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Tom Tulliver got a pretty raw deal. He had to go work a crummy job at sixteen, after his dad bankrupted the family. His sister is a bit of an emotional train-wreck. And he drowns in a freak flash flood. Not to mention, he pretty much has no friends at all. In fact, most people don’t like Tom. But Tom isn’t an antagonist. In fact, he is arguably a protagonist, along with his sister Maggie, to whom he is bound for better or worse. Tom may not be popular, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t sympathetic.
Tom is not a popular individual. He is proud, judgmental, prejudiced, arrogant, and a bit of a stick in the mud. He’s also a total workaholic and has no social life. In fact, the only people we really see Tom interact with as an adult are his immediate family and his uncle Deane, who is also his boss. Even Tom’s childhood friend Bob Jakin seems much closer to Maggie by the time they grow up. So what’s the problem with Tom? Well, let’s see what some characters think of him.
Mr. Wakem is definitely not a fan: "Besides, there’s that cold, proud devil of a son, who said a word to me I shall not forget when we had the settling. He would be as pleasant a mark for a bullet as I know - if he were worth the expense" (6.8.24).
Ouch. Philip doesn’t harbor homicidal rage towards Tom at least:
"It is manly of you to talk in this way to me," said Philip bitterly, his whole frame shaken by violent emotions. 'Giants have an immemorial right to stupidity and insolent abuse. You are incapable even of understanding what I feel for your sister. I feel so much for her I could even desire to be at friendship with you." (5.5.70)
Maggie also accuses Tom of lacking in pity on more than one occasion. In fact, Tom seems to be lacking in a lot of basic human emotions. And, as a result, he confuses people. On paper, he’s everything he ought to be: hard-working, ambitious, responsible, dutiful to his family. But he’s missing something vital that Maggie seems to have in spades: namely, passion and imagination.
Like robots, from those crazy Cylons to C-3PO, Tom has problems interacting with humans. Tom is a lot of things that most people aren’t, or aren’t to the degree that Tom is. Tom is firmly committed to Justice. If he had friends, he probably would have founded the Victorian England Justice League and then would have run around with his Super Friends enforcing rules and regulations and frowning on impropriety.
How does Tom pull off this commitment to Justice? Well, it helps that he is always right (in his own mind) and is thus able to administer justice to others. We’re beginning to see why Tom is so unpopular. No one likes an arrogant, judgmental person. And this is basically Tom in a nutshell. He’s completely confident in himself and he also never looks to closely enough at himself to have any doubts. And by failing to fully understand himself, he also fails to connect with other people. Hence, Tom is a robot:
"Tom was not given to inquire subtly into his own motives, any more than into other matters of an intangible kind; he was quite sure that his own motives as well as actions were good, else he would have had nothing to do with them." (5.5.63)
But Tom actually does have human emotions. They just don’t come out to play very often:
"Tom smiled at the eager face: his smiles were very pleasant to see when they did come, for the grey eyes could be tender underneath the frown." (6.5.44)
So what’s the deal with Tom’s repressed emotions? Well, this has a lot to do with his relationship to Maggie.
Tom and Maggie are opposites in many respects. The narrator frequently points out how emotional and impulsive Maggie is, while Tom is much more restrained and controlled. Tom judges while Maggie forgives; Tom quickly puts the past behind him, while Maggie can’t let it go; Tom doesn’t seem to have a creative or imaginative bone in his body, while Maggie has an imagination that often runs wild.
Tom and Maggie tend to heighten each other's more extreme personality traits. In a way, they bring out the worst in each other. Tom’s judgmental attitude leads Maggie to have emotional outbursts. Maggie’s impulsive nature leads Tom to behave harshly, almost as a reflex. But this isn’t the only reason these two siblings are opposites. Tom and Maggie also embody a lot of the book’s important themes, and their opposite natures help to demonstrate themes like family duty, compassion, and love.
While most people, and probably a lot of readers, want to smack Tom at some point, the narrative goes out of its way to help us better understand Tom. He really is just as tragic and as sympathetic as the more obvious candidate for protagonist, Maggie. Both Tullivers tend to give themselves self-inflicted wounds, and both have personalities that cause a great deal of trouble. If Maggie has the overwrought, passionate suffering pegged down, then Tom has the market cornered on a much more quiet kind of suffering. Tom himself rather inadvertently sums this up:
"I want to have plenty of work. There’s nothing else I care about much."
There was something rather sad in that speech from a young man of three and twenty, even in uncle Deane’s business-loving ears. (6.5.24)
Circumstances are never in Tom’s favor and the real tragedy is that his personality just makes matters worse:
One day was like another, and Tom’s interest in life, driven back and crushed on every other side, was concentrating itself into the one channel of ambitious resistance to misfortune. The peculiarities of his father and mother were very irksome to him now they were laid bare [...] for Tom had very clear prosaic eyes not apt to be dimmed by mists of feeling or imagination. (4.2.2)
The key here is that there is something sad about Tom, which the narrator often notes. Tom’s personality is made worse by his bad economic and family circumstances. In the end, Tom is as much a victim of circumstance as Maggie. The two just go about their suffering in wildly different ways. So Tom isn’t a bad or an evil person. He also isn’t very likable when it comes down to it. He is, however, sympathetic, in a frustrating sort of way.
Yet Tom’s death alongside Maggie is a bit of a puzzle. Maggie seemed destined to die – her long-term suffering appears to be pushing her towards a tragic end. The fact that Tom’s fate is ultimately linked to Maggie’s much more passionate suffering is interesting and open to lots of interpretations. Which is something Tom, who is always decisive, would probably hate.