In “The Great Gatsby,” written by Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby are two characters that struggle with the idea of losing their shared love interest, Daisy. Tom and Gatsby’s attachment to Daisy is differently justified due to their contrasting views, personalities, attitudes, actions, backgrounds, and other factors, some of which they do share and concur in. Fitzgerald did a great thing here. He created two purposefully different characters- one that is easily despised, the other that although not perfect, is likable- and united them in their love for money, the power that comes with it , and their haunt for the ultimate prize – Daisy. In this essay, we will analyze Tom and Gatsby’s differences and similarities in several areas, and decide whether or not they are perfect foils of each other like they are commonly perceived to be. To describe who Tom and Gatsby are, we must first analyze where they come from. In this area, Tom Buchannan and Jay Gatsby couldn’t be more different.
Tom comes from an old and wealthy Chicago family, hence his residence in East Egg where the old aristocracy of the country’s richest families reside. Tom symbolizes the idea of being born into a golden crib, a prestigious family name, and into old money. Tom is one of those privileged few who never had to work for anything in his life, but is “privileged” the right description for him? Fitzgerald says in the story, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Tom’s past never allowed him to learn how to own up to his mistakes, accept fault, and deal with difficult situations, but rather made him unable to adapt to the real world. Because of this, I use the term “privileged” loosely when describing Tom.
On the other hand, Jay Gatsby was born into what some of us call “the other side of the tracks.” Gatsby faced an impecunious childhood in rural North Dakota, but was an ambitious small town boy with big dreams who thought himself to be superior to the farming life, and simply rejected the lot he had been dealt in life. Gatsby’s father says to the narrator, Nick, “Jimmy was bound to get ahead… Do you notice what he’s got about improving his mind? He was always great for that”, and that is exactly what Gatsby did. Gatsby left his home town and set out to find his fortune, and although some of his actions were not too admirable, James Gatz, the poor farm boy, used his ingenuity to reinvent himself and become Jay Gatsby, the self-made millionaire. Fitzgerald makes Gatsby’s residence in West Egg, where the newly rich reside, a place for a class of vulgar and ostentatious people who will always lack the social grace and taste that the residents of East Egg possess, and can only be achieved from birth. Although the green light in Daisy’s garden is symbolic for hope, I think it also symbolizes the “green-eyed monster”.
It symbolizes the envy and frustration Gatsby must feel through the realization that even though he achieved an incredible amount of wealth, he will never be an East Egger. Gatsby’s impoverished past makes him unacceptable to this socially elite East Egg society that Tom was born into, and is naturally an accepted part of. Now that we know about their contrasting pasts, let us take a look at their personalities. Tom is an overpowering, large man who uses his presence to intimidate people. It says in the book , “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…it was a body capable of enormous leverage…a cruel body.” On the other hand, Gatsby seems to be shy and reserved to the point where he is not even acknowledged at his own parties.
In my opinion, Gatsby did not do so well when attempting to pull off a defying front during his confrontation with Tom. Tom also comes off as a racist bigot who fears that the Black race will eventually submerge the White race, a sexist, and an abusive, insensitive, “brute”, like Daisy calls him. Gatsby’s open house parties which contain very colorful characters, on the other hand, seem to show little prejudice or judgment in his persona. Gatsby’s action of waiting outside the Buchannan’s home all night just to make sure Tom would not physically harm Daisy, show just how sensitive Gatsby is to Daisy’s well being. Tom seems to be very blunt and crude, while Gatsby’s distinguishing feature is the enigma that is his life. Jay Gatsby holds himself to high expectations and lived his life chasing a single dream, while Tom Buchanan seems to have no direction, goals, or dreams, other than to waste away his wealth, and please his selfish needs.
In my opinion, the fundamental difference between Tom and Gatsby is how Fitzgerald decided that justice would be served to each concerning part. Tom is the definition of selfishness, arrogance, cruelty, and ultimately, the ugly side of inherited wealth. Despite all his faults, Gatsby is more good than he is bad, and is a clear rags-to-riches success story. However, Tom ends up getting away scot free, never facing any consequences for his actions or immorality, while Gatsby ends up killed for a crime he did not commit, to save a women who did not love him back. As always, the poor man gets the short end of the stick. Now that we stated some clear differences between Tom and Gatsby, lets look at some of their similarities. Tom and Gatsby are both dishonest and deeply flawed men who commit consistent shows of indiscretions.
For example, Tom condemns Daisy’s affair, but does not have the decency to be discreet about his own. Gatsby’s shady business dealings with Wolfsheim and illicit ways of acquiring wealth can, without a doubt, compare to Tom’s unscrupulous character. Both Tom and Gatsby lie and cheat, but Tom does it for the sole purpose of self-indulgence, while Gatsby does what he does in pursuance of his dream. Tom and Gatsby both have controlling personalities, and will do what they can to get what they want, regardless of the consequences. Another similarity between Tom and Gatsby is that both men seem to be playing a role when every they’re in public, by putting on a facade for others to see. With his good looks, education, horses, polo shirts, riding pants, and boots, Tom tries to impress and dissemble others, while hiding the monster he really is. On the same token, the ostentatious parties, mysterious past, and made up stories are all used by Gatsby to hide his humble beginnings, and corrupt ways of attaining his wealth.
Without a doubt, Gatsby and Tom’s most obvious connection is their link to Daisy. Beautiful, educated, and well groomed, Daisy is the personification of feminism in the 1920’s, and women of an elite social class. Although Daisy is the object of their affection, or better yet, desire, I do not think that either Tom or Gatsby are in love with her. Tom is so pompous, that he married Daisy not because he loved her, but because everyone else wanted her. Tom wants to keep Daisy now because he knows how socially unacceptable divorce would have been, and she looks good under his arm. Gatsby is not so much in love with her, as much as he is with the idea of her. Gatsby places Daisy on this pedestal, and wants her to live up to expectations that she neither can, wants, or deserves. In a way, both Tom and Gatsby see Daisy as a highly desirable prize that will attest to their own self-worth.
In conclusion, because Tom and Gatsby do share some characteristics with each other they may not be “perfect” foils, but looking at the big picture, they are like oil and water. Tom is a despicable character who embodies everything that is wrong with society, and flies through life unpunished. Gatsby is a man who came from humble beginnings, and made something out of himself for the sole purpose of recuperating the one thing that ever made him feel alive – Daisy. Gatsby lied, cheated, and took part in organized crime, so what can possibly him great, you may ask.
Well, in my opinion, Gatsby’s never-ending optimism, simplicity of heart, and power to make his dreams into reality is what makes him “Great”. In reality, Gatsby never cared for the glamorous parties, the nice clothes, or the fast cars. Acquiring these luxuries were only important to him because he felt like they were necessary for him to accomplish his ultimate goal- winning Daisy’s heart back. Daisy embodied Gatsby’s American dream, and unfortunately for him, his search for her was somewhat more of a fatally romantic idealism that seemed to be best suited in a world of fairy tails and happy endings. I agree with Nick when he tells Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd… you’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”