The Bonfire of the Vanities Themes

  • In Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe explores how the themes of race and social status relate to each other. Sherman McCoy, a rich white man who earns a million dollars a year, enjoys all the privileges of his class, whereas Harold Lamb, a poor black youth from the Bronx, is the victim of a hit-and-run for which he never sees justice.
  • Greed and hypocrisy are also important themes in the novel and frequently intersect. Perhaps the best example of this is Reverend Reginald Bacon, a self-proclaimed leader of the African American community who accepts bribes from whites for keeping the black population complacent. He exploits Sherman's case for personal gain.
  • Each character in the novel seems to have their own idea of what constitutes justice. Peter Fallow, the reporter who breaks the case, cares less about justice than selling tabloids. Maria is comfortable letting Sherman take the fall for her, and Sherman himself feels persecuted by the press.

Social Concerns / Themes

The Bonfire of the Vanities deals with what Wolfe calls the "big, rich slices of contemporary life" that he believes modern authors...

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The Bonfire of the Vanities Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)