The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 2 - "Gibraltar" and Chapter 3 - "From the Fiftieth Floor"


In Chapter Two we meet Lawrence Kramer, an Assistant District Attorney in the Homicide Division of the Bronx. He is married to Rhoda Kramer, a red-haired Jewish woman, and they have a new baby son, Joshua, whose English nurse is payed for by Rhoda's mother. They live in a three-and-a-half room apartment on the Upper West Side, which is an expensive but not particularly large Manhattan living space. It becomes clear during Larry's morning routine that the English nurse looks down her nose at these Jewish Americans in their tiny apartment. On the whole, Larry's self-esteem is pretty low, for he is worried about money and is depressed that his wife is beginning to look like her mother.

Larry has been dreaming about The Girl with Brown Lipstick, a pretty juror on a case he is prosecuting. Even sleeping in the same bed with his wife, so soon after the birth of their son, Larry has fantasies about other women. He appears, though his morning thoughts, as deluded and egotistical as Sherman McCoy -- albeit on a lower social rung. Like Sherman, he sees about the riot in Harlem on the morning news.

Larry inwardly criticizes his wife for being fat after delivering his child, and for having a New York Jewish accent. He muses that he will no longer be able to work out, because the nurse sleeps on the convertible couch in the living room where he lifts weights. He also moans that they can't afford an au pair, which means that Rhoda will not be able to go back to work. This will make it difficult for them to live in the Upper West Side on his relatively small ADA salary.

Kramer starts off for work, and sees a former Columbia Law School friend of his leave an expensive apartment building and get into an expensive car. This classmate had gone to work at a downtown law firm, and is obviously doing much better financially than he. Kramer feels morally superior for having decided to "make a difference" in the DA's office, rather than work downtown solely for money, but it's obvious that he is also ashamed of his down-market appearance because he avoids seeing his friend.

After his dangerous journey through the subway to the Bronx, Kramer walks toward the Bronx County Building, where he works. It stands, to his mind, like Gibraltar amid the "poor sad Sargasso Sea of the Bronx." He muses on how no one, not even armed guards or tough men like himself, ever leaves the building for lunch. Though they hold the power over the borough and dispense justice to its residents every day, the workers at the Bronx County Building are plainly terrified of the Bronx.

As Kramer nears the building, he and Judge Myron Kovitzky, who is also entering the building, get severely insulted by a gang of prisoners. While Kramer frets and worries that they are talking directly about him, Judge Kovitzky shows his courage and shouts down the prisoners.

In Chapter Three we follow Sherman to his workplace - a very different place from Kramer's Gibraltar in the Bronx. Sherman walks his daughter Campbell to her bus stop, and indulges in admiration of himself and for the "nip of fatherhood" that he takes each morning. He also glories in his privileges, and the way he is able to indulge his daughter in a private school -- where all the Best Families send their daughters. Sherman has an awkward conversation with his daughter about whether or not there is a God. At the bus stop, Sherman takes the opportunity to ogle and fantasize about another child's mother, Mrs. Lueger.

On the way into work, Sherman sees an attractive young woman and he takes a moment to ogle her, also. He takes an expensive taxi into work, reflecting on how his father, even today at the age of 71, on principle still takes the subway. Sherman has no such principles, and enjoys his isolation from the griminess of the city.

At Pierce & Pierce, the investment banking firm for which Sherman works, Ivy-educated men are already screaming into phones and swearing at computer screens. The bond salesmen make most of the money for the firm, and Sherman is the best bond salesman in the firm. Sherman reflects on a huge deal, the Giscard, which he has put together and will soon be bring to a successful transaction, he hopes. It would net him, personally, $1.75 million if he is successful, with which he could pay off his apartment loan. He meets with some associates and his boss, Gene Lopwitz, by telephone from England, inwarldy relishing his power and dismissing his domestic troubles.


Wolfe uses neat symmetry in showing us the contrasting morning routines of Lawrence Kramer and Sherman McCoy, who will later be adversaries. Neither man comes off too well.

Larry is self-conscious, egotistical, lacking in self-esteem, and selfish enough to desire an affair with a juror a few weeks after the birth of his first child. He worries constantly about status, about what other people think, and how he can get away with things and "work the system." He flatters himself that he is "making a difference" by working for peanuts in the DA's office rather than working for a large law firm, but he is not happy with his lot, and longs for more money, a different (or perhaps no) wife, and an affair with another woman.

Wolfe suggests that everything one does in New York reflects one's social status. He sets up a series of parallels to make this comparison quite easy. Larry must brave a dangerous subway ride into the Bronx, while Sherman enjoys a comfortable taxi down to Wall Street. Whereas Larry frets ineffectually over the expense of his new child, Sherman drops his beautiful daughter off at an elite private school. Larry dreams of an affair with a beautiful socialite; Sherman has one.

Wolfe even gives us contrasting portraits of the men with their bosses. Larry is mildly humiliated when the Judge he works under is able to shout down the insulting group of prisoners. We see clearly how low Larry is on the chain of command, and how contingent his relative failure is on his lack of guts. Sherman, on the other hand, is jaunty and cocky in his phone meeting with his London boss. He sees no man as his equal -- let alone his superior -- and impatiently awaits the day when his status will be equal to his self-concept.

The men are very similar -- sex-obsessed, money-obsessed, status-obsessed, and lacking in insight about themselves and others -- with only one major difference: whereas Sherman is for the most part content, Larry is discontent. This difference, despite their commonalities, is enough to make the men grave enemies.