The Great Gatsby

by: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tom Buchanan

[Daisy’s] husband, among various physical accomplishments, had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven—a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax.

Nick offers this description of Tom in the first chapter. Nick’s initial sense of Daisy’s husband is that he peaked too early in his life and has suffered some form of disappointment ever since. Nick goes on to imagine that Tom still longs to recapture his youth: “I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.” We can read an element of melancholy as well as danger in Nick’s depiction of Tom—a depiction that subtly foreshadows Tom’s actions later in the novel.

Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body—he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.

Nick continues to describe Tom in Chapter 1, this time emphasizing Tom’s appearance. The overwhelming sense of Tom’s physical presence is one of strength, aggression, and danger. His leering eyes, combined with his hulking muscles (note the repeated use of the word “enormous”), creates an impression of a man who seems permanently on edge and ready to fight. When Nick concludes by referring to Tom’s body as “cruel,” he’s not just talking about his physical appearance, but also about his character.

“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

In Chapter 1, Tom tells Nick and Daisy about a book he recently read. The book, called “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” is based on a real work called “The Rising Tide of Color,” which purported to use scientific methods to justify discrimination against nonwhite people. By describing the book in such affirming terms, Tom shows not only his casual racism, but also his unreflective and uncritical nature. Tom also reveals that he has an unfounded victim complex. This complex foreshadows his later sense of victimization when he learns of Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship, though it’s difficult to feel sympathetic with Tom in that case, given his affair with Myrtle Wilson.

Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.

Nick writes these words in Chapter 1, after he learns about Tom’s mistress. These words also come soon after Tom describes the racist book he’s just read. In response to these two bits of information, Nick posits that something is forcing Tom’s perception of himself and the world to change. Nick implies that Tom no longer finds much satisfaction in his physical prowess, nor does he get what he wants by acting out the imperious demands of his “peremptory heart.” In other words, Nick thinks an emotional breaking point quickly approaches for Tom.

Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke [Myrtle’s] nose with his open hand.

The event described here occurs in Chapter 2, when Myrtle insists on her right to say Daisy’s name aloud in Tom’s presence. Tom tells her to stop, and when she doesn’t, he hits her. Tom’s violence is quick and unthinking, suggesting this is not the first time he’s used physical force to get his way. Tom hits Myrtle because she refused to obey him, but also in defense of Daisy; he feels strongly about both women. Tom’s outburst therefore shows that he has difficulty handling complex emotions. He responds with violence to maintain control.