Tom is, above all, characterized by physical and mental hardness. Physically, he has a large, muscle-bound, imposing frame. Tom’s body is a “cruel body” with “enormous power” that, as Nick explains, he developed as a college athlete. Tom’s strength and bulk give him an air of danger and aggression, as when he hurts Daisy’s finger and she calls him a “brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen…” Tom’s physical appearance is echoed in his mental inflexibility and single-minded way of thinking about the world. Just as Tom uncritically repeats racist things he’s read in books, he remains unshakable regarding his troubled marriage with Daisy. At the end of the book, even after it becomes clear that both Tom and Daisy have cheated on each other, Tom stubbornly maintains that they have always loved each other and that they always will, no matter what. Taken together, Tom’s physical and mental hardness produce a brutish personality that uses threats and violence to maintain control.
Tom’s brutish personality relates to the larger arc of his life. According to Nick, Tom peaked very early in his life. He was a nationally known football star in his youth, but after his time in the spotlight ended and fame faded away, everything else in Tom’s life felt like “an anticlimax.” In Chapter 1 Nick posits that Tom has always sought to recapture the thrill of his youth, and his failure to do so infuses his life with a sense of melancholy. It is perhaps this sense of melancholy that contributes to Tom’s evident victim complex. Early in the book, Tom describes a racist book he’s read. The book has clearly left him feeling anxious, and he even expresses his absurd belief that “the white race will be . . . utterly submerged.” A rich man, Tom has no reason to feel victimized in this way. Nor does he have reasonable cause to feel victimized when he learns about Daisy’s history with Gatsby, since he himself has engaged in a far worse extramarital affair. Nevertheless, jealousy gets the better of Tom, and he once again uses threats and demands to reassert a sense of control.