The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Study Guide

The Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987, was the eleventh book and first novel by the famous journalist, author, and American Studies scholar Tom Wolfe. Previously, Wolfe had written non-fiction journalism and essays on American life such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff; while fictional, Bonfire of the Vanities retains much of the social commentary evident in his earlier works. The work was originally published in serial form in Rolling Stone before it was released as a hardcover. It sold in droves, landing atop the New York Times Bestseller List for two months. The Bonfire of the Vanities is considered by some commentators to be the "definitive book of 1980s New York," characterized by biting satire and cutting criticism of the rapacious society of the Reagan years. It was made into a 1990 film directed by Brian de Palma.

The title refers to a ritual practiced during the Renaissance: the public burning of "vanity" objects such as secular books, mirrors, and extravagant clothing by conservative Catholics. The most famous burning of vanities happened in Italy, led by the cleric Savonarola. In the novel, the "bonfire" to which Wolfe alludes is the metaphorical burning of the vain pursuits of the protagonist's life as a result of criminal prosecution, and his crucifixion in the media as a "Park Avenue playboy." It is also a reference to the hypocrisy of the media and race relations in 1980s New York. Many of the characters in the novel were based partly or wholly on real people, such as Judge Kovitsky, Thomas Killian, and the Reverend Bacon. The climate of ethnic, racial, and class strife is exaggerated somewhat for the purposes of the story, but the world Wolfe created in Bonfire of the Vanities reflects many of the ugly social truths of the 1980s -- and of today.