Our discussion in class today about the first impression the class had of Tom Buchanan particularly interested me. The class realized that though it is explicitly mentioned later on in the book during the dinner party, the first mention of Tom never stated that he was white. This being said, the class all said that they took him to be white when first reading this mention of Tom in the book. We analyzed this passage to determine the reasons why we all had jumped to the conclusion that Tom was white. To do this, we went over the traits of Tom’s first impression that made him sound “white” to the readers. Phrases that Fitzgerald used to describe Tom include “straw-haired”, “arrogant eyes”, “dominance over his face”, “leaning aggressively forward”, “great pack of muscle”, “cruel body.”
The term “straw-haired” particularly interested me because I didn’t think that this was a trait exclusively dedicated to white men. However, when I searched “straw-haired man” on google images and the first ten images that popped up were in fact of white men. This partly explains the immediate conclusions readers reach about Tom’s race.
Another interesting part of this conversation was that the author’s description of Tom as harsh seemed to be another reason that readers took him to be white. This didn’t make sense to me at first, but when someone brought up the similarities between Tom and the first husband in one of the stories we read for class, Sui Sin Far, I understood that this was stereotype for white men during the time these two works were written. The husband in Sui Sin Far was white and like Tom, he came across as arrogant, dominant, and cruel, conveying the stereotype of white men during this time. Though there are many reasons for why white men developed this cruel reputation, I believe that similar connotations of white men in literature could be one of the reasons for this stereotype of white men.
There are many factors that contributed to readers’ immediate conclusions on Tom’s race, such as physical features and personality traits. I find it interesting that negative stereotypes of white men existed in America during the time The Great Gatsby was written.