Character Analysis: The Great Gatsby

An Analysis of the character of Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and his connection to the historical character Trimalchio.

"You can't judge a book by its cover," but its title is a completely different story. Originally, F. Scott Fitzgerald was going to name his novel Trimalchio, a character from Petronius Arbiter's Satyricon, but the publisher asked him to revise it to The Great Gatsby after the first reading. Although the novel would still be considered a masterpiece, the title Trimalchio is not as powerful and the connotation is too ancient and obscure for most readers to understand the connection between Trimalchio and Gatsby.

Satyricon, by Petronius Arbiter, was written around 60 CE. The Satyricon is a jumble of text and poems about Encolpius, a heroic adventurer and wandering lecturer. Set during the time when Nero ruled the Roman Empire, the stories focus on the worship of the god Priapus, the protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. On one of Encolpius's misadventures, he spends two days with Trimalchio, who entertains with "ostentatious and grotesque extravagance" huge parties of men of his same social standing but less wealthy. Gatsby, in the beginning of the novel, is nothing like Trimalchio. Gatsby held large parties in his home in hopes that one day Daisy would wander into one of his parties. He does not care about any of the people that come to the parties; he is not trying to show off his wealth or power. The first time Nick went to one of Gatsby's parties, he noticed that that "People were not invited – they went there."(41) Gatsby does not even drink with his guests, but is always alert and ready for his long lost love to walk through his door. When Gatsby finally invites Daisy to his house, he reaches the point in the novel when he is most like Trimalchio. He invites Daisy to his house to show her that he is rich and powerful and wants to prove to Daisy that he could provide for her. Daisy, however, did not like what she saw. "She was appalled by West Egg."(108) With his hopes ruined, seeing that his wealth was nothing to Daisy, that it was more about being born rich then being rich in the end, "as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over."(113) This is Fitzgerald's first and only actual reference to Trimalchio in the novel, although he develops Gatsby to be uncannily like him. Gatsby starts out only trying to reunite himself with Daisy, but by the end of the novel, he declines in a form of egocentricity that he and Trimalchio share.

Another aspect of the title of a novel is the connotation that the reader associates with the title itself. Because Trimalchio is a character in an ancient book and few people have heard of him, most people would not see the connection between him and Gatsby. When people cannot understand the title, even after they read the book, it loses its power to capture its audience. The title must be thought provoking and intriguing if the book is to sell and the writer to make money. The Great Gatsby has several intriguing connotations that fit into the novel perfectly and are easily identified by the reader. The first thought that comes to mind when reading the title The Great Gatsby is of a magician, like the great Houdini. In the early twenties and through the Great Depression, magicians were very popular. When Gatsby was written in 1925, people wanted a cheap and exciting form of entertainment. Readers then and now could find that same magical connotation with the book's title and images that occur throughout the story. Gatsby is able to conjure huge parties out of thin air and hopes that his parties will lead to "one moment of magical encounter"(110) with Daisy. Beyond Gatsby's magical ability to conjure parties, The Great Gatsby shows Gatsby in an air of secrecy that invokes curiosity in the reader. Beyond just a mere magician, the Great Gatsby is elevated to a godly nature, "[He] sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a Son of God... he invented...Jay Gatsby,"(99) he invented himself, he made himself who he is, and he gave himself power over his own life. Gatsby's god-like conception of himself and how his rise from North Dakotan poverty to excessive riches is what leads to his title "The Great Gatsby."

Fitzgerald uses references to the Satyricon in The Great Gatsby, but the development of the characters is quite different. Trimalchio's character is flat and he undergoes no change in his role in the Satyricon. As Gatsby progresses, the character of Gatsby changes his pose and his role in the novel; the reader has a connection to Gatsby that is not present with Trimalchio. Interestingly, both novels also contain the story of another character and their experience with either Trimalchio or Gatsby. Nick meets Gatsby after he moves to West Egg as a bond salesman and Encolpius is traveling when he stumbles upon one of Trimalchio's infamous parties. Fitzgerald's use of East and West Egg in Gatsby also echoes the Satyricon from Trimalchio's conversation with Encolpius, "Mother earth is in the centre, round as an egg, and all that is good is found in her." The stories parallel in a handful of aspects, but in the end, The Great Gatsby has a clearer and more meaningful goal, to show the truth behind the American dream. If Trimalchio were a twentieth century American he would be the personification of the American Dream: he has seemingly endless wealth and power.

The title of the novel reveals important details about the story, attracts readers, and can end up deciding the fate of the book. The connotations that readers associate with a person that is "Great" helps to reveal the truth about the American Dream as a theme for the novel. Few people have ever heard of Trimalchio, so the hidden and comic meaning for referring to Gatsby as Trimalchio would be lost and diminish the lessons of the novel. The title The Great Gatsby perfectly embodies the principles of the novel unlike Trimalchio or even The Great Trimalchio ever could.

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B l i s s 5 years ago

I read an essay about this, but it was a bit too deep and I got bored half way through. Your writings about the matter were much more succinct and to the point. Very interesting piece Keith.

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