Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Tom Wolfe received a Ph.D. from elite Yale University in American Studies, demonstrating his erudition as well as his focus of interest. The ideas that form the foundation of his novel can be traced to many sources.
In his 1989 essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel,” Wolfe stated that his “immediate model was Thackeray’s Vanity Fair” (1847-1848). William Thackeray’s novel is a satirical portrait of the greedy, selfish, unscrupulous inhabitants of nineteenth century London. In the essay, Wolfe observed that his main objective was to paint a comparable picture of modern New York City, in all of its grandeur and squalor and with all of its ethnic diversity:New York and practically every other large city in the United States are undergoing a profound change. The fourth great wave of immigrants—this one from Asia, North Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean—is now pouring in. Within ten years political power in most major American cities will have passed to the nonwhite majorities.
Wolfe’s novel is essentially a story about how the white power structure is losing out to this new, nonwhite social force. Whites are losing the privileged position they have always taken for granted and will have to learn, like Sherman McCoy, to compete vigorously for their share of the good life that America has to offer.
Wolfe, like Thackeray, professes to be amused by the...
(The entire section is 461 words.)
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The Bonfire of the Vanities deals with what Wolfe calls the "big, rich slices of contemporary life" that he believes modern authors have too long neglected or completely ignored. These are the details of life in a metropolis — race relations, the mass media, the law, and the class structure — handled in a highly realistic manner.
Sherman McCoy, a prodigiously successful bond trader at a prestigious Wall Street firm, is involved in a car accident in which his mistress, Maria Ruskin, fatally injures a young man, Henry Lamb, in the South Bronx. Seen by some as "the Great White Defendant," Sherman is arrested and arraigned, humiliated by and paraded before the press in a spectacle motivated by the political ambitions of various powerful individuals. Disgraced and ostracized, Sherman quickly loses his wealth, wife, job, home, mistress, friends, all sense of privilege and security, and possibly even his family.
Essential to the telling of these events is the fact that Sherman is a member of the wealthy elite and that Henry Lamb is a poor, black man. Both live in the most powerful, fascinating city of the late twentieth century, but whereas Henry Lamb lives in a public housing project in one of the worst neighborhoods, Sherman has a charmed existence in the most glamorous, expensive, and insulated quarter of the city.
The social worlds within New York are as highly stratified as they are diverse. Wolfe's meticulous attention to...
(The entire section is 712 words.)