Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Profile: Jay Gatsby


Gatsby was suggested by Holly from California and David from Forrest Hills, NY, who writes: "My literature professor swore that the novel was about a jewish man's ultimately failed attempt to 'pass' as a gentile and enter their world. I've never heard others express the same theory. Could he be right?"

As you can read in the profile, we don't think he is. But we're glad that literature professors are tackling such important questions.


  1. This one hits right at home -- it's the centerpiece of a big chunk of my doctoral dissertation. (Let that be an invitation to tune out the rest of this, of course.)

    Gatsby is expressly not Jewish. His job for Meyer Wolfsheim is to be the Goyishe face of the criminal operation. He begins as a small-town boy dreaming of possibilities beyond his means, and, ultimately, he loses touch with everything that might have grounded him.

    Wolfsheim boasts in the novel that he "made" Gatsby, and he is (according to all sorts of small textual evidence) correct. He has asked Gatsby, for instance, to join the American Legion -- closed to Jews, of course -- and he uses Gatsby to recruit full-blood WASPs like Nick Carraway to the cause.

    If you read the novel through the hyperbolic lens of racial consciousness, that amounts to a kind of tragedy. Wolfsheim is more or less an ethnic monster (though he'd be an interesting profile in his own right), and it's the taint of his money that causes Daisy to drop him at last. (I know that the conventional reading is that Tom Buchanan sort of bullies her back, but read it: she's with Gatsby until Tom pulls his trump card and announces that Gatsby is involved with a Jewish gangster.) In other words, there is a sense that America used to be pure but now, thanks to someone like Wolfsheim who is capable of playing with the faith of millions when he fixes the World Series, it's fallen and corrupt.

    What's great about the novel, of course, is that Fitzgerald satirizes even that reading. He gives us, first, Buchanan, as the stupid spokesman for the cause. More deeply, though, he calls on us to question Nick's more thoughtful concerns about race and anti-Semitism, ultimately suggesting that America has always been falling from some mythical high-point, that it's always seen one grubby wave of immigrants replaced by another still grubbier.

    So, Gatsby, Jewish? Not so, Old Sport. He's just shocking in the fact that he allows himself to use and be used by his Jewish 'gonnegtions.'

  2. Wait, we can get a doctorate just for determining which fictional characters are Jewish? Why didn't anyone tell us?!