Bonfire of the Vanities
by Tom Wolfe
The novel "Bonfire of the Vanities", by Tom Wolfe, is a
satire of the various parts of New York society, from the
poor to the rich and all in between. The author shows how
the media influences everyone's lives, and uses stereotypes
of all different groups of people to expose certain things
about the way people treat each other. "In effect, he
dissects the absurdities and contradictions of New York
society "(Rafferty 88). All this is shown through the story
of how a rich white male and his mistress get lost in the
Bronx and, thinking they are under attack, kill a black
teenager. The case is compounded when the Black community
takes this death to heart and turns the event into an
example of the way the "Fifth Avenue rich Whites" think of
their less fortunate Bronx neighbors.
Of all the groups mentioned in the novel, the rich are
explained the most, and thrashed the most by Tom Wolfe.
They are shown to the reader as snobs, who care only about
their high class society, and cannot be bothered with the
rest of the world. The only way they measure a man's worth
is through his paycheck. With each other, they pretend to
be nice, yet at the first sign of nonconformity they are
quick to ostracize and abandon the offending person.
Examples of this are shown throughout the entire book. At
the two dinner parties there is a blatant example of an
"offender," the first one being McCoy, and the second being
Aubrey Buffing (with his speech about Poe's "The Masque of
the Red Death"). In addition, the fact that none of Sherman
McCoy's neighbors helps him during his crisis, rather turn
their backs on him and hurt him even more is another
example of this point.
The book also deals with the "Me Generation " theory, the
idea that during the mid-1980's people were interested only
in themselves. The first example of this in the book is
McCoy saying he is "Master of the Universe." He is
concerned only with advancement and money, and cares
nothing of others. "If Sherman McCoy is Master of the
Universe, then the rest of the world are his subjects,
whose only purpose is to witness his great achievements.
When he has his accident, all of his subjects turn against
him, and because he is no longer in the situation of power,
do not treat him with the respect he is used to" (Rafferty
89). This idea of his caring only for himself is so
noticeable because of his relationship with his daughter
Campbell. She is the only one who he feels sorry for when
he gets into trouble. He is not sorry for his wife and his
family, because they are all different people, while
Campbell is like an extension of himself. And before this
he had always cared for her, as evidenced by the
description of the two of them walking to her school bus:
As soon as Campbell saw them, she tried to remove herhand
from Sherman's...but he wouldn't let her. He held her hand
tightly and led her across the street. He was her
protector. He glowered at a taxi as it came to a noisy stop
at the light. He gladly would throw himself in front of it,
if that was what it would take to save Campbell's life.
This description shows how he would risk his million dollar
salary, his fabulous apartment, and his entire life all for
her. He clearly would not do this for anyone else.
The next major group of people satirized in the book are
the poor. Unlike the rich, they take the crisis they face
and they come together, trying to help each other in the
situation. Their main goal in the story is to show to the
world the horrible way that "Fifth Avenue" treats them, and
to try to improve their community by doing so.
Unfortunately, the poor are mistaken about a number of
things. First of all, they feel that the only objective of
the rich is to hurt the poor, and therefore they dislike
and, more importantly to the story, they distrust the rich.
In the McCoy case, any defense brought for McCoy would be
futile. Because the murder was committed in the Bronx, the
trial will be held there and jury will be from the Bronx.
Even if it were to be proven that the murder of the
teenager was in self defense, no jury would believe it,
because none would want to. The poor community feels that
this murder is the perfect example of the way they are
treated in New York society, as less than human beings who
are not worth a second thought.
The poor are also misled by the influence that Reverend
Bacon has over them. Reverend Bacon has the power of the
entire Black community in his hand, for he has convinced
them that he will deliver them from the bondage of the rich
and white. He then takes this power and uses it to scare
politicians, and to do illegal things, such as set up fake
investment companies and steal people's money. The book
gives these examples and also shows how he has stolen from
the Church of which he claims he is a member. Reverend
Bacon feels that he can use the McCoy case to his advantage
by scaring the rich. He will make sure that McCoy is
punished regardless of his innocence because this will
prove to his community that he is powerful enough to bring
down one of their rich white oppressors.
Part of the reason that the Poor, and even most of New
York, were convinced that McCoy was guilty was because of
the actions of the media, which as portrayed in the book
were not always so decent. The satirization of the media
has two elements to it. One is shown when a journalist at a
tabloid newspaper had heard about the case and, because
there was someone he could attack in the story, had written
an article that stated that McCoy had purposely murdered a
Black teenager with his car. And when the rest of the media
picked up the story, they printed the same thing. No one,
until it was too late, even considered the possibility that
the murder had been an accident, which is in fact the
truth. And so, when the case went to court, everyone
thought that any sort of defense would be a lie. Thus, the
media were the ones that handed down the verdict. They
created the popularity of the case by saying that McCoy, a
rich white, did the crime, and to even suggest otherwise
made someone a racist.
Wolfe also satirizes the media's willingness to get a "big
story." He makes fun of the way they act unscrupulously and
would even hurt someone if that is what it took for them to
get their story. The media love to see someone get
hurt-they know the person's life is in danger, but instead
of helping they will just sit there and film (Lynn 76).
This is shown explicitly in the prologue of the book, where
the Mayor is in danger when a riot breaks out around him:
The TV crews in attendance, their cameras coming out of
their heads like horns, are diabolically delighted by the
spectacle, as the mental processes of the mayor begin to
recognize: "They're eating it up! They're here for the
brawl!... They're cowards! Parasites! The lice of public
Despite the accents of self-pity, the mayor is speaking for
Wolfe (Lynn 76). This is exactly the way Wolfe feels about
the media. Examples from the text, such as this one, show
how Wolfe feels the media should be viewed by the reader.
He obviously doesn't like their behavior, and wants to
expose them for what they are (not the nice, smiling people
on the news every night).
What is surprising about this is that Wolfe is in fact a
journalist himself, and has only ventured into a few
novels. So he is commenting on the actions of the media,
not from the view of an outsider, but from someone who saw
first hand what goes on and maybe even participated in such
actions during his career.
The media is represented in this story by Peter Fallow, a
British journalist. Wolfe uses him to parody New York's
British community, portraying them very harshly as
freeloaders. But the British are just one example of this
novel's excessive stereotyping. Wolfe does it to every part
of New York society, from Irish to Jews, all groups and
nationalities are covered. There are those critics who
focus on the characterization of females in the book, such
as Jonathan Alter, who says, "None of the female characters
are shown deeply, nor are any of them shown to be good,
thoughtful, anything other than sex objects for men of
various ages and wealth" (44). The women are even further
divided, and depending on their age are called either
"social x-rays," who are forty year old women who are
quickly losing their husbands' interest, and "lemon tarts,"
who are young blond women only there for their bodies.
The general categorizing of people lets everyone recognize
his own hypocrisy, fear, hatred and greed. Readers see the
way they feel about other groups, feelings they would not
publicly share, being laid out throughout the novel. One
can sympathize with Sherman McCoy when he crosses the
street as a Black teenager approaches, for though it is a
known racist action, most people would probably do the same
in that situation.
Wolfe's categorizing is done in such a manner that it seems
as though he is making a satire of these stereotypes. He
exaggerates them to the point that it becomes plain how
foolish they are. He is taking the perceptions that the
non-New Yorker has of the city, and making fun of them. In
reality, no one who lives in New York thinks of their
neighbors this way, or at least not with such sharp
definition. (Robbins 140-141).
It is, however, these stereotypes which make the book so
real. The situations which Wolfe uses them in are exactly
how they would be in actual New York life, such as the
previous example of McCoy crossing the street. And so this
novel is so popular because of its realism. Although the
story is a bit preposterous, and the stereotypes are
somewhat exaggerated, the detail and accurateness of the
story is amazing. This is shown through the fully detailed
descriptions of places like the Bronx court house, and the
Fifth Avenue apartments. The reason for this is that Tom
Wolfe is a journalist, and although this is a story and not
an article, it is written with the same precision that is
required for journalism. By use of detail, which has become
almost a foreign concept to some modern day writers, Wolfe
has "crashed the novelists' party" (Rafferty 88). And just
as he has exposed every other type of person, he has
exposed the novelist, and shown what writing should be.
Alter, Jonathan. "Two Cheers for Tom Wolfe." The Washington
Monthly March 1988: 42-46.
Lynn, Kenneth S. "The Fire This Time." Commentary February
Rafferty, Terrence. "The Man Who Knew Too Much." The New
Yorker 1 February 1988: 88-92.
Robbins, Lynn A. "Book Review." The Journal of Ethnic
Studies Summer 1989: 139-141.
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