Racism in The Great Gatsby

The novel “The Great Gatsby” by Scott Fitzgerald is a very symbolistic piece of writing in which each reader can find aspects interesting for him or her only. The writer’s ability to intertwine symbolism with the realistic flow of the story is striking; the same goes for the depiction of the characters each of who possesses some features which are worth discussing. The character of Tom Buchanan is especially interesting as while reading the novel one can’t but necessarily notice his unconcealed sexism, hypocrisy, selfishness, and racism. It was normal for Tom to possess all these characteristics since he was born with them rather than gained them over the years: “[Tom was] one of those men who reach such acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors anticlimax. His family was enormously wealthy—even in college, his freedom with money was a matter for reproach” (Francis Scott Fitzgerald 6). The narrator does not hide Tom’s negative features and lets the reader know that this character deserves their disapproval: “Now he was 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” (Francis Scott Fitzgerald 6). Tom Buchanan’s racist ideas fully correspond to the situation in the United States in the 1920s which is reflected in his emphasizing the supremacy of white people, standing up against giving black people equal rights with the whites, and expressing his fear of the white population to be submerged by the black community.

To begin with, Tom’s representing white people as a dominant race reminds of those times when segregation was rather widespread and, actually, “was a phase, the highest stage, in the evolution of white supremacy” (John Whitson Cell 3). After the abolishment of slavery in 1861 black people were introduced into society as free citizens but most of the whites refused to accept them into their circles stating that they were not worth living in their community. The 1920s are marked by white people’s restricting even the basic human rights of those who belonged to the black community and Tom is portrayed as the one who belonged to such people; his saying “it’s up to us [white people], who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things” (Francis Scott Fitzgerald 11) is a sign that he was for white supremacy and white people’s dominating over the other races.

What’s more, Tom was an evident opposer to black-and-white marriages which in the 1920s were considered a disgrace. Not only were intimate relations between two people of different races shameful but they were illegal as well: “In the early twentieth century, twenty-nine states passed or had passed laws banning intermarriage. Such laws focused primarily on prohibiting marriages between whites and African Americans” (Pablo Mitchell 110). Tom Buchanan is depicted as an ardent opponent to such marriages considering them inappropriate: “Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white” (Francis Scott Fitzgerald 83). As it can be seen from this statement, Tom considers such intermarriages as something unacceptable and absurd which completely corresponds to the situation in the country in the 1920s.

And finally, as the history of the United States shows, the 1920s saw “decline and fall of scientific racism” and “emergence of new racial ideologies” (Werner Sollors 181) of which Tom from “The Great Gatsby” seemed to be an observant. Characterizing Tom’s personality, it would be fair to notice that if he could he would have joined the Ku-Klux-Klan of the end of the nineteenth century when the fight for white supremacy was extremely vivid and resulted in executing some black people simply because of their skin color. However, Ku-Klux-Klan of the 1920s seemed to tackle the problems more peacefully and its members were “typically engaged in nonviolent practices common to many social movements” (Eric Arnesen 756). The fact that black people were not as strongly oppressed as some decades ago served as a cause for Tom’s fear to be submerged by the black community: “The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved” (Francis Scott Fitzgerald 10). By these words of his, he tried to convince his interlocutors that the fight against black people should continue since he considered them dangerous for the white community.

In conclusion, Tom Buchanan’s racism reflects the ideas and situation in the country in the 1920s when the fight for white supremacy could still be observed though it was not so ardent as at the end of the nineteenth century. Tom belonged to people who strictly opposed the principles of equality between black and white people expressing his aversion to intermarriages and fearing to be submerged by the black community.

Works Cited

Francis Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Editions, 1993.

John Whitson Cell. The Highest Stage of White Supremacy: The Origins of Segregation in South Africa and the American South. Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Pablo Mitchell. Coyote Nation: Sexuality, Race, and Conquest in Modernizing New Mexico, 1880-1920. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Eric Arnesen. Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History. CRC Press, 2006.

Werner Sollors. Interracialism: Black-white Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law. Oxford University Press US, 2000.