By Tom Wolfe
The novel "Bonfire of the Vanities", by Tom Wolfe, is a satire of the various parts of New York society, from the poor to the rich and all in between. The author shows how the media influences everyone's lives, and uses stereotypes of all different groups of people to expose certain things about the way people treat each other. "In effect, he dissects the absurdities and contradictions of New York society "(Rafferty 88). All this is shown through the story of how a rich white male and his mistress get lost in the Bronx and, thinking they are under attack, kill a black teenager. The case is compounded when the Black community takes this death to heart and turns the event into an example of the way the "Fifth Avenue rich Whites" think of their less fortunate Bronx neighbors.
Of all the groups mentioned in the novel, the rich are explained the most, and thrashed the most by Tom Wolfe. They are shown to the reader as snobs, who care only about their high class society, and cannot be bothered with the rest of the world. The only way they measure a man's worth is through his paycheck. With each other, they pretend to be nice, yet at the first sign of nonconformity they are quick to ostracize and abandon the offending person. Examples of this are shown throughout the entire book. At the two dinner parties there is a blatant example of an "offender," the first one being McCoy, and the second being Aubrey Buffing (with his speech about Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"). In addition, the fact that none of Sherman McCoy's neighbors helps him during his crisis, rather turn their backs on him and hurt him even more is another example of this point.
The book also deals with the "Me Generation " theory, the idea that during the mid-1980's people were interested only in themselves. The first example of this in the book is McCoy saying he is "Master of the Universe." He is concerned only with advancement and money, and cares nothing of others. "If Sherman McCoy is Master of the Universe, then the rest of the world are his subjects, whose only purpose is to witness his great achievements. When he has his accident, all of his subjects turn against him, and because he is no longer in the situation of power, do not treat him with the respect he is used to" (Rafferty 89). This idea of his caring only for himself is so noticeable because of his relationship with his daughter Campbell. She is the only one who he feels sorry for when he gets into trouble. He is not sorry for his wife and his family, because they are all different people, while Campbell is like an extension of himself. And before this he had always cared for her, as evidenced by the description of the two of them walking to her school bus:
As soon as Campbell saw them, she tried to remove herhand from Sherman's...but he wouldn't let her. He held her hand tightly and led her across the street. He was her protector. He glowered at a taxi as it came to a noisy stop at the light. He gladly would throw himself in front of it, if that was what it would take to save Campbell's life.
This description shows how he would risk his million dollar salary, his fabulous apartment, and his entire life all for her. He clearly would not do this for anyone else.
The next major group of people satirized in the book are the poor. Unlike the rich, they take the crisis they face and they come together, trying to help each other in the situation. Their main goal in the story is to show to the world the horrible way that "Fifth Avenue" treats them, and to try to improve their community by doing so.
Unfortunately, the poor are mistaken about a number of things. First of all, they feel that the only objective of the rich is to hurt the poor, and therefore they dislike and, more importantly to the story, they distrust the rich. In the McCoy case, any defense brought for McCoy would be futile. Because the murder was committed in the Bronx, the trial will be held there and jury will be from the Bronx. Even if it were to be proven that the murder of the teenager was in self defense, no jury would believe it, because none would want to. The poor community feels that this murder is the perfect example of the way they are treated in New York society, as less than human beings who are not worth a second thought.
The poor are also misled by the influence that Reverend Bacon has over them. Reverend Bacon has the power of the entire Black community in his hand, for he has convinced them that he will deliver them from the bondage of the rich and white. He then takes this power and uses it to scare politicians, and to do illegal things, such as set up fake investment companies and steal people's money. The book gives these examples and also shows how he has stolen from the Church of which he claims he is a member. Reverend Bacon feels that he can use the McCoy case to his advantage by scaring the rich. He will make sure that McCoy is punished regardless of his innocence because this will prove to his community that he is powerful enough to bring down one of their rich white oppressors.
Part of the reason that the Poor, and even most of New York, were convinced that McCoy was guilty was because of the actions of the media, which as portrayed in the book were not always so decent. The satirization of the media has two elements to it. One is shown when a journalist at a tabloid newspaper had heard about the case and, because there was someone he could attack in the story, had written an article that stated that McCoy had purposely murdered a Black teenager with his car. And when the rest of the media picked up the story, they printed the same thing. No one, until it was too late, even considered the possibility that the murder had been an accident, which is in fact the truth. And so, when the case went to court, everyone thought that any sort of defense would be a lie. Thus, the media were the ones that handed down the verdict. They created the popularity of the case by saying that McCoy, a rich white, did the crime, and to even suggest otherwise made someone a racist.
Wolfe also satirizes the media's willingness to get a "big story." He makes fun of the way they act unscrupulously and would even hurt someone if that is what it took for them to get their story. The media love to see someone get hurt-they know the person's life is in danger, but instead of helping they will just sit there and film (Lynn 76). This is shown explicitly in the prologue of the book, where the Mayor is in danger when a riot breaks out around him:
The TV crews in attendance, their cameras coming out of their heads like horns, are diabolically delighted by the spectacle, as the mental processes of the mayor begin to recognize: "They're eating it up! They're here for the brawl!... They're cowards! Parasites! The lice of public life!"
Despite the accents of self-pity, the mayor is speaking for Wolfe (Lynn 76). This is exactly the way Wolfe feels about the media. Examples from the text, such as this one, show how Wolfe feels the media should be viewed by the reader. He obviously doesn't like their behavior, and wants to expose them for what they are (not the nice, smiling people on the news every night).
What is surprising about this is that Wolfe is in fact a journalist himself, and has only ventured into a few novels. So he is commenting on the actions of the media, not from the view of an outsider, but from someone who saw first hand what goes on and maybe even participated in such actions during his career.
The media is represented in this story by Peter Fallow, a British journalist. Wolfe uses him to parody New York's British community, portraying them very harshly as freeloaders. But the British are just one example of this novel's excessive stereotyping. Wolfe does it to every part of New York society, from Irish to Jews, all groups and nationalities are covered. There are those critics who focus on the characterization of females in the book, such as Jonathan Alter, who says, "None of the female characters are shown deeply, nor are any of them shown to be good, thoughtful, anything other than sex objects for men of various ages and wealth" (44). The women are even further divided, and depending on their age are called either "social x-rays," who are forty year old women who are quickly losing their husbands' interest, and "lemon tarts," who are young blond women only there for their bodies.
The general categorizing of people lets everyone recognize his own hypocrisy, fear, hatred and greed. Readers see the way they feel about other groups, feelings they would not publicly share, being laid out throughout the novel. One can sympathize with Sherman McCoy when he crosses the street as a Black teenager approaches, for though it is a known racist action, most people would probably do the same in that situation.
Wolfe's categorizing is done in such a manner that it seems as though he is making a satire of these stereotypes. He exaggerates them to the point that it becomes plain how foolish they are. He is taking the perceptions that the non-New Yorker has of the city, and making fun of them. In reality, no one who lives in New York thinks of their neighbors this way, or at least not with such sharp definition. (Robbins 140-141).
It is, however, these stereotypes which make the book so real. The situations which Wolfe uses them in are exactly how they would be in actual New York life, such as the previous example of McCoy crossing the street. And so this novel is so popular because of its realism. Although the story is a bit preposterous, and the stereotypes are somewhat exaggerated, the detail and accurateness of the story is amazing. This is shown through the fully detailed descriptions of places like the Bronx court house, and the Fifth Avenue apartments. The reason for this is that Tom Wolfe is a journalist, and although this is a story and not an article, it is written with the same precision that is required for journalism. By use of detail, which has become almost a foreign concept to some modern day writers, Wolfe has "crashed the novelists' party" (Rafferty 88). And just as he has exposed every other type of person, he has exposed the novelist, and shown what writing should be.
Alter, Jonathan. "Two Cheers for Tom Wolfe." The Washington Monthly March 1988: 42-46.
Lynn, Kenneth S. "The Fire This Time." Commentary February 1988: 76-79.
Rafferty, Terrence. "The Man Who Knew Too Much." The New Yorker 1 February 1988: 88-92.
Robbins, Lynn A. "Book Review." The Journal of Ethnic Studies Summer 1989: 139-141.