Compare and contrast the characters of Tom and Gatsby.

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Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The differences between Tom and Gatsby are certainly obvious. Their similarities are more intriguing and interesting to contemplate. I've never given them much thought, really, but here goes.

  • Tom and Gatsby are about the same age (early 30s), as is Nick.
  • Tom and Gatsby are both men who exert their own will without regard to consequences.
  • Tom may have gone to college, but he is not an educated man; neither is Gatsby.
  • Tom and Gatsby meet in several situations without revealing their true thoughts/feelings about each other. (It is only in the hotel scene that their mutual hatred is expressed.) Until then, in their dealings with each other, each man exercises self-control and wears a social face.
  • Tom and Gatsby are both controlling personalities.
  • Tom and Gatsby both refuse to accept defeat. Tom reclaims his wife, and Gatsby dies waiting for Daisy to call.

Considering their backgrounds, the similarities in their personalities are a bit surprising.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The previous post was quite thorough. I would say that one of the fundamental points of contrast between them both is how Fitzgerald sees justice within their narratives.  Tom is the personification of cruelty and shallowness.  In contrast, for all of his faults, Gatsby is not a bad person and has many redeeming qualities.  Yet, Tom does not receive anything in way of sanction or punishment for his behavior.  He does not get reprimanded nor face any type of judgment for his callous ways with women or his lack of care and understanding for others.  Gatsby, through no fault of his own, is killed by a jealous husband and suffers from a sense of love unreciprocated.  In the end, the lack of justice in their narratives might be a point of significant contrast between them.

dbello eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Fitzgerald was clear in his intent when he developed the characters of Tom and Gatsby. At the time of their conflict both men are wealthy and while Tom's character clearly represents humanity interrupted and thus money and power, Gatsby's character resides in the realm that humanity still has the chance of remaining 'human' despite the money and power as long as there is goodness in the heart.  For Fitzgerald it is clear, Tom represents how the ends justify the means, Gatsby represents do the means justify the ends?...I think The Great Gatsby was Fitzgerald's way of holding a mirror up to anyone who read the novel, asking the readers to ask themselves...questions nobody really likes to answer.

amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Isn't it interesting that Tom is the one born with money, privilege, and prestige, yet he is not as polished and refined as Gatsby, who was not born into the life he now leads.  Rather, Gatsby was born "on the wrong side of the tracks", has gained his wealth through criminal activities, and deals with people who are rough around the edges in his daily business.  It almost seems that there is a definite point being made in the novel that these two characters are so different in personality and upbringing, which should (one would expect), in turn, effect how each man behaves.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both men attempt to present a facade to the public.  With his riding pants and boots Tom Buchanan seeks to dissemble, but, as Nick narrates in Chapter One,

"Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothers could hide the enormous power of that body....--a cruel body."

No house, no clothes, can hide the true villain that Tom Buchanan is, just as no clothes, no winged car, no glamorous party can disguise the hint of something incongruous about Gatsby.  Certainly,is connection to Wolfscheim casts doubt upon Jay Gatsby's facade.

lynn30k eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think a similarity is that neither of them really "love" Daisy. To love someone, you have to know who they really are, and neither Tom nor Gatsby has a clue who Daisy actually is! True, they both want her, but, in my opinion, for reasons that don't have anything to do with true love. Tom wants her because to lose her would be to lose face, and he wouldn't now how to organize his life without her. Gatsby is in love with some crazy ideal woman that he thinks Daisy is; she never shows herself to be that person, though.

ktmagalia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It's hard to top #2 poster, but I can say that these two characters are two of my favorite to discuss with my students because they are so purposefully different and yet share the same love--a love of money and for the power it brings.  Fitzgerald, you have to give him props, creates a character that can easily be despised: a bigoted, selfish, cruel, and violent man.  And thankfully, even though Gatsby himself isn't free from unsavory behavior, he is a likeable character, and one for whom we root from start to end.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with other editors and just wish to add that in many ways Tom and Gatsby act as foils for each other, highlighting and exacerbating their differences. I also think lunn30k makes a very strong point by questioning the "love" that these characters hae for Daisy - I think we can correctly state that it is not love at all, rather they have different motives for wanting her.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In most ways. these characters could not be more opposite.  Look at the following:

1.  Tom is crude; Gatsby is more refined.  Though Tom has grown up with money, he is not refined nor is he gracious.  Gatsby grew up with virtually nothing; however, though he is still rather socially inept and lacking in some niceties, he strives to be a courteous host and generally wants to please those around him.

2.  Tom is overpowering; Gatsby is more reserved.  Tom is a large man (with a voice that doesn't match his physical presence, by the way) and uses his presence to intimidate.  Daisy calls him a brute and his mistress calls him "hulking" enough times to get a punch in the nose.  Gatsby, on the other hand, is barely recognized at his own parties.  He's shy and rather reclusive, and he is not an imposing presence--even when he wants to be, as in his confrontation with Tom in the hotel.

3.  Tom was born with money and privilege; Gatsby engaged in shady business dealings to earn his fortune.  They both treat their money pretty casually; however, Tom uses his to travel (usually when he has to get out of messy affairs) and please himself, while Gatsby sees money as the means to an end (to win Daisy, since that's why she couldn't marry him years ago). 

4. Tom is a bigot (check his reading material and his views about it); Gatsby apparently makes few judgments about people (as can be seen in the array of party guests he entertains).  The young Jay Gatz grew to disdain those whose sole motivation was money; however, as an adult he appears to be willing to overlook such things as he pursues his goal.

5.  Tom has no purpose or direction in life other than to enjoy being rich and self-indulgent; Gatsby cares little for himself and is single-minded in his goal to win back the only woman he ever loved.

Undoubtedly there are many more.  The more difficult task is comparing the two men.  Here goes:

1.  Both men love Daisy.  Though Tom has shown disrespect for her since virtually the day they were married (an affair while on their honeymoon, even), we do see love toward the end as they sit together at the table.

2.  Both men commit consistent indiscretions--Tom with women, Gatsby in his business dealings.

3.  Both men are crushed at the thought of losing Daisy.  Tom's pride would not survive the loss, and Gatsby's dream of a life with Daisy eventually kills him.

Again, there are undoubtedly more, but this should get the wheels turning.  Two rich men who love the same woman have to share some common characteristics; because she only ends up with one of them, there are obviously some differences.  In any case, their commonality is Daisy. 

Here is a video outlining all of the main characters of the novel:

udonbutterfly | Student

Tom came from old money, he has been established in the world of wealth and status since his birth. Whereas Gatsby was a poor guy who acquired his wealth.

Tom also deals in a clean business as opposed to Gatsby who handles in illegal business such as bootlegging liquor. However both of these guys are obsessed with wealth. But Tom is obsessed with the wealth because of the power it gives him whereas Gatsby's obsession with wealth stems from him wanting to win the love of Daisy.

Both Tom and Gatsby also have a one track mind and only think of how things effect themselves. With Tom he only cares about pleasure and image he does no care whether it hurts Daisy. Gatsby only cares about getting Daisy back he does not care what type of situation it would put Daisy in.

Wiggin42 | Student

A similarity between the two is their obsession with wealth, maintaining their status in society, and the desire to have a perfect life. Tom and Gatsby both do despicable things to satisfy their selfish desires. They are both shallow people who care more about the shallow pleasures of life rather than any inward reflection. 

Read the study guide:
The Great Gatsby

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