Bonfire of the Vanities: Theme Analysis

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Greed and Excess

In the United States, the 1980s were for some a decade of “money fever.” Wall Street was booming, and the rich became richer than ever before. Those who had it flaunted it. Those who didn’t have it increasingly ran up credit card debt in order to keep up the lifestyle. Wolfe’s novel, which first came out in 1985-86, chronicles this cultural phenomenon. In the New York social world, glimpsed through the parties at the Bavardages’ and the di Duccis’, excess is the watchword. The floral arrangements at the Bavardages’ home look rustic and simple, but cost $3,300. Even middle-class people such as the Kramers go broke just so they can live on the Upper West Side and eat at trendy SoHo bistros.

Sherman McCoy is a creature of his times. A contrast between Sherman and his father clearly shows that the younger man is a part of the “Me” generation of baby boomers. McCoy Senior is from an older, more austere generation, a child of the Depression but his moral lessons on thrift and modesty have not taken root in his son. While the Lion takes the subway to work every day, Sherman blows $10 on a taxi downtown. In 1948, Sherman’s parents bought a fixer-upper house on a run-down block and renovated it themselves, keeping a stern eye on costs; forty years later, Sherman and Judy took out a $1.8 million loan for a splendid Park Avenue apartment, then spent thousands more on decorating it. Absurd but true, Sherman is going broke on $1 million a year.

Hypocrisy

Much of the biting satire in Bonfire of the Vanities is created by the outrageous hypocrisy of the major players, especially Reverend Bacon, D. A. Abe Weiss and his assistant D.A. Larry Kramer, and the journalist Peter Fallow. Bacon presents himself as a crusader for social justice and spouts rhetoric against the “Establishment,” but he’s really a hustler and opportunist who extorts money by playing on white guilt. A case in point of his hypocrisy is when Bacon accepts $330,000 from the Episcopal Diocese to build a daycare center, and then invests it in the bond market instead. Bacon cares not at all about Henry Lamb and his poor mother; he only cares about the millions of dollars he’ll get when the Lambs win their civil cases in court.

Weiss goes on a quest for the Great White Defendant to save his career, then spouts sanctimoniously that “justice is really blind.” Larry Kramer, working for Weiss, is the consummate hypocrite. He passionately holds forth in court not because he truly believes in his case, but to impress an attractive girl in the jury. When he becomes involved in the McCoy case, he becomes even more egregious, waving a petition in the judge’s face at the arraignment, carefully manipulating his witnesses’ performances at McCoy’s grand jury hearing, and whipping up a mob scene in the courtroom at Sherman’s bail hearing.

Peter Fallow, a journalist with no journalistic integrity whatsoever, creates an honor student of humble Henry Lamb and prints many other lies and distortions about the McCoy case.

White Male Vanity

From the beginning of the novel, we are presented with white male characters with ridiculously big egos. The Mayor of New York, Sherman McCoy, and Larry Kramer are all three tragicomic antiheroes puffed up with pride and headed for a fall. The Mayor, on confronting the mob in Harlem, can scarcely believe he is being heckled: “He’s the mayor of the greatest city on earth—New York! Him!” Sherman, with his aristocratic chin and his vanity swelling up along with his fat commission checks, thinks of himself as a “Master of the Universe.” And Kramer becomes almost a caricature as he self-consciously flexes his neck muscles in order to look tough on the subway: “An ox, a stud like him . . . he’d be the last person in the world they’d choose to tangle with.”

Wolfe shows how ridiculous their pride is by putting the men in situations that make them look ridiculous: the Mayor of New York is hit with a mayonnaise jar, the Master of the Universe can’t even master his little dog, and the tough young prosecutor runs in fear when he’s heckled by a group of prisoners in a van.

Animalistic Nature of Humans

A major theme of the novel is the basic animalistic nature of humans. Beneath the fragile and artificial shell of their social identities, people are governed by their baser instincts, principally lust, envy, and greed. “We’re a couple of good-looking animals, aren’t we?” Sherman and a sexy woman on the street seem to say to each other with their admiring glances. Kramer thinks of the tough Irish and Italian cops and prosecutors as animals, but also envies them; they have to be animals to do their job well. D.A. Weiss, greedy for fame and power, is described as an “animal” who whores himself for the press. Socialites are bees or wasps (Wasps—White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), and journalists, though they fancy themselves bloodthirsty tigers, are really parasitical “fruit flies” who swarm when they get the smell of food. The boy at the center of the story, Henry Lamb, is a sacrificial lamb to the dangerous world he lives in. And then there are the fish who allow themselves to be hooked by their own greed or stupidity. As Sherman learns at the end of this morality tale, it all adds up to a dog-eat-dog world, where, when it comes down to survival, “everybody’s an animal—the police, the judges, the criminals, everybody.

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