These characters represent the possible futures of Nick Carraway, to some degree. In the novel, Nick is set to begin his adult life, to find a mate/wife, and to select an occupation.
Tom and Gatsby are both established. They have chosen both lifestyles and the values that go with them. In as much as Nick's personal journey is central to the story, the opposition of Gatbsy and Tom are important in helping Nick to determine his own path.
Indubitably, Tom Buchanan is the antithesis of Jay Gatsby. Here are some ways in which the character of Tom Buchanan and that of Jay Gatsby are at polar ends:
- Tom Buchanan is from an established Easter family while Jay Gatsby is a self-made man. Thus, he lives in East Egg, Gatsby in the new West Egg, watching the green light in hopes of attaining what is in that East Egg.
- Tom is a "sturdy...man with a rather hard mouth and supercilious manner." His eyes are "arrogant" and he appears to be leaning "aggresively forward"--it is a "cruel body." On the other hand, Gatsby is never definitely described. In Chapter Three, Nick refers to him merely as "an elegant young rough-neck" of about thirty. References are made to his winsome smile, but his physical features are left to the reader's imagination, perhaps suggesting how he has created his own persona. Tom is clearly the villain of the novel, with Gatsby as the hero.
- Tom is insensitive to everyone around him while Gatsby is kind. Tom cruelly punches Mrytle Wilson in the face, he talks with his mistress while Daisy is in the other room, he expostulates on his supremist theories without regard for anyone else's opinions, he cruelly implicates Gatsby in the murder of Mrytle and manipulates George Wilson to the point that the man kills Gatsby, eliminating for Tom anyone who could testify against Daisy. Unlike Tom, Gatsby makes every effort to become popular, giving lavish parties for total strangers. He takes Nick in as an old friend, calling him "old chap" and treating him to rides in his mythological car. He is completely solicitous toward Daisy, first in his attempts to win her back by impressing her with his many shirts, and then, of course, by his faithful vigil outside her house on the night of Mrytle's accident. Contrary to Tom, Gatsby is genuine, a characteristic which prompts Nick to tell him he is worth the "whole damn bunch of them." Rather than destroying other people's lives like Tom Buchanan, Jay Gatsby becomes a sacrificial victim in Fitzgerald's seminal novel.