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Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby: Character Analysis

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  • 0:00 The Great Gatsby
  • 0:34 Meyer Wolfsheim
  • 1:08 Impression on Carraway
  • 2:17 Inspiration for Wolfsheim
  • 3:26 Purpose in the Novel
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

In ''The Great Gatsby'', Meyer Wolfsheim, an unsavory associate of Jay Gatsby, may seem like a minor character but he makes his presence felt in the story. This lesson analyzes the character and importance of Meyer Wolfsheim.

The Great Gatsby

If you've read The Great Gatsby, you're familiar with the main character, Jay Gatsby. He's a man shrouded in mystery, leaving both the narrator, Nick Carraway, and readers asking questions like: How did he earn his immense fortune? Where is his family from? Was he really an 'Oxford man'? Much of what we know about Gatsby comes from Carraway's interactions with and observations of Gatsby, but also the insights of a seemingly minor and unimportant character: Meyer Wolfshiem.

Meyer Wolfshiem

Meyer Wolfshiem appears only twice in The Great Gatsby; at a lunch meeting in New York City and after Gatsby's death. On a sweltering summer day, Gatsby and Nick Carraway find themselves at a 'well-fanned cellar on 42nd street' with Meyer Wolfshiem. The server brings the men a round of highballs, an alcoholic beverage. This is our first clue that something underhanded is afoot. The Great Gatsby takes place in the Roaring 20s, during the Prohibition Era, when the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol were illegal in the United States.

Impression on Carraway

Gatsby and Carraway are eating lunch with Wolfshiem at a speakeasy, a secret bar or store to purchase alcohol. Clearly both Gatsby and Wolfshiem are not afraid of breaking the law. Carraway's first impression of Wolfshiem is not a favorable one. He describes him as a 'small-flat nosed Jew' with a non-New York accent. It's obvious that Carraway both dislikes and is suspicious of Wolshiem. While the trio enjoys their lunch, Carraway observes that Wolfshiem exhibits a sense of paranoia as he constantly monitors the space around him, looking for something threatening: 'His eyes, meanwhile, roved very slowly all around the room...I think that, except for my presence, he would have taken one short glance beneath our own table.'

After Gatsby excuses himself from the table, we learn that Wolfshiem is sporting a bizarre pair of cuff links made out of the 'finest specimen of human molars.' How would you feel if your new acquaintance was wearing someone else's teeth? Why exactly would Gatsby, a man so insistent about his gentlemanly breeding, associate with such an unsavory man like Meyer Wolfshiem?

Inspiration for Wolfsheim

Once Wolfshiem leaves Gatsby and Carraway alone, the reader learns more about Wolfshiem's line of work. Based on Carraway's description of Wolfshiem, it's safe to assume the guy is involved with some sort of illegal activity, and Gatsby confirms this assumption. According to Gatsby, Meyer Wolfshiem is a 'gambler', '...the man who fixed the World's Series back in 1919.' If you're a baseball fan, you know that tampering with the outcome of a professional ball game is a huge deal!

F. Scott Fitzgerald actually based the character of Meyer Wolfshiem on a real-life gambler and organized crime leader named Arnold Rothstein. Rothstein was associated with the Black Sox Scandal in the 1919 World's Series, just like Wolfshiem. Although Rothstein was never convicted, his name was connected with a scandal involving the Chicago White Sox. Eight players were bribed to throw the game, including 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson, one of the characters in the baseball movie, Field of Dreams. The fictional Meyer Wolfshiem, like the real-life Rothstein, was deeply connected to New York City organized crime. Gatsby describes him as '...quite a character around New York -- a denizen of Broadway.'

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