1. What is the significance of the title The Bonfire of the Vanities? Explain the origins of the title and how it relates to the main themes of Wolfe’s novel.
The title of Wolfe’s novel is an allusion to the bonfires held in the Florence of the 1490s by Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, in which “vanities”—vain, unholy objects of luxury such as mirrors, makeup, fine clothing, playing cards, and even paintings and certain books—were publicly burned in the name of morality and decency. The reference to Savonarola indicates that this is going to be something of a mock-morality tale, exposing the sins of modern-day New York.
The title also recalls the classic satirical novel Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Just as Vanity Fair, published in 1847–1848, skewered English society of the early nineteenth century, The Bonfire of the Vanities targets urban America in the 1980s. The 1980s are known to many as a time of greed and excess. Wall Street was enjoying a tremendous boom, and young people like Sherman McCoy were making millions overnight. “Make it now!” was the motto; or, as Gordon Gecko put it in Oliver Stone’s decade-defining film Wall Street (1987), “Greed is good.” The stock market would take a giant nosedive on October 19, 1987, a day called “Black Monday,” but nobody knew that yet.
Sherman McCoy, then, is the (anti)hero of the mock-morality play. At the beginning of the novel, he’s on top of the world. He’s got it all—money, status, an aristocratic pedigree, the perfect family, and the sexy mistress on the side. But then he makes a wrong turn in the Bronx and suddenly he’s landed himself in the jungle with no way out. He’s caught in the middle of a jungle fight between two forces, both of which stand to gain from his destruction at the hands of the justice system and the press. One by one his vanities are burned away, until he realizes,
The phrase “bonfire of the vanities,” then, relates to the book’s theme of the folly of pride in the vain things in life. All one’s material wealth, status, and public image—everything that makes up a person’s unique identity—are all merely vanities that can be destroyed overnight, so it is foolish to be proud. This is a main theme of the novel.
But in a larger sense, of course, the novel itself is a bonfire that burns—through the medium of satire—all the vanities Wolfe finds in the New York City of the 1980s.
2. What follies and vices of contemporary urban America does Tom Wolfe satirize in The Bonfire of the Vanities?
The New York City of The Bonfire of the Vanities is seething with hustlers, snobs, adulterers, bigots, sponges, and hypocrites of all kinds. Abe Weiss’s term for the Bronx, “the Laboratory of Human Relations” seems to fit the entire city—and the result of the experiment is to bring out the worst of human nature. The main targets of Wolfe’s acid pen are the news media, the criminal justice system, political leaders, and the rich.
Cynical populist leaders who sway public opinion for their own gain are satirized through the character of Reverend Bacon. Bacon presents himself as a crusader against racism, but he actually stirs it up all the more in an effort to gain more political power. The more racism there is, the more power he has. Bacon is probably based on the Reverend Al Sharpton or the Reverend Jesse Jackson, controversial spokesmen for African-American issues.
The news media are satirized through the character of Peter Fallow, reporter for the sensationalist tabloid The City Light. The name of the newspaper is ironic, as the tabloid does the opposite of enlighten its readers. Its publisher, Sir Gerald Steiner, admires those who “plunge their hands into the dirt,” and encourages dirty, misleading techniques that create more sensational stories. Fallow distorts the truth in the McCoy case by making Henry Lamb into an honor student and using inflammatory language that made the case into a racial issue, when it truthfully was not.
The follies and sins of the criminal justice system are that the system is easily corrupted by political interests. This fact is illustrated in the characters of Abe Weiss and Larry Kramer. Both men are vain and power-hungry, and are willing to compromise justice in order to keep in the public eye. When the McCoy case becomes political, both Weiss and Kramer are eager to play to the mobs and convict the rich white man.
The wealthy of New York are satirized for their snobbery, superficiality, greed, and excess. The McCoys, the Bavardages, and the di Duccis, along with all their socialite friends and Wall Street cronies, are indicted in these charges. Wolfe ruthlessly skewers them in his descriptions of the society parties and in the darkly humorous scene at the trendy bistro La Boue d’Argent, when diners ignore the body of Arthur Ruskin on the floor and the restaurant prepares for the next important guest.
3. Although there are no real heroes in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy and Larry Kramer may be thought of as the protagonist and antagonist of the tale. How are the two men similar and different, and why do they become enemies?
Sherman McCoy and Larry Kramer are both New Yorkers, both about the same age, and both Ivy-educated. Both are married with one child, but are somewhat dissatisfied with family life, feeling they deserve more freedom. Vain, selfish, childish, and obsessed with sex, money, and status, they are good examples of what Wolfe dubbed the “Me” generation. Taught to love themselves, they go a little too far and think they should indulge every whim. They want more, more, more, and it’s never enough to satisfy their sense of entitlement.
The major difference between Sherman and Kramer is that Sherman really has it all, and Kramer wants it. Sherman has a palatial apartment, but Kramer lives in a tiny “ant farm.” Sherman can make $50,000 in one day; Kramer and his wife combined can’t net that in a year. Sherman has a gorgeous mistress; Kramer has a fantasy. Sherman is arrogant and haughty about his Wasp heritage; Kramer has low self-esteem and is conflicted about his identity as a Jew.
Sherman and Kramer are foils for one another, and it’s significant that as Sherman goes down, Kramer’s fortunes are on the rise. Sherman’s wife finds out about his mistress, who then disappears to Italy just as Kramer begins an affair with Shelly Thomas, the Girl with the Brown Lipstick. As Sherman begins making blunders at work and is threatened with being let go, Kramer is ingratiating himself to the boss and gaining recognition.
The two become enemies when Kramer is chosen to help investigate the Lamb case and is chosen as prosecutor. Like all the attorneys at the D.A.’s office, Kramer is in search of the Great White Defendant who can alleviate their white guilt and bring them fame. Sherman is the perfect Great White Defendant—he’s a Wall Street honcho and Park Avenue aristocrat rolled all in one. Personally, Kramer has nothing against Sherman; in fact, he barely gives the man a thought. But this is a jungle fight, and it’s every man for himself.
4. Discuss the role of Judge Kovitsky in The Bonfire of the Vanities. How might he be considered a hero of the book? Why is he defeated?
The Bonfire of the Vanities depicts a severely flawed criminal justice system. On a daily basis, vans ferry in the mostly black and Latino prisoners that feed the system. There’s a constant backlog of cases, the vast majority of which never go to trial because the judge has no time. In this dismal atmosphere, Kovitsky appears to be the only character with both moral fiber and backbone. He’s a true warrior for justice and a hero of the book.
We first see Judge Kovitsky on the street out front of the courts building in the Bronx. A van full of prisoners is taunting the young lawyer, Kramer, and they begin to taunt Kovitsky as well. Among the words they use is “Hymie,” an anti-Semitic term, which greatly disturbs Kovitsky. Other insults may bounce off his back, but this is truly venomous. Kramer shrinks back, embarrassed to be taunted publicly and afraid of a confrontation, but Kovitsky approaches the van, stares the men down, and then spits in their faces. This incident shows that Kovitsky is a stronger man than Kramer. He has backbone and cannot be intimidated by any threat—even by the most dangerous criminals who enter his courtroom.
The incident outside the courts building mirrors and foreshadows one that occurs later in the book. The McCoy case has become a political one, thanks to the machinations of the Harlem rabble-rouser, Reverend Bacon, and the sleazy reporter Peter Fallow. Kramer is the prosecutor assigned to this highly publicized case, and the television cameras are going to his head. He’s started playing to the mob, wanting to look like a hero before the community. Kovitsky stands up to Kramer, not permitting him to grandstand in his courtroom. Before the mobs of spectators, who are there screaming for McCoy’s blood, he tells the court that the indictment has been thrown out.
This is a courageous action, and the only just move to make. Unfortunately, Kovitzsky’s one fatal flaw is arrogance. He thinks since it’s his courtroom, the people had better listen. He also thinks that since he’s the judge, he owes the people no explanation. Of course, with no explanation, the mob explodes in abuse and even attempts at physical violence. Kovitsky attempts to go out to confront the mob and explain, but it’s too late. There is nothing one man can do. Kovitsky loses in the next election, another victim of mob justice.
5. Discuss the main female characters in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Judy McCoy and Maria Ruskin. Are they sympathetic or unsympathetic characters? Should the reader ultimately interpret Maria as a wronged woman or a femme fatale?
Judy McCoy and Maria Ruskin are the two main female characters in the tale. They could be said to represent types—the aging socialite wife and the sexy young mistress—with few nuances to give them depth. The women remain relatively minor since Wolfe never allows readers to get inside their heads and hear what they are thinking.
In keeping with the way most of the characters in the book are drawn, Judy and Maria are not particularly sympathetic characters. Judy is shown as the stereotypical socialite wife, or “social X-ray,” who exercises so much you can see all her bones (“One can never be too rich or too thin,” as the saying goes). She spends all their money on decorating touches for their luxury apartment, and tries to fit in with the superficial Park Avenue crowd. At the Bavardages’, Judy is shown laughing a fake laugh along with all the rest. When Sherman fails to mingle, Judy thinks he’s a “dud” and worries that he’ll spoil her chances of being chairman at a museum benefit. Judy’s comments about Sherman’s job, although quite apt, are also calculated to hurt him. Of course, her coldness after Sherman’s infidelity is understandable, but it also makes her seem unlikable.
Maria Ruskin is equally unsympathetic. She’s the stereotypical Southern belle with the honeyed voice and down-home southern wisdom. Although her hair is brunette, she fits Sherman’s description of a “Lemon Tart,” a sexy young trophy wife. She’s not well educated, and has poor taste in art: Sherman thinks her painting by Chirazzi is “garbage” even if the artist was featured in the Times. She evidently doesn’t love her husband, whom she married for money, and she flirts with every man she meets. Maria can be classified as a femme fatale, a savvy wild animal in a dog-eat-dog world. In the end of the story, she’s willing to commit perjury to save her skin and let Sherman take all the blame for driving the car. Of course, she might not have done so if she hadn’t caught Sherman wearing a wire, but the fact that she fled to Italy when he told her about the police shows that she was never really concerned with Sherman, but with protecting herself.
Wolfe has been criticized for his poorly drawn female characters, but it’s also true that all of the players—male and female—in The Bonfire of the Vanities are more or less caricatures of certain “types.” This is appropriate to the fact the novel is in some ways a morality play, an allegory of modern life.
Bonfire of the Vanities: Essay Q&A