on reality and what the future will bring. Fitzgerald uses Wolfsheim to clarify his philosophy that idealistic dreaming shaped by the past will not help a person achieve the American Dream.

At the beginning of the novel, Fitzgerald introduces Meyer Wolfsheim as a shady character. When Nick first meets him, Wolfsheim is talking to Gatsby about a transaction with another person in which Wolfsheim would not pay "him a penny till he shuts his mouth" (69). This bribery-tainted business deal is the first indication of Wolfsheim's nefarious nature. However, further evidence that elucidates Wolfsheim's character is that "he's the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919" (73). This event, which indeed happened at the 1919 World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Sox, labels Wolfsheim as a criminal. Additionally, Wolfsheim scares people into not talking, wears cuff buttons of the "finest specimens of human molars" (72), and tells a story of a good friend gunned down in a gangland style killing, further portraying him as a shady, underworld figure. Even his name, Wolfsheim, hints at villainy and illegality. When broken apart, the word "wolf" suggests a ruthless predator. The pronunciation of "sheim" imparts the sound of the latter half of another word prevalent at the time, moonshine, which is perhaps a comment on the nature of Wolfsheim's illegal business transactions.

The societal disdain for Wolfsheim, who acts above the law, is exemplified by Tom's comments about Gatsby's suspected illegal business dealings. In trying to tarnish the image of Gatsby, Tom accuses him "and this Wolfsheim [of buying] up a lot of side-street drug-stores here and in Chicago and [selling] grain alcohol over the counter" (133). In the context of the novel, Wolfsheim's character is viewed as a villain by the rich and materialistic people of high society.

Although not part of high society, Wolfsheim shares some common goals with new money characters in the novel in their pursuit of the American Dream. It would be presumptuous to say that Wolfsheim is a West Egg, new money individual. However, events such as fixing the World Series, for which Wolfsheim was never caught, inevitably allowed him to amass a considerable fortune, a goal new money individuals pursue. Gatsby's comment that Wolfsheim fixed the World Series when "he just saw the opportunity" further emphasizes Wolfsheim's new money desire for wealth (73). However, despite these similarities, Wolfsheim is cast by Fitzgerald as distinctly different from the new money characters in the novel.

During the years after World War I, anti-German sentiment ran high throughout the United States. Therefore, by portraying Wolfsheim as a German, and even giving him a German-sounding name, he is presented differently than the other characters in the novel. Being Jewish, Wolfsheim's company, "The Swastika Holding Company," now seems ironic (170). Nevertheless, when Fitzgerald wrote the novel during the 1920's, the swastika was the recently adopted symbol for the Nazi Party and German nationalism. Thus, Fitzgerald inherently makes Wolfsheim an outsider in the novel, even isolating him to the point that his "name wasn't in the phone book" (165). Despite sharing common goals with West End, new money characters, Wolfsheim is presented in contrast to them.

Wolfsheim's differences with the new money characters in the novel, primarily Gatsby, become an integral part of the thematic significance of his character because of his different outlook on life and the American Dream. He achieves the wealth promised by the American Dream through his illegal activities and is able to maintain his success because he determinedly focuses on the future. Thus, he does not suffer the same fate that befalls Gatsby, a new money character in the novel who focuses on the past. However, in Wolfsheim's first appearance in the book, his initial "sentimental" (73) reflection on "the old Metropole, filled with faces dead and gone… Filled with friends gone now and forever" at first makes him seem much like Gatsby who lives his life dreaming of resurrecting the past (70). Nevertheless, Wolfsheim's true outlook is revealed when he excuses himself from a meeting as he refuses to relive the past and "impose [him]self on [Gatsby and Nick] any longer" because he "belong[s] to a another generation" (72). Wolfsheim's ability to move on and not dwell on what once was appears again near the end of the novel. When Gatsby dies, Wolfsheim relates to Nick that "when I was a young man it was different - if a friend of mine died, no matter how, I stuck with them to the end" (171). However, he goes on to say that now he tries to "show… friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead… After that, my own rule is to let everything alone" (172). With this statement, the reason for Wolfsheim's success becomes clear. Wolfsheim's perilous, mob-like associations have influenced his outlook on life so that he tries not to feel remorse for the past. Rather, he constantly focuses on what is real and what the future may bring. Therefore, Wolfsheim is able to maintain the American Dream by accepting reality and by looking to the future.

Fitzgerald uses Wolfsheim as a means of clarifying his comment on the American Dream that is promulgated primarily through the actions of Gatsby. As a new money character, Gatsby aspires to the American Dream, but finds that reality will never fulfill his idealistic visions of the future shaped by the past. Despite a vast accumulation of wealth, Gatsby's futile hope from the past to rekindle his lost love with Daisy leads to his demise. To expand upon this idea, Fitzgerald uses Wolfsheim, a character who has new money characteristics, as an example of someone who by the villainy of his very profession is separated from the past. Instead, Wolfsheim focuses on the realities of the present and what the future will bring, and thus succeeds in achieving and holding onto the American Dream. Therefore, Fitzgerald suggests that in the corrupt, materialistic world of the 1920's, the American Dream has become an impossible hope for idealistic dreamers.