Examining Antisemitism Within “The Great Gatsby”


Catherine Auerbach

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is regarded by many as the classic American novel. Any American high school graduate is likely to have read it, and its themes and references serve as common allusions across other forms of literature and media. However, its place at the heart of modern American literature prompts us to examine its flaws and question its idolization. 


The Great Gatsby is loved for its characterization of the roaring 20s and upper class American society in the early 20th century. This delineation is not limited to the lavish festivities held by the greatest conspicuous consumers, but also to racist and antisemitic thought incredibly prevalent at the time. Characters like Tom Buchanan openly support racist ideology and white supremacy, citing his enjoyment of “The Rise of the Coloured Empires” and his concern that the “dominant” white race will be “utterly submerged” by other races if they don’t look out and take action. Fitzgerald’s characterization of Tom Buchanan closely reflects Fitzgerald’s personal views, as seen in a 1921 letter to Edmund Wilson, in which he wrote, “The negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race. Already the Italians have the souls of blackamoors.” Thus, the renown accurate portrayal of American polite society and ideology within The Great Gatsby may not solely derive from a place of societal observation, but also personal ideological holdings. 


Further, Fitzgerald’s implementation of antisemitic stereotypes through characters like Meyer Wolfshiem leaves room for discussion around Fitzgerald’s views, as well as the question of whether these stereotypes have any real thematic function within the novel at all. 


Meyer Wolfshiem is first introduced in Chapter 4 of the novel, and is described as a “small, flat-nosed Jew,” with a “large head” and “tiny eyes,” as well as “two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril.” These descriptions, specifically regarding Wolfshiem’s large head and flat nose, are common antisemitic stereotypes. They were often illustrated in antisemitic caricatures during the early 20th century, found in France during the Dreyfuss Affair and embedded in propaganda across Nazi Germany. These depictions of Jews as beady-eyed and small have often been presented in agendas that attempt to provoke hate and disgust against the Jewish community. Antisemitic caricatures (or, more applicable to society today, Neo-Nazi internet memes) are often found alongside antisemitic motifs related to money, power, and conspiracy. Through the establishment of exaggerated defining characteristics for Jews within media, antisemitic ideology has pervaded society on every scale imaginable, encouraging discrimination against Jews for reasons competely invalid. 


The stereotypes used to describe Meyer Wolfshiem become more concerning when analyzed alongside his character’s actual role in the novel. Wolfsheim is a gambler who, according to Jay Gatsby, “fixed the World Series back in 1919.” Though gambling and bootlegging were a highlight of the culture of the roaring twenties, Wolfshiem’s role within the World Series scheme evokes these popular motifs of Jewish conspiracy and power. It is widely believed that the 1919 World Series was in fact “fixed,” but Fitzgerald’s attribution of this to a Jewish character, already marked by clear stereotypes, makes Wolfshiem seem like a caricature himself. 


As Arthur Krystal discusses in his 2015 New Yorker article “Fitzgerald and the Jews,” its questionable as to whether Fitzgerald’s clear use of stereotypes comes from a place of true maliciousness, or rather just a shockingly provincial and narrow-minded attitude towards others. As Krystal points out, Fitzgerald’s personal feelings of bigotry extended beyond African Americans and Jews to less marginalized groups like the Irish. Nevertheless, whether Wolfshiem’s character was created with genuine antisemitic intent or simply emboldened the perception of Jews already present in the media, Fitzgerald’s incorporation of these stereotypes signifies his own lack of effort to consider Jews beyond the surface level. In capturing the fervent reality of the time, Fitzgerald also amplifies harmful ideologies, creating his own caricatures and metaphors for Jewish greed and dishonesty. 


So: Should The Great Gatsby be revoked of its title as the great American novel? Of course not. Perfection does not constitute greatness, as seen in the problematic plotlines and motifs of many beloved American classics. But part of our interaction with this novel, as we continue to keep it on its pedestal, must be to identify, call out, and question what makes it great, and what makes it not-so-great. Exposing students to antisemitic, racist, or generally prejudiced ideologies reaps no benefit if we fail to examine and investigate these ideologies’ histories and faults; it only furthers the chance that history will repeat itself, and that hatred will continue to fester. When reading The Great Gatsby, one should not skip over antisemitic stereotypes or racist thought because it feels uncomfortable, but rather use it as an opportunity to learn about the prejudice of the era. Intolerance of bigotry begins with recognizing this bigotry in the first place, even if disguised as a mysterious gambler in our most cherished novel.