In what respect do Tom Buchanan and Gatsby represent opposed but historically related aspects of America in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby have two things, other than Daisy, in common--money and excess, the American Dream. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is set in the 1920s, a time of economic prosperity and excess in post-War America. This novel is, among other things, a commentary on those excesses.
Tom Buchanan comes from old money. He does not have to work, so he does not. He attended Yale and was a successful football player there; he comes from an “enormously wealthy” family, which enables him to live an excessive lifestyle. He and Daisy move and travel a lot (often forced to because of Tom's consistent infidelities), and he indulges his hobby by keeping polo ponies which he brought from Illinois. He and Daisy “drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together" until they settle in East Egg, New York.
Though Tom does not attend, his companions are the rich people who come to Gatsby's parties--often with their mistresses rather than their wives.
They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island and somehow they ended up at Gatsby's door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks.
They are rich, famous people or, like Tom, from rich, privileged families. They display all the behaviors Fitzgerald disdains about America's excessive, materialistic society. Tom and his friends live the American Dream in the sense that they have everything they want.
Gatsby comes from nothing, literally nothing, and is able to make himself into what he thinks Daisy wants. Gatsby is part of the new money crowd, those who worked to create fortunes. Unfortunately, many of the new-monied crowd earned their riches through illegal means (such as trafficking in illegal alcohol). They make their fortunes on the excesses of this materialistic, selfish society. Gatsby and others who came from nothing live the American Dream in that they made something of themselves by their own efforts.
Gatsby's and Tom's lives intersect in the novel, and historically, at a party. Though one of them is much easier to like, the excesses and self-interests of both men are obvious. One spends what he did not earn to live a self-absorbed, worldly life (attending the party); the other is able to spend frivolously because he got rich providing worldly things to those self-absorbed, materialistic people (hosting the party).
Tom and Gatsby represent two aspects of the American Dream in this novel.
Reflective of Fitzgerald's own experience in the East, The Great Gatsby is populated with characters who represent the Eastern stereotypes which Fitzgerald encountered while he and Zelda resided there. Certainly, there is much of Fitzgerald himself in the restless parvenu Gatsby who found himself among the Easterners of historical name and pedigree--"the staid nobility of the countryside," as Nick observes in Chapter Three. Indeed, Fitzgerald encountered a snobbery among the Easterners not unlike that of the brash Tom Buchanan who boastfully displays his estate and stables to Nick Carraway in Chapter One.
Another example of this snobbery characteristic of the elite Easterners who feel themselves superior to others, comes in Chapter Six, for instance, as the Sloanes, friends of Tom, insincerely invite Gatsby to join them for supper after he has invited them to his house, realizing that he has his car and cannot do so as they are on horseback.
"You come to supper with me," said the lady enthusiastically.
"I haven't got a horse," said Gatsby....I'll have to follow you in my car. Excuse me for just a minute."
...."My God, I believe the man's coming," said Tom. "Doesn't he know she doesn't want him?"
Clearly, then, Tom Buchanan and his friends represent the established wealthy upperclass such as those of the names Astor, Vanderbilt, and the Henry Cabot Lodges--the "bluebloods" of America. They are haughty and resentful of the nouveau riche, those who have not inherited money, but have achieved the American Dream of rising from little to becoming wealthy; however, unlike the socially elite, they have merely achieved material wealth, not social position.
This difference is characterized when Tom feels that Gatsby has certain overstepped his bounds in trying to take Daisy away from him as he asks Gatsby in Chapter Seven, "What kind of a row are you trying to cause in my house?" Thus, Tom Buchanan represents the established wealthy of both money and social class who are often corrupted by their wealth, but, nevertheless, haughtily hold themselves above others, while Jay Gatsby is representative of the parvenu, the upstart of the new wealth who is formerly from a lower social class--the nouveau riche, considered more vulgar and lacking in the experience and values of inherited wealth. He, too, is very materialistic as for him it has effected his rise.