Little knowing that I would be auditing a Latin course on Petronius’ Satyricon this term, I reread F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in September as part of preparation for the film in December.* Gatsby is most famous not only for mint juleps but also for the lavish parties thrown by the title character, Jay Gatsby. At one moment in the novel, Fitzgerald explicitly refers to Gatsby’s ‘career as Trimalchio.’
Trimalchio is a character in the Satyricon from the most famous, longest, and most intact part of the whole ‘novel’**, termed the Cena Trimalchionis, or ‘Dinner at Trimalchio’s’ in English. The Cena is the most lavish dinner-party you can imagine. There is theme food, and ridiculous things like a boar stuffed with sausages to resemble offal, or pastry eggs filled with dainties. Wine of the highest quality is used to wash the diners’ hands. A silver skeleton dances on the table. Poetry is recited, speeches are made. People retire to the bath house. And on and on.
Our host is a freedman*** — an ex-slave, that is — who, through luck and banging the right women (Trimalchio’s word, not mine), as well as through investments and mercantile deals, has become filthy rich. He has gone from the lowest of society to being a local magistrate of some sort.
His guests seem largely to be freedmen, at least those we get to know, and the rest at least have Greek names. The speeches are often used as evidence for how Roman freedmen spoke; it could simply be how drunk Romans spoke, or how any Roman spoke, since written Latin was likely different from spoken Latin anyway; it could also be exaggerated for effect. Anyway, these are also self-made men, rolling in the dough, though none as rich as Gats — I mean, Trimalchio.
Everything about the Cena is over the top as well as silently mocking. Encolpius, our narrator, utters no judgements on the events. I think he need not, quite frankly. The excessive lavishness of Trimalchio’s lifestyle is judgement enough. The terrible mangling and mixing of myths is judgement enough. The prickliness of the freedmen towards anyone who may laugh at them is judgement enough.
These exaggerations, of lifestyle, of character, of background, of speech, point to what this passage is about — satirical mockery. Petronius is pointing at these over the top characters and observing how futile and useless it all is. As the dancing silver skeleton observes, we manlings are nothing, bound for death.
Gatsby is not so harshly judged by Fitzgerald. Yet still the world he inhabits, the world of parties and half-remembered show tunes, and famous people going to and fro, and dancing all night — this world is as nothing as well. Unlike Trimalchio, Gatsby comes to be aware of it.
Gatsby, unlike Trimalchio who gets it on not only with his wife but with the slave-boys as well, is a modern man, and that means that his life is defined by romance, by the love of a woman. This empty, futile quest for wealth was geared for only one thing — to capture the love of a woman, Daisy.
But Gatsby, like Trimalchio, is in a world where none of this will satisfy. Events are beyond their ken, beyond their power. So Trimalchio quarrels with his wife. So Gatsby gets his girl, in the darkness of adultery. And so Trimalchio is escaped by Encolpius as the Underworld was escaped by Aeneas.**** So power and lust and desire swirl around and consume Gatsby at the end of it all.
In both men, the world of the very wealthy — especially the new-made wealthy — is silently criticised as it is portrayed in all its gory detail, in all its extravagances, in the shadowiness of the men who inhabit it (both Gatsby and Trimalchio have multiple origin stories).
Wealth is not happiness. And it does not bring us immortality (remember, art does that) but vanishes with the wind, as we all know happened to Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age in 1929.
*Not only do I like to have read a book before I see the film of it, but I like to reread those which I read a long time ago before going to the film. Keeps me fresh.
**We can talk about genre another time.
***Even if you take this as an allegory for the court of Nero, the character is a freedman. This is probably symbolic of something to do with Petronius’ view of the man who drove him to suicide.
****The Vergilian parallel is real.