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Meet Tom. He's 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 … 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)
If you're getting the picture that our narrator doesn't much like Tom—we think you're right. But Nick is also fascinated with Tom. He probably can't help it; like Daisy, Tom is a fascinating kind of guy. Like Daisy, he's got something that everyone else wants: he's got power.
Maybe He's Born With It
Tom's family is rich. Really rich. Not well-to-do like Nick's family, and not nouveau riche like Gatsby, but staggeringly wealthy, with money going way back. (Or as far back as any money in America goes, anyway.) And he does extravagant, crazy things with it, like bringing "a string of polo ponies for Lake Forest" (1).
Okay, yeah, that doesn't mean much to us, either. It's probably something along the lines of buying a private jet: you know people can do it, but it's a pretty flashy move. Especially because he's so (relatively) young: "It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that."
In his own way, Tom is just as flashy as Gatsby. But everyone somehow knows that Gatsby's a newcomer. Tom, on the other hand, has something you can't buy. You might call it "breeding," but that sounds weird and a little racist, or even eugenicist. So, we're going to call it "arrogance": the absolute conviction that, thanks to money and family, he was born to inhabit a certain world; to marry a certain type of woman; and to receive homage from, well, pretty much every other man he encounters.
Although, come to think of it, eugenics is a good touch point here: Tom has been doing some light reading, and he's obsessed with the idea that the "lesser races" are going to come knock the Aryans—excuse us, "Nordic" people—off their white privilege pedestal." If we don't look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged" (1), he says.
Okay, now Nick isn't the only one who doesn't like Tom. We're not big fans ourselves.
Maybe It's … 'Roids?
But why is Tom obsessed with the idea that his "race" is on the verge of being submerged? He certainly doesn't seem like he's going anywhere, because money isn't the only thing that makes him loom larger than life. He's also physically powerful, a college football star (for Yale), and someone whom Daisy calls a "brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen" (1.70).
Problem is, Tom doesn't like being called "hulking." We're not sure why, but we do have an idea: Tom believes that he has natural superiority. He's better than everyone else because of his family, his "blood," his station in life.
In fact, Daisy suggests, he comes by his power in the oldest, least classy way: he's just bigger and stronger than anyone else. And maybe, this passage seems to suggest, that's the root of all power. It has nothing to do with naturally superior races, or naturally superior families: it just has to do with whether or not you're big enough to steal someone else's woman. (Or money.)
Tom is definitely big enough—and he's also mean enough. He's a cruel man. It's not enough for him to take a mistress; he flaunts her "wherever he was known" (2.3-4), making sure that everyone sees her with him and apparently unconcerned with Daisy finding out about it.
And when he wins his little battle of wills with Gatsby, he drives the metaphorical knife in just a little bit more when he insists that Daisy drive home with Gatsby, saying "Go on. He won't annoy you. I think he realizes that his presumptuous little flirtation is over. (7.298).
Talk about burn. This little exchange makes Gatsby's undying love seem like a middle school crush; it deflates any feelings Daisy might have had for him; and it put Gatsby in his place by calling him "presumptuous." That's a lot of insult for a few words. And that's the point. He doesn't care about Daisy; he doesn't care about Gatsby. All he cares about is getting what's his. And Daisy, unfortunately for everyone, is his.