Bonfire of the Vanities

In Tom Wolfe’s depiction of 1980s New York there are no moral values. All his characters are driven by the imperatives of greed and desire. How far do you agree? By Edward Worboys The novel is a satirical novel based in 1980s New York. It highlights the problems of the era by using exaggerated characters and events, which are often blackly comical. Before passing judgement on Tom Wolfe’s multitude of characters, it is necessary to realise the economic situation in New York at the time the Bonfire of the Vanities is set, which was the 1980s. It happened to be a very prosperous period for America, and indeed most of the developed world. However, poverty in the Bronx is described very vividly by Wolfe, which contrasts heavily with the luxurious, opulent lives that those in Manhattan experience. We must be careful not to confuse prosperity with greed.

Sherman McCoy is immediately comes across as greedy, self-obsessed and unfaithful so our first impression of him is negative to say the least. He coins himself “Master of the Universe” and refers to himself in the third person, which is a sign of someone who thinks a lot of himself. He is a hugely wealthy bond trader who lives on Park Avenue with his wife Judy and daughter Campbell. He is portrayed as being self-centred from the start and a few pages into the book we find he is cheating on his wife. Here we have one of the novel’s many immoral characters, and Sherman is not nearly the worst. Although Sherman has been cheating on his wife, he does feel guilt, showing he is not completely amoral. One may argue, however, that he would not have felt guilt if he had not been caught. “He was of that breed whose natural destiny was…to have what they wanted!” This phrase sums up Sherman. He feels he deserves what ever he wants.

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Tom Wolfe satirises many aspects of New York life including the media, the judicial system, the legal system, the church and the political system. Each ‘category’ has its own figurehead that stands for just about everything that is wrong about it. For instance the figurehead for the media is Peter Fallow, a British alcoholic Journalist who works for the “City Light”, the tabloid of New York. He will say or do anything to get a good story and up his reputation and therefore increase the size of his wallet.

The whole city falls under the spell of Wolfe’s vivid description. “…girls…boys…girls with girls…boys with boys…girls with boys…girls with bare breasts, girls with bare bottoms…girls with paraphernalia…a happy grinning riot of pornography, a rout, an orgy, a hog wallow…” The short sharp sentences reflect Sherman’s thoughts as his eyes pass over a magazine rack in a candy store. The juxtaposition of “pornography” and “candy store” emphasise the lack of morality within the city. Something that is connected to youth and innocence contains images of women with snakes. “Technically, he had been unfaithful to his wife. Well sure…but who could remain monogamous with this, this tidal wave of concupiscence rolling across the world.” This is one of the few moments where a character relates their behaviour with their surroundings, although it seems to me to be an important factor.

There is a great deal of tension within the city, most notably racial tension. The Rev. Bacon describes the political pleasing of his people as “steam control”. This is a very clever metaphor to describe the situation. The cocktail of different cultural groups is probably to blame for this. Although the two main groups in the novel are the black and the whites, the Puerto-Ricans, Irish, Italians and Jews are also mentioned. The problem is that the overall picture seems to be that the blacks are poor and the whites are rich, creating a serious division which in turn creates tension. This is brilliantly depicted by Wolfe who describes both the affluent Manhattan and the poverty stricken Bronx completely differently to amplify the tension in the readers mind.

Abe Weiss is the unscrupulous District Attorney who is prepared to ruin a man’s life to get re-elected because of his aspirations to become mayor of New York. He stands for the corrupt political system, and is in search of the “Great White Defendant”. The Reverend Bacon is a very unscrupulous character. He is publicised leader of the Black people and takes on the Henry Lamb case. At first he seems morally sound until we find out that money that has been entrusted to him to build a day-care centre has, ironically, been invested with Pierce and Pierce. We soon find out that Bacon is just exploiting people to further his own causes.

Killian and Kramer represent the legal system in the novel. Killian reveals the corruption in the industry in the chapter “The Favour Bank”. “Well, everything in this building, everything in the criminal justice system in New York – New Yawk – ‘operates on favours. Everyone does favours for everybody else.” Kramer is the unprincipled lawyer for the prosecuting and is also cheating on his wife.

Bonfire of the Vanities has the perfect structure for this kind of satirical novel. Sherman is introduced as the main character and throughout the novel, new characters are brought in to story. These individuals are all completely different and incomparable (apart from their lack of morals) but Wolfe somehow manages to bring them together for the climax of the novel. In the case of the satire of the book, Sherman is simply an object to hang the other characters off. Wolfe knew what he wanted to satirise and created relevant characters and used McCoy to bring them together. This is similar to some of the novels by Charles Dickens. Dickens, for example, used Oliver Twist as a mechanism to introduce various unscrupulous characters such as Fagin and Bill Sykes as well as some well-meaning characters like Nancy.

Wolfe’s story is not all about unprincipled, unethical individuals. There are a few characters who seem to be ‘good’ as such. The two that I observed were Campbell McCoy and Judge Kovitsky. Campbell has a natural childish innocence and at her age, can do very little wrong. I think she was only included in the novel as a device to create and take away sympathy for McCoy. Kovitsky exercises good judgement in the actual court case and does not let the overwhelming media coverage for the incident affect him.

Wolfe’s book is, in essence, about the desire for wealth and power in New York at the time so naturally many of the characters include this love for money and material things. We have to remember, however, that it is a satire and this kind of literature is most effectively written by exaggerating character flaws (in this case greed and desire) to depict the author’s view and enhance the readability. It also makes clear in the readers mind what the novel is trying to get across about the weaknesses of modern society.