The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Prologue - "Mutt on Fire" and Chapter 1 - "The Master of the Universe"


In the Prologue, the Mayor of New York, a Jewish man up for re-election soon, gives a speech in a Harlem neighborhood. His predominantly black audience heckles him and calls him ethnic epithets. The Mayor attempts to quell the restless crowd with a litany of the things he has done for Harlem and the black community, but the crowd is having none of it. In his thoughts he upbraids the angry African-American crowd as insolent. He thinks that they have been hoodwinked by the inflammatory Harlem religious and social leader Reverend Bacon. He reflects on the Reverend Bacon's underhanded and fraudulent activities. The mayor's thoughts also turn to Sheldon, his assistant, who was supposed to lace the crowd with his supporters.

The mob becomes violent and begins to throw things at the Mayor, including a half-empty bottle of mayonnaise. At last, the Mayor gives up trying to make his speech and decides to leave. A henchman of Reverend Bacon, a tall man wearing a gold earring, calls the Mayor a particularly insulting name as the Mayor is attempting to leave. The Mayor is shuffled down a stairway and leaves the building safely, but not before one of his bodyguards elbows the man in the solar plexus.

In Chapter One, we meet Sherman McCoy (who has dubbed himself a "Master of the Universe) in his sumptuous Park Avenue apartment. We learn of his family structure (wife Judy, six-year-old daughter Campbell, servants, dachshund Marshall) and his wealth. His wife, though pretty, is forty years old, two years Sherman's senior. McCoy fancies himself to be "aristocratic": the epitome of a New York Ivy League W.A.S.P. He works in the richest bond market in history, from which he earns an obscenely large salary. He thinks of his wife, the daughter of a Midwestern history professor and not a Knickerbocker (a term for an old Anglo-Saxon New York family) like him, as socially inferior, and he is particularly disdainful of her efforts to become a decorator. He sneers at the over-lavish way she has fitted out their Park Avenue apartment. For these faults -- and her age -- Sherman sees fit to have a mistress.

Sherman takes Marshall for a walk so that he can slip away from his domestic life for a few minutes to see his mistress Maria in her "hideaway" - an illegally sublet apartment a few blocks away. Out on the street, Sherman dials a number in a phone booth, thinking that he has called Maria. By mistake, he dials his own home number. He does not recognize his own wife's voice and asks for Maria. Judy knows that it's him, but Sherman hangs up without answering her. He calls again and reaches Maria in her hideaway and arranges to meet her.

In the apartment, Maria shows him a new painting she has obtained by the of-the-moment artist Filippo Chirazzi. She counsels Sherman not to lie to his wife about the phone call; Maria herself is perfectly open about her affairs with her husband.

After their rendez-vous, Sherman goes home to a confrontation with his wife. He continues to deny that he called and asked for Maria. His wife says that he is cheap and a liar, and inwardly he agrees with her. At the end of the chapter, Sherman turns on the television and sees the riot in Harlem at the Mayor's speech.


The Prologue, which introduces the relatively minor character of the Mayor, and the important character of Reverend Bacon, presents the novel's background of inflamed race relations. This setting immediately contrasts with Sherman McCoy's insular, high-status world. McCoy does not worry about race -- he is preoccupied by his obsessions with sex, money and status. His domestic drama seems to be untouched by the discontent brewing in Harlem -- only brief run-ins with the "street punks" and "breaking news" on the television bring out his racial consciousness. The "street punk" run-in is especially telling, as the man McCoy takes to be a black vagrant is in fact a white man; in a glimpse we see the fear of African Americans buried within McCoy, and his eagerness to avoid the subject at all costs. As a rich, pedigreed white man -- a Master of the Universe -- McCoy is priviledged not to have to think about race. More precisely, he does not yet have to acknowledge that his power and prestige follows from his race, not his abilities. Not yet, anyway.

The rest of the city tells another story. Jews, Irish, Italians, Blacks, Hispanics -- all races and ethnicities are constantly aware of one another. They seem to interact only prejudicially, assuming that the worst stereotypes about every other group must be true. Wolfe presents us with a poisonous atmosphere, fueled by discontent and social injustice (of which W.A.S.P.s like McCoy enjoy the advantage) and manipulated by shrewd and power-hungry provocateurs like the Mayor and, above all, Reverend Bacon.

To turn to the women in the book, they come off no better than the men. Maria Ruskin, with her dismissive attitude toward adultery, seems as capable of betraying Sherman as she does her own husband. (Maria's last name, incidentaly, is the same as a British art critic of the 19th century -- perhaps an offhand reference to her fascination with the work and person of painter Filippo Chirazzi.) Likewise, Judy McCoy, though more sympathetic than Maria, is mocked for her wholesale buy-in to the Park Avenue "social X-ray"-style wife. She is assiduously thin and affected. Perhaps she is a nice woman ineptly playing the Park Avenue socialite in an attempt to keep her horrible husband happy -- like Maria, we never really get to know Judy.

The comic description of Sherman, struggling with the dog in the rain and bumbling his efforts at adultery, are meant partly for laughs but also to show his essential innocence. Sherman, despite his opinion of himself as a master of the world, has never really known life. He clings to outdated notions of class, social, ethnic, and educational privilege. He is moral in a sort of abstract way, in that his major scruples (other than fidelity to his wife - and this he tries to rationalize away through his high status and financial success, and his wife's age) have never been challenged. He still harbors romantic notions about his mistress, and suffers guilt for his infidelity. He, like Peter Fallow will say later in the novel, is a childish American, without any insight into the social upheaval simmering around him.