Considering The Great Gatsby as social commentary, why do you think that Tom is an important character?
As social commentary, Fitzgerald draws a sharp distinction between the East and the West. The East is associated with excess, irresponsibility, immorality, and amorality. He develops an additional distinction among social classes in the East. Tom Buchanan, as a member of the wealthy Eastern establishment, embodies the characteristics of that most privileged social class, and in his scathing characterization of Tom, Fitzgerald makes a strong critical statement about the social class he represents.
Born to enormous wealth and a family name, Tom Buchanan has attended the right schools, moved in the right circles, and developed the arrogance and sense of entitlement that accounts for his moral bankruptcy. Tom is an ignorant snob who bullies his way through life, secure in his superiority and contemptuous of anyone who is not in his social class. Generations of family wealth have corrupted his character and his soul. Fitzgerald's description of Tom and Daisy make his condemnation of their privileged social class quite clear:
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 Buchanan is important in the novel in developing Fitzgerald's social commentary because he represents an essential element in the corruption of the once great American Dream. Generations of inherited wealth have weakened the moral fabric of the country and undercut the principles and values upon which it was founded.
The illusiveness of the American Dream is a villain in this novel. But if I had to pick a character as the villain, it would be Tom. He certainly does represent the excesses of the 1920s. Tom comes from wealth. Gatsby’s story implies that he did not marry Daisy because he didn’t have enough money. When Gatsby returns from the military, he achieves wealth by any means necessary to win her back. Gatsby ultimately fails quite simply because he is too late. Daisy is married to Tom who is having an affair with Myrtle. Adding more adultery to the equation results in destruction. If Gatsby had been born into wealth, like Tom, none of the destruction would have occurred.
Tom represents brute strength and economic and racial (Tom expresses Nazi ideas) privilege. Gatsby represents idealism and naivety. As far as social commentary, Tom represents the privileged class that will always have the advantages in life. The salt in the wound is that Tom probably could have carried on his affair unabated. But Gatsby was doomed to failure. Tom seems to get away with whatever he wants and people like Gatsby and George Wilson suffer the consequences. This underscores how far that privilege goes.
Tom is constructed as a representative of the 1920s self- indulgence. The narcissism that was such a strong part of the "Jazz Age" was something that was seen so vividly in characters like Tom and Jordan Baker. These individuals lived life only for themselves, explored wealth as something that was entitled to only them and used power and social prestige to advance their own needs at the cost of others. I think that when Fitzgerald constructs these characters, there is a definite social commentary being made as to how the 1920s proceeded. At the height of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald was able to fully grasp as to how the self absorption that was so dominant in the time period will invariably lead to destructive ends. While Tom does not have to endure much in way of the novel's conclusion, the reader is mindful of what is waiting for the likes of he and Jordan when the crash hits and the euphoria of the Jazz Age succumbs to the desert of the Great Depression, something that can be extrapolated was caused by the self- indulgence of the 1920s. Tom becomes representative of this historical dialectic with the manner in which his character is constructed.