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Best Character Analysis: Tom Buchanan - The Great Gatsby

Posted by Halle Edwards | May 7, 2016 1:00:00 PM

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Tom Buchanan – hulking, hyper-masculine, aggressive, and super-rich – is The Great Gatsby’s chief representative of old money, and (in a book with many unlikeable people) one of the book’s least sympathetic characters. He is Gatsby’s rival for Daisy’s love, but he is also caught up in an affair with Myrtle Wilson that proves fatal for many involved.

So what’s important to understand about Tom? What are his motivations? Is there anything sympathetic about him at all? Find out here!

 

Article Roadmap

  1. Tom Buchanan as a character:
    • Physical description
    • Biographical backstory 
    • Actions in the novel
  2. Analysis of Tom Buchanan:
    • Quotes about or by Tom
    • Frequent essay topics and discussion questions
    • FAQ answering common student questions about Tom

 

Quick Note on Our Citations

Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book. To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.

 

Tom Buchanan's Physical Description

He had changed since his New Haven years. Now he was a sturdy, straw haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. 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. (1.19)

Tom is established from the outset as masculine, aggressive, and, most importantly, dangerous. We also get a much more complete physical description of him than we ever get of Gatsby or Nick, which leaves little room to ever see Tom in a different, more sympathetic light – and in fact, all subsequent descriptions continue to show Tom as masculine, aggressive, and strong.

 

Tom's Backstory

Tom Buchanan is born into money, so along with Daisy, he is the book’s chief representation of old money, and what it means and looks like to be a member of that class.

He attends Yale University, where he meets Nick, plays on the football team, and makes a few enemies: “there were men at New Haven that hated his guts” (1.20).

A few years after, he marries Daisy, a wealthy heiress from Louisville. Daisy’s very much in love with him at first. But just after their South Seas honeymoon is over, he cheats on her with a maid at the Santa Barbara hotel they’re staying at, beginning a pattern of infidelity that we see continued in the novel (4.143).

The two move around, spending time in Chicago and even abroad in France, “wherever people played polo and were rich together” (1.17). They have a daughter, Pammy, but Tom seems distant from her – after Daisy wakes up after giving birth, he’s “god knows where” (1.118) – in fact we never see Tom and Pammy in the same room in the novel.

The family moves to New York, and Tom begins having an affair with Myrtle Wilson shortly afterwards.

You can see how Tom's biography intersects with the backstories of the novel's other characters in our Great Gatsby timeline.

 

Summary of Action in the Novel

In Chapter 1, Daisy Buchanan invites her cousin Nick Carraway to dinner at the Buchanans’ house. Nick is an old classmate of Tom’s who just moved to New York. Daisy and Nick take a private walk where Daisy confesses some of her unhappiness to Nick, but Tom cautions Nick not to believe everything Daisy says.

In Chapter 2, Tom takes Nick with him to see Myrtle, his mistress. They meet up in Queens and then later in Manhattan, and have a party at the apartment Tom keeps for Myrtle. As the evening draws to a close, Tom punches Myrtle in the face and breaks her nose.

In Chapter 6, Tom attends one of Gatsby’s parties with Daisy, and immediately becomes suspicious of Gatsby’s wealth and his wife’s relationship with him, and asks a friend to investigate him.

In Chapter 7, Gatsby comes over for lunch at the Buchanans’ house, along with Nick and Jordan. The group ends up going to Manhattan at Daisy’s suggestion. Tom notices the way Daisy looks at Gatsby and realizes they are having an affair. But during the climactic confrontation in a Manhattan hotel, when Gatsby tries to get Daisy to admit she never loved Tom, Daisy can’t. Tom reveals that Gatsby is a bootlegger and promises to treat Daisy better. After this confrontation, Tom lets Gatsby and Daisy drive back to West Egg alone together. This is a show of power: Tom is saying he has nothing to fear from Gatsby and knows that Daisy will never leave him.

On that drive back, Daisy fatally hits Myrtle. Tom stops at the scene afterward, finds out Gatsby’s yellow car hit Myrtle, assumes it was Gatsby, and sobs on the drive back to East Egg.

In Chapter 8, in the aftermath of Myrtle's murder, Tom and Daisy remain together and quickly leave New York, George Wilson shoots Gatsby and then himself, leaving Nick to grapple with Gatsby’s death alone.

In Chapter 9, Tom runs into Nick outside of a jewelry store and confesses to Nick that he insinuated to George that Gatsby was both his wife’s killer and her lover, sparking the murder.

 

body_manwomen.jpgTom's preferred ratio of men to women.

 

Tom Buchanan Quotes

“[Tom], 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 anti-climax.” (1.16)

Tom is established early on as restless and bored, with the threat of physical aggression lurking behind that restlessness. With his glory days on the Yale football team well behind him, he seems to constantly be searching for – and failing to find – the excitement of a college football game. Perhaps Tom, like Gatsby, is also trying, and failing, to repeat the past in his own way.

 

"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." (1.78)

In Chapter 1, we learn Tom has been reading “profound” books lately, including racist ones that claim the white race is superior to all others and has to maintain control over society. This speaks to Tom’s insecurity – even as someone born into incredible money and privilege, there’s a fear it could be taken away by social climbers. That insecurity only translates into even more overt shows of his power - flaunting his relationship with Myrtle, revealing Gatsby as a bootlegger, and manipulating George to kill Gatsby – thus completely freeing the Buchanans from any consequences from the murders.

 

"Don't believe everything you hear, Nick," he advised me. (1.143)

Early in the book, Tom advises Nick not to believe rumors and gossip, but specifically what Daisy has been telling him about their marriage.

Nick certainly is wary of most people he meets, and, indeed, he sees through Daisy in Chapter 1 when he observes she has no intentions of leaving Tom despite her complaints: “Their interest rather touched me and made them less remotely rich—nevertheless, I was confused and a little disgusted as I drove away. It seemed to me that the thing for Daisy to do was to rush out of the house, child in arms—but apparently there were no such intentions in her head” (1.150). But as the book goes on, Nick drops some of his earlier skepticism as he comes to learn more about Gatsby and his life story, coming to admire him despite his status as a bootlegger and criminal.

This leaves us with an image of Tom as cynical and suspicious in comparison to the optimistic Gatsby – but perhaps also more clear-eyed than Nick is by the end of the novel.

 

"And what's more, I love Daisy too. Once in a while I go off on a spree and make a fool of myself, but I always come back, and in my heart I love her all the time." (7.251-252)

After seeing Tom’s liaisons with Myrtle and his generally boorish behavior, this claim to loving Daisy comes off as fake at best and manipulative at worst (especially since a spree is a euphemism for an affair!).

We also see Tom grossly underreporting his bad behavior (we have seen one of his “sprees” and it involved violently breaking Myrtle’s nose after sleeping with her while Nick was in the next room) and either not realizing or ignoring how damaging his actions can be to others. He is explicit about his misbehavior and doesn’t seem sorry at all – he feels like his “sprees” don’t matter as long as he comes back to Daisy after they’re over.

In short, this quote captures how the reader comes to understand Tom late in the novel – as a selfish rich man who breaks things and leaves others to clean up his mess.

 

"I found out what your 'drug-stores' were." He turned to us and spoke rapidly. "He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drug-stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That's one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn't far wrong." (7.284)

Again, Tom’s jealousy and anxiety about class are revealed. Though e immediately pegs Gatsby for a bootlegger rather than someone who inherited his money, Tom still makes a point of doing an investigation to figure out exactly where the money came from. This shows that he does feel a bit threatened by Gatsby, and wants to be sure he thoroughly knocks him down.

But at the same time, he’s the only one in the room who sees Gatsby for who he actually is. This is also a moment where you, as a reader, can really see how clouded Nick’s judgment of Gatsby has become.

 

"You two start on home, Daisy," said Tom. "In Mr. Gatsby's car."

She looked at Tom, alarmed now, but he insisted with magnanimous scorn.

"Go on. He won't annoy you. I think he realizes that his presumptuous little flirtation is over." (7.296-298)

A common question students have after reading Gatsby for the first time is this: why does Tom let Daisy and Gatsby ride back together? If he’s so protective and jealous of Daisy, wouldn’t he insist she come with him?

The answer is that he is demonstrating his power over both Daisy and Gatsby – he’s no longer scared that Daisy will leave him for Gatsby, and he’s basically rubbing that in Gatsby’s face. He’s saying that he doesn’t even fear leaving them alone together, because he knows that nothing Gatsby says or does would convince Daisy to leave him. It’s a subtle but crucial show of power – and of course ends up being a fatal choice.

 

“What if I did tell him? That fellow had it coming to him. He threw dust into your eyes just like he did in Daisy's but he was a tough one. He ran over Myrtle like you'd run over a dog and never even stopped his car." (9.143)

One of Tom’s last lines in the novel, he coldly tells Nick that Gatsby was fooling both him and Daisy. Of course, since we know that Gatsby didn't actually run over Daisy, we can read this line in one of three ways:

  • Maybe Daisy never actually admitted to Tom that she was the one driving the car that night, so he still has no idea that his wife killed his mistress.
  • Or maybe the way Tom has made peace with what happened is by convincing himself that even if Daisy was technically driving, Gatsby is to blame for Myrtle's death anyway.
  • Or maybe Tom is still scared of speaking the truth about Daisy's involvement to anyone, including Nick, on the off chance that the police will reopen the case with new evidence.

Depending on your interpretation, you can use this line as evidence if you’re arguing for a darker, more selfish version of Gatsby’s character.

 

body_badguy.jpgWhat level of bad guy is Tom, exactly? Depends on how you read his last confession to Nick.

 

Common Essay Topics/ Areas of Discussion

Since Tom himself isn’t a hero (or, on the flip side, a straightforward antagonist) of the novel, most essays about Tom involve comparing him to other characters – often Gatsby but sometimes George. Sometimes you have to do this from a higher level, and sometimes you have to do more in-depth character analysis.

To see a detailed guide to a compare/contrast essay between these characters, read our article on the most commonly assigned compare/contrast character pairs.

Either way, make sure to read Chapters 1, 2, 6, and 7 for Tom’s most important moments, and don’t neglect your analysis of the other characters. Read on for the most common discussion topics about Tom!

 

Discuss Tom and Daisy (Old Money) vs. Gatsby (New Money)

In this prompt, you would first find examples in the text that clearly illustrate Tom and Daisy as old money and Gatsby as new money. Yes, the Buchanans and Gatsby both live in mansions, they all have vast amounts of money at their disposal, and they all variously engage in bad behavior (affairs, drinking, crime), but their differences end up looming much larger than these similarities.

Taste and Appearance. One place to start is to examine their dress, homes, and parties. Tom and Daisy dress luxuriously but without indulging in the very latest fashions or wild styles (note Tom’s riding clothes and Daisy’s white dress), while Gatsby wears a pink suit during the crucial scene in the Plaza Hotel in Chapter 7. And while Tom and Daisy have a mansion, it’s described as fashionable and white, with muted wine-colored carpet and white curtains, while Gatsby’s is a copy of a palace in France, and seen as over-large and garish. Finally, while Tom and Daisy host quiet dinner parties, Gatsby is notorious for his packed, lavish, and raucous blow-out bashes.

Perception by Others. Also in Chapter 6, it's notable that Tom is immediately suspicious of Gatsby and doesn’t see him as worthy of their crowd during the encounter with the Sloanes, while Daisy is horrified by Gatsby's vulgar parties. Not only do their class differences become apparent to the reader through their dress, homes, and parties, but also Tom and Daisy are very aware of these differences in status, while Gatsby consistently misreads social clues.

Displays of Power. Finally, the pecking order becomes painfully clear during the encounter in the hotel. Gatsby puts everything on the line and asks Daisy to confess that she never loved Tom. But not only can she not do that, she ends up admitting she did in fact once love Tom very much, so that Tom leaves the encounter secure in his marriage.

Once you’ve fleshed out examples of how Tom and Daisy exemplify old money while Gatsby exemplifies new money, you could make a larger argument about one of the book’s major themes: the rigidity of society and class in 1920s America or the hollowness of the American Dream.

 

Discuss Tom and Daisy as Reckless and Careless People

This prompt relies on this famous quote:

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. . . .(9.146)

 

Physical Recklessness. There are many examples of Tom and Daisy acting reckless, and of the fact that they are protected from the consequences of their actions by their money. Of course, while you can go for the biggest event, Daisy hitting Myrtle in Gatsby’s car, you should also find some smaller examples can help build your argument:

  • Tom's mid-honeymoon car accident, when he "ran into a wagon on the Ventura road one night and ripped a front wheel off his car. The girl who was with him got into the papers too because her arm was broken" (4.143).
  • the moment Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose in Chapter 2

In all three cases, there are apparently zero consequences for this behavior.  After the honeymoon, Tom's marriage stays intact, and he gets to go off to France. His affair with Myrtle continues even after the violence. And after Daisy kills Myrtle, the couple just skips town and doesn't even show up in the official police record of the accident.

 

Emotional Recklessness. The pair are just as cavalier with each other's emotions as they are with everyone else's. Tom starts cheating on Daisy early on in their marriage (on their honeymoon!), assuming that because she is so weak and passive, Daisy won't leave him. Meanwhile, Daisy enters into the affair with Gatsby, dismissing Tom and her marriage in a blasé way. 

With these examples (along with other examples you can find!) fleshed out, you can start thinking about an overall argument or point to make. Here are just a few ideas:

  1. Tom and Daisy’s money protects them from consequences in a way the working class cannot be protected.

  2. Moral decay in America comes from the top down (with the hardworking George Wilson, who’s at the bottom of the social heap, the most hurt).

  3. Tom and Daisy’s behavior illustrates the emptiness of the American Dream.

 

body_brokenegg.jpgTom and Daisy: never afraid to break eggs to make their selfishness omelet.

 

FAQ

Here are answers to some common student questions about Tom and his place in The Great Gatsby.

 

What’s up with Tom’s affair with Myrtle? Does he love her more than Daisy?

Tom may enjoy spending time with Myrtle, but he would never divorce Daisy to marry her – she’s just the latest in a series of mistresses he has had since the beginning of his marriage.

Tom and Daisy come from the same social class, and they both need each other to remain part of that group. In contrast, Myrtle is from a less-wealthy background, and would never truly fit into Tom Buchanan’s circles.

So while Tom is pretty brazen about showing Myrtle off in restaurants and not hiding his affair with any real effort, for him the relationship is more about power – power over Myrtle, over George, and over Daisy – than about love.

 

So does Daisy love Tom? Does Tom love Daisy?

A lot of students wonder about Daisy and Tom’s marriage. Since we learn that Daisy was still in love with Gatsby right before going through with her marriage to Tom, and we see Tom engaging in affairs, it makes sense that we would wonder whether Tom and Daisy like each other at all.

Well, first of all, it seems clear that, at least in the early days of their marriage, they were in love:

"I never loved [Tom]," [Daisy] said, with perceptible reluctance.

"Not at Kapiolani?" demanded Tom suddenly... "Not that day I carried you down from the Punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry?" There was a husky tenderness in his tone. ". . . Daisy?"

"Please don't." Her voice was cold, but the rancour was gone from it. She looked at Gatsby. "There, Jay," she said—but her hand as she tried to light a cigarette was trembling. Suddenly she threw the cigarette and the burning match on the carpet.

"Oh, you want too much!" she cried to Gatsby. "I love you now—isn't that enough? I can't help what's past." She began to sob helplessly. "I did love him once—but I loved you too." (7.258-264)

Tom brings up happy memories from early in the marriage, and for once, his voice has a “husky tenderness,” which causes Daisy’s voice to lose the cold tone it had when she said she never loved him. She then breaks down and admits that she loved Tom.

However, the fact that Tom is clinging to old memories, and Daisy uses the past tense – “I loved him once” – suggests that Tom and Daisy aren’t exactly head-over-heels for each other anymore. But our last scene that shows Tom and Daisy together suggests that that doesn’t matter. Even if they’re not in love, their relationship is stable, and neither has any interest in leaving the other:

Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table with a plate of cold fried chicken between them and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement.

They weren't happy, and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale—and yet they weren't unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together. (7.409-410)

 

What does Tom’s racism have to do with anything?

As we discuss above, Nick makes a point of showing Tom to be a racist, a believer in the pure white face’s need to subjugate everyone else in the world. But why does this come up at all? Is it just another unflattering detail about Tom?

Tom’s racism is a reflection of his slight insecurities and his need to continually reassert his money and status. Even with all of his money and privilege, he still has a slight fear that his place isn’t assured. That fear comes out in small moments in the novel – when George says he’s taking Myrtle out west and when Daisy briefly threatens to leave him. This is why we see Tom constantly swaggering and asserting his status.

 

What’s Next?

If you’re writing about Tom, it can be helpful to take a close look at the beginning of the novel, specifically, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. In these chapters, you both see Tom both in his high-class, old money home, and engaging in a “spree” with Myrtle. Make sure to close read and annotate both chapters!

Tom is a major player in not just one but two of the novel’s major relationships. Read more about love, sex, and desire in The Great Gatsby in our detailed article.

Check out our analyses of all the other characters in the novel and learn how to compare and contrast Tom to other characters.

 

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Halle Edwards
About the Author

Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.



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