Trimalchio in West Egg: Connections Between Petronius and Fitzgerald’s Iconic Personnages

Fitzgerald alludes to Petronius’s Trimalchio in the mannerisms, lifestyle, and habits that Jay Gatsby exhibits in The Great Gatsby (1925). In the similarities between their nouveau-riche abodes and their significance in the world of wealth, the parallel among the collection of knowledge present in their ownership of libraries, and the contrast present in their habitual parties and methods of and reasons for flaunting themselves, Trimalchio and Gatsby are unquestionably connected – as are, in consequence, their creators.

Firstly, the homes of Trimalchio and Gatsby share both their gargantuan nature and the slight distaste apparent in their observers’ voices, with Nick Carraway (Gatsby’s neighbor, when describing the home) listing it as a “factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy” (Chap 1), using terms such as “imitation” and “beard” to provoke a note of distaste in the visualization of the edifice – his hinted disdain at an attempt of class suggests future mentions of conflicting appearances within Gatsby’s persona. Similarly, Encolpius describes the entryway of the house as “magnificum erat… paene cecidī: in muro enim pictus est canis ingēns, superque scriptum CAVE CANEM…erat enim vēnālicium cum titulīs pictum; deinde ipse Trimalchiō Romām intrabat.” (Lines 1-6). His tone is more vague, but his description of a “massive dog” and his shock in his “almost falling” when noticing its presence denote his observations as not usually seen in Roman custom or in a wealthy Roman household; furthermore, the depiction of an ex-slave (Trimalchio) holding or participating in a slave trade, as Encoplius detects a moment later, is the artistic rendition of hypocrisy, setting Trimalchio as a satirical figure. Both Carraway and Encolpius are surprised by the houses of Gatsby and Trimalchio, and Fitzgerald uses this distinct reaction to highlight the ostracism between the upper class and the objects of the narrators’ observations – and compare Gatsby’s, nouveau-riche, with Trimalchio’s (failed) imitations of class. 

Secondly, in attempts to appear more knowledgeable – and therefore belong to the educated sect of the upper class – Fitzgerald and Petronius both drew libraries for their characters to hold. A connection can be made between Gatsby’s library, which shockingly has “bona fide piece(s) of printed matter… ‘What realism! Knew when to stop too—didn’t cut the pages’” (Chapter 3), demonstrating an effort to maintain the image of expansive intelligence, and Trimalchio’s boast of “duā bibliothecās habeo, ūnam Graecam, alteram Latīnam” (Lines 96-97), usually an indicator of knowledge, but in Trimalchio’s context a provocator of pity. Both present illusions in the form of material collection, of knowledge through the ownership of books; Gatsby, however, appears illiterate throughout the novel (with difficulty reading), and it is a surprise to Nick Carraway and the old man pouring over his library that he even possesses such an intricate array of literature; meanwhile, there is no question of Trimalchio’s disdain for written work, even wishing to inscribe on his tombstone “NEC UMQUAM PHILOSOPHIUM AUDIVIT” – nor did he ever hear philosophy (Line 180) – presenting an ironic contrast between his desired reputation and his true, uneducated, nature. Thus, Fitzgerald draws a link between the attempted perception of knowledge Gatsby presents versus actually possesses and the ironic, satirical image Trimalchio clumsily portrays.

Finally, in a direct allusion to Cena Trimalchionis, Fitzgerald connects Gatsby’s habitude as an an exaggerated party host with Trimalchio’s feast-throwing tirade, demonstrating an undeniable link between the two in their efforts to attain the upper class and their similarly ironic failures to do so. Throughout Petronius’s novel, Trimalchio parades a donkey with olives, threatens to strip and beat a cook, has a barely-cooked boar sliced open, and shamelessly compares his guests and his wine. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald paints Gatsby’s events with fountains and elaborate displays of wealth, while the host himself is indistinguishable they murmur rumor upon rumor of him, and dressed quasi-formally for the party, Nick Carraway is met with a myriad of booze, extravaganza, and an imitation of class that can only be characterized as Trimalchian. Both Trimalchio and Gatsby grew from nothing (“EX PARVO CREDIT”, Line 179, Cena Trimalchionis; “I raised [Gatsby] up out of nothing” (Chap 9, The Great Gatsby) and attempted to assimilate into the upper class by throwing lavish, if not meretricious, events. It is when these parties end that a direct reference is made, and the link between the characters solidified:  “It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest… [that] his career as Trimalchio was over.” (Chap 7). Gatsby to Trimalchio, and Fitzgerald to Petronius; despite existing close to two thousand years apart, their connection – in lifestyles, mannerisms, and portrayals – remains clear.

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