Bonfire of the Vanities: Metaphor Analysis

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“The Hive”

New York’s high society is described as a “hive.” As Sherman McCoy enters the party at the Bavardages’, he enters “the hive!—the hive!—the hive!—the sonic waves of the hive made his very innards vibrate. Faces full of grinning, glistening, boiling teeth!” The image of socialites as bees reflects their endless, meaningless buzzing and the fact that, in any particular situation, they can either make honey or they can sting. In fact, considering that most of these socialites are Wasps (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), they are more likely to sting.

The Great White Defendant

Sherman McCoy is referred to as the Great White Defendant, with Bronx D.A. Abe Weiss as the “Ahab” who seeks him. These are, of course, allusions to Herman Melville’s famous book Moby-Dick, in which a sea captain becomes obsessed with killing a great white whale. The reasons Weiss and the other lawyers in his office are obsessed with the “Great White” are twofold. On the one hand, they need to feel good about their jobs; they don’t like the feeling that they are continually processing oppressed minorities through the machine of justice. They want to feel noble, they want to feel that there is some higher cause or greater good. The second reason for the quest is to gain political power. Weiss knows that prosecuting a white defendant will make him look fair and evenhanded to his mostly black and Latino constituency. 

Accents and Class

Wolfe, who has a keen ear for voices, uses accents and speech patterns in the dialogue throughout the book to help highlight the issue of class relations. Maria has a Southern accent that first charms, then irritates the Wasp Sherman. Rhoda Kramer has the accent of a New York Jew, which embarrasses her husband, who thinks it sounds low-class. Sherman says “Howja do” while Tommy says “Hehwaya.” Fallow flinches when he hears the vulgar Jewish accent of a senator who speaks at Ruskin’s funeral; Kramer is irritated by the nasal honk Wasp voice of Maria’s lawyer, Tucker Trigg. Accents and linguistic speech patterns are social markers that can be put on for show as well; for instance, “He don’t” and “she don’t” are commonly used among the Ivy league-educated attorneys at the D.A.’s office as a part of macho posturing.

Dickensian Names

Victorian novelist Charles Dickens is famous for whimsical names such as Honeythunder, Skimpole, and Murdstone that express his colorful characters’ personalities. Tom Wolfe, a fan of Dickens, plays with names in a Dickensian fashion. Henry Lamb is clearly the sacrificial lamb on the bonfire of the story; Reverend Bacon’s name refers to the political “pork-barrel” money he extorts from rich whites; and Peter Fallow is as “fallow” as an unsown field until a seed of a story is planted in him by Al Vogel. The novelist Nunnally Voyd (none, void) obviously has nothing of importance to say (the journalist Wolfe’s jab at certain postmodern novelists). Even the name “Sherman McCoy” is a possible pun on “Sure Man” and “The Real McCoy.” At the beginning of the novel, Sherman is sure of his place in the world; but by the end, he asking himself who “the real McCoy” really is.

The name of law firm Dunning Sponget & Leach indicates that the lawyers there dun (persistently bother for payment), sponge off, and leech money from their clients; while Curry, Goad & Pesterall curry favor, goad, and pester for a living. Dershkin, Bellavita, Fishbein & Schlossel evokes that distasteful fishy smell of slick criminal lawyers that wrinkles the noses of snobby Wasps at Dunning Sponget. Many other whimsical names in the book, such as Tucker Trigg, Rachel Lampwick, and Caroline Heftshank (does she heft a pair of sexy legs?) also have the ring of Dickens to them, if no particular significance.

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