Bonfire of the Vanities: Top Ten Quotes
1. “Cattle! Birdbrains! Rosebuds! Goyim! You don’t even know, do you? Do you really think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours?
These are the thoughts of the Mayor of New York as he is heckled by an angry mob at a town meeting in Harlem. He warns white New Yorkers, smug in their money, power, and status, that they are about to lose control as minorities and immigrants take over urban America. His words foreshadow Sherman McCoy’s downfall.
2. “There it was, the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century, the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening—and he was among the victors! He lived on Park Avenue, the street of dreams! He worked on Wall Street, fifty floors up, for the legendary Pierce & Pierce, overlooking the world! He was at the wheel of a $48,000 roadster with one of the most beautiful women in New York—no Comp. Lit. scholar, perhaps, but gorgeous—beside him! A frisky young animal! He was of that breed whose natural destiny it was…to have what they wanted!
This quote expresses Sherman McCoy’s vanity at the beginning of the novel, just before he makes a wrong turn into the Bronx. Raking in the money on Wall Street, Sherman McCoy is on top of the world. He has it all—the Wall Street job, the apartment on Park Avenue, the luxury car, the sexy mistress. In fact, he thinks of himself as a “Master of the Universe.” Sherman’s gloating is classic hubris, the fatal flaw that brings down the mighty. Readers know he’s got nowhere to go but down.
3. “Nobody from the District Attorney’s Office went out into the park on a sunny day in May to have lunch, not even somebody who could bench-press two hundred pounds, the way he could. Not even a court officer, who had a uniform and legally carried a .38, ever did such a thing. They stayed inside the building, this island fortress of the Power, of the white people, like himself, this Gibraltar in the poor sad Sargasso Sea of the Bronx.
In this passage, the decaying, crime-ridden heart of the Bronx is described, creating a sharp contrast with the description of Park Avenue in Chapter 1. This is the dark side of the “greatest city”—the part rich people like Sherman McCoy attempt to insulate themselves from. The white power structure, too, is forced to insulate itself from threats in the world outside. This is the sign of an unhealthy society; it’s a situation that cannot stand. Sooner or later, the threat from outside is going to break right on in.
4. “If you people were worried about the children, you would build the day-care center yourself . . . No, my friend, you’re investing in something else. You’re investing in steam control. And you’re getting value for money. Value for money.
These are the words of the cynical hustler and media manipulator Reverend Bacon when Ed Fiske asks him to account for $350,000 the diocese gave him for a new day-care center. Bacon notes that the money’s not really for a day-care center and never was: the diocese really just wanted to buy themselves favor within the black community. Now, he tells Fiske, they’re getting value for their money. Bacon has the power in Harlem. He controls the public opinion (the steam), and he can direct it any way he wants. Fiske should consider the $350,000 a payoff in advance. When Harlem explodes, he and the diocese will be safe from the “righteous steam.”
5. “You’re thinking about ‘honor students’ and ‘higher achievers’ and all that […]. But at Colonel Jacob Ruppert High School, an honor student is somebody who attends class, isn’t disruptive, tries to learn, and does all right at reading and arithmetic.’
This illustrates how easy it is for the press to distort a story to fit the desired angle. Peter Fallow is out to write a story on Henry Lamb that will create maximum sympathy for Lamb in the hearts and minds of the public. Sainting the young boy will benefit Reverend Bacon and Al Vogel, who stand to gain from the civil suits they will file in Lamb’s name. And of course it also benefits Fallow, who will get credit as a star reporter and crusader for justice. In the article that is later published about Lamb, Fallow calls him an “honor student”—even though, from the context of the conversation, that’s clearly not what his teacher meant.
6. “Just imagine that a bond is a slice of cake, and you didn’t bake the cake, but every time you had somebody a slice of the cake a tiny little bit comes off, like a little crumb, and you can keep that. […] If you pass around enough slices of cake, then pretty soon you have enough crumbs to make a gigantic cake.
This is the way Judy describes Sherman’s job as bond salesman to their daughter, Campbell. The quotation reveals the essential meaninglessness to society of Sherman’s job and the jobs of all the traders on Wall Street. They really create nothing of their own and contribute nothing; they just collect the commissions off the bonds they sell, like crumbs that fall off each slice of golden cake.
7. “The Sherman McCoy of the McCoy family and Yale and Park Avenue and Wall Street is dead. Your self—I don’t know how to explain it, but if, God forbid, anything like this ever happens to you, you’ll know what I mean. Your self…is other people, all the people you’re tied to, and it’s only a thread.
This illustrates the importance of how society sees us to our own sense of self. On the morning of his arrest, Judy urges Sherman, “Be brave. Remember who you are” (445). But now Sherman’s identity has been broken down. He’s not the top seller at Pierce & Pierce anymore. He’s not the man his wife married or the father his daughter looks up to. He’s lost everything, and along with it, he’s lost himself. The question might be asked, “Who’s the real McCoy now?”
8. “Madame Tacaya is coming.”
Millionaire tycoon Arthur Ruskin is treated like a celebrity at the tony Manhattan bistro La Boue d’Argent. But when he has a sudden heart attack and lies dying on the restaurant floor, all the maître d’ can think is that the body must be cleared out before the arrival of their next honored guest, Madame Tacaya, Indonesian empress. This darkly comic incident highlights the folly of vanity.
9. “An excellent feeling came over Kramer, in every cell and neural fiber. […] For in that moment he had something that these Wasp counselors, these immaculate Street partners from the universe of the Currys & Goads & Pesteralls & Dunnings & Spongets & Leaches would never know and never feel the inexpressible pleasure of possessing. […] [I]t was nothing less than the Power, the same Power to which Abe Weiss himself was totally given over. It was the power of the government over the freedom of its subjects.”
This demonstrates the corrupting influence of power, one of the main themes of the book. Assistant District Attorney Larry Kramer feels like a peon when he enters the luxurious mansion of Maria Ruskin. He wishes he could hide his scuffed briefcase from the eyes of her impeccably-dressed Wasp lawyers. But then he realizes he can make Maria gulp with fright. He has something they don’t have: the power of the government. It’s in his hands now. Kramer is set to follow in the footsteps of D.A. Abe Weiss, who’ll do anything to stay in power.
10. “You know the way they can take a dog, a house pet, like a police dog that’s been fed and pampered all its life, and train it to be a vicious watchdog? […] They don’t alter that dog’s personality with dog biscuits or pills. They chain it up, and they beat it, and they bait it, and they taunt it, and they beat it some more, until it turns and bares its fangs[…]. […] Well, in that situation dogs are smarter than humans. The dog doesn’t cling to the notion that he’s a fabulous house pet in some terrific dog show, the way a man does. The dog gets the idea. The dog knows when it’s time to turn into an animal and fight.
Before making that wrong turn in the Bronx, Sherman is like a pampered dog. Raised in an insulated world of privilege and comfort, he assumes his rights will be respected and that he can trust other people. After being savaged by the justice system and the press and betrayed by those he trusted, Sherman’s stripped of his vanities. He’s finally learned the law of the jungle and is ready to fight for his very survival.