Study Guide

The Bonfire of the Vanities

by Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities Characters

The Characters (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Characterization is Wolfe’s Achilles’ heel, and his weakness in this aspect of fiction writing might explain why he had never tried to write a novel before. He has been criticized for creating characters who are stereotypes or caricatures. Throughout his career, Wolfe has been known as a social satirist, and this venture into fiction writing did not represent a radical change in technique. His previous writings, which were all important contributions to the school of the “New Journalism,” focused on human foibles. In this novel, he was more anxious to point out the foibles of social classes than to attempt to invent three-dimensional characters.

Sherman represents the upwardly mobile, well-educated upper-middle-class capitalists who bring billions of dollars flowing into New York City and thereby attract hordes of “have-nots.” His wife represents all the spoiled, selfish women who are married to the Sherman McCoys. Judy is sexually frustrated because her husband has turned his affections to a younger woman, and she consequently expends her energies on extravagant purchases that keep them chronically in debt.

Maria Ruskin has been criticized for being nothing more than a stereotypical “dumb blonde.” She has been given a thick Southern accent to make her stand out as a character. She is just as selfish, spoiled, and bitchy as Sherman’s wife, but she is quite a few years younger.

Peter Fallow is lazy and incompetent,...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

The Bonfire of the Vanities Characters Discussed (Great Characters in Literature)

Sherman McCoy

Sherman McCoy, a thirty-eight-year-old Wall Street investment banker who earns a million dollars a year trading in bonds. At the peak of his career, he considers himself a “Master of the Universe.” Sherman, for all his faults, is one of the entrepreneurs who bring billions of dollars into New York City to feed, clothe, and house its inhabitants. He is married and has a young daughter but maintains an adulterous relationship with a sexy Southern belle. Their affair leads to disaster when they are attacked by two teenage African Americans after they make a wrong turn off the expressway. One of the predators is seriously injured by Sherman’s Mercedes while Sherman’s panicked mistress is behind the wheel. The media quickly present the incident as if a wealthy white person callously left an innocent black youth to die on the pavement after running him down in his luxury car. This presentation pressures the police into making a major investigation. When Sherman is identified, he is thrown into jail with hardened criminals. He loses his job and his large income because his company is afraid of adverse publicity. He is stripped of his assets while defending himself in a first trial that is thrown out of court and a second trial that ends with a hung jury. The experience toughens him. He has always been protected by money and social status but becomes an impoverished, radical urban guerrilla fighting the justice system and the ignorant masses who are deluded by a black demagogue and the venal press. At the conclusion of the novel, the injured black teenager has died of his injuries and Sherman faces a possible sentence of up to twenty-five years if convicted of manslaughter in his third trial.

Judy McCoy

Judy McCoy, Sherman’s fading wife, who knows he is having an affair and does not care. She fancies herself an artist and interior decorator and manages to keep Sherman broke by spending all of his income on...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

The Bonfire of the Vanities Characters

The Bonfire of the Vanities traces the descent of Sherman McCoy from the heights of financial success on Wall Street and Park Avenue...

(The entire section is 461 words.)