The Bonfire of the Vanities Analysis

Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities Analysis

  • Wolfe wanted to write about the changing social landscape he saw in New York City in the 1980s. He believed that the increase in the immigrant population was causing a shift of political power away from privileged white men. Historically speaking, this hasn't borne out to be true, but the issue is still hotly debated.
  • Prior to writing The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe was best known for his work as a satirist. He championed what he called the "New Journalism," which used literary devices from fiction to write about real life. His background in journalism is evident in his prose, which lacks nuanced character development.
  • Wolfe paid special attention to the mannerisms, fashions, styles, possessions, and interests of the rich and well-heeled. His settings are described in minute detail, with much symbolism attached to specific pieces of high-end furniture and clothing. This emphasis on materialism underscores the often vapid interests of the upper class. 

Analysis

In 1972, Tom Wolfe was hailing a movement that “would wipe out the novel as literature’s main event.” What he championed as “the New Journalism” was an attempt to deploy the stylistic resources of fiction in the service of recording actualities. Wolfe later collected works of such writers as Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson into an influential anthology called The New Journalism (1973). As much as anyone else, Wolfe himself, in such tours de force of observation and articulation as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), and The Right Stuff (1979), was demonstrating that nonfiction can be as artful as fiction, and even more urgent.

The New Journalism did not, however, quite wipe out the novel as literature’s main event. Evidence of that appears in the form of The Bonfire of the Vanities, a richly textured, exuberant tale of New York that is the first novel that Tom Wolfe has published. A foolish consistency need not hobble major authors. In one big book, Wolfe establishes himself as the leading candidate for the title of the Balzac of contemporary America.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is the story of Sherman McCoy, a thirty-eight-year-old blue-blooded prince of Park Avenue who can barely afford his $2.6 million apartment and his $1,800 British suits on his $980,000 income as the top bond trader at Pierce & Pierce, a Wall Street investment bank. McCoy must also post bond when he is arrested for reckless endangerment. Lost in the South Bronx, he and someone else’s randy wife, Maria Ruskin, flee the scene when his Mercedes hits a black youth. The resulting scandal is urban theater whose dramatis personae include a freeloading alcoholic writer for a sleazy local tabloid, a cynical black demagogue, an anxious, love-starved prosecutor, and a supporting cast of hundreds. Sherman McCoy’s life becomes the stage for every raw conflicting ambition in a turbulent city where opportunity knocks—often ruthlessly.

Canny Abe Weiss, eager to be reelected district attorney from a borough that is now 70 percent black and Latino, refers to the Bronx as “the Laboratory of Human Relations.” The New York City that Wolfe depicts might pride itself on being a melting pot, but the contents are an immiscible stew of rival classes and ethnic groups. A social satirist and student of the woeful human comedy, Wolfe brings a keen ear to the motley accents of a contemporary metropolis. He is attentive to the speech patterns, clothing, diet, habits, and obsessions of the disparate denizens of what McCoy considers “the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening.

McCoy is intent on rearing his six-year-old daughter Campbell within the shelter of “the Best School, the Best Girls, the Best Families, the Best Section of the capital of the Western world in the late twentieth century.” Yet Wolfe provides a convincing portrait not only of life at the top, but of existence at the bottom and in the middle of the social hierarchy as well. In recounting the fatuous fall of Sherman McCoy, The Bonfire of the Vanities is an exuberant and poignant examination of the fragility of fortune. It mocks the temptation to define identity by the very social coordinates that this novel is so adept at rendering. “Your self,” says McCoy to his street-smart Irish criminal lawyer, Thomas...

(The entire section is 1475 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

Wolfe tells his story in the same style that characterizes his new journalism. Just as he appropriated fictional techniques for nonfiction,...

(The entire section is 146 words.)

Related Titles

The Bonfire of the Vanities was originally serialized in Rolling Stone magazine in 1984-1985, but the final novel varies...

(The entire section is 160 words.)

Adaptations

The Bonfire of the Vanities was adapted for a film, released in the winter of 1990, directed by Brian DePalma, best known for his...

(The entire section is 252 words.)

Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Black, George. “The Far-Right Stuff.” The New Statesman 115 (February 12, 1988): 31. An extremely negative review of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Black accuses Wolfe of distorting the truth about the underprivileged residents of the Bronx. He calls the book “a set piece for cartoon characters.”

Shomette, Doug, ed. The Critical Response to Tom Wolfe. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. A collection of essays, both positive and negative, on books published by Wolfe up to 1990. This excellent reference source contains incisive essays on The Bonfire of the Vanities. Also contains a chronology of important events in Wolfe’s life and a generous bibliography.

Thompson, James. “The Phoenix and the Bonfire’: The Death and Transformation of Sherman McCoy.” World and I 8 (January, 1993): 526-539. Thompson explores the relationship between religion and morality in the life of Sherman McCoy. Although Thompson is careful to point out that Sherman’s experiences should not be viewed as a mirror of Wolfe’s, he does draw parallels between Sherman’s Anglican affiliation and Wolfe’s childhood exposure to the Episcopal Church.

Vigilante, Richard. “The Truth About Tom Wolfe.” The National Review 39 (December 18, 1987): 46-48. An enthusiastic review of The Bonfire of the Vanities reflecting ultraconservative views. Vigilante calls Wolfe the most important writer of his generation. He predicts that because of Wolfe’s example, the “social-realist novel will soon re-emerge as an accepted and perhaps dominant force on the serious fiction scene.”

Wolfe, Tom. “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel.” Harper’s Magazine 279 (November, 1989): 45-56. In this landmark essay written shortly after publication of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe proposes that American writers return to the tradition of realism. He describes the characteristics of realism and criticizes contemporary fiction writers for neglecting the panorama of modern life in favor of cryptic subjectivism and frivolous experimentalism. As he gleefully anticipated, his essay provoked a storm of controversy.