The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Many of the names of characters in Bonfire of the Vanities are clearly allegorical. Henry Lamb, the sacrificial victim of the Great White Defendant, is the most obvious example. Discuss some other character names and what these names reveal. What is Wolfe trying to say with them. Some good examples are Reverend Bacon, Peter Fallow, and Thomas Killian, but any of the characters can be analyzed.

  2. 2

    What is the importance in Kramer's and other characters' minds of "Irish Masculinity," as represented by Detective Martin, Bernie Fitzgibbon, and Thomas Killian? Do you agree that everyone involved in criminal justice, including Jewish people and other ethnicities, became "Irish" by association? What does Wolfe mean by "Irish Masculinity," exactly? Is it a positive or negative trait in the criminal justice system? How much of it is posturing and how much is real?

  3. 3

    Discuss the depiction of women in this novel. The main characters are all men, with women as wives or girlfriends or, occasionally, associates to the men. Do you consider any of Wolfe's female characters sympathetic? What in the depiction of Judy McCoy, for example, makes her a sympathetic character, and what are her faults? Do you see any of the female characters as "round" or "whole" characters? For that matter, is there a difference in Wolfe's treatment of men and women?

  4. 4

    The original bonfires of the vanities occurred in Renaissance Europe, particularly Italy, when "sinful" objects such as fine clothing, immoral books and paintings, and even mirrors were burned publicly by Catholic conservatives. Most famously, these bonfires were conducted by the reactionary priest Savonarola in the 15th century. How does this phrase, used as the title for Wolfe's book, relate to the story? What was the metaphorical "bonfire" of what 20th century "vanities"? What do you consider were the "vanities" in Sherman McCoy's life, for example?

  5. 5

    A number of commentaries claim that Reverend Bacon is based on the real-life Reverend Al Sharpton. Do you think that there is any similarity between the character and the man? Is the comparison insulting? What do you think of Fiske and Fallow's idea that Bacon may be a kind of guerilla society leader? Are the beyond-and-above the law practices of Reverend Bacon, in your view, warranted in a racist society, or merely the actions of a criminal? Use examples from the text of how the Reverend Bacon's actions can be seen as either criminal or justified.

  6. 6

    The social and ethnic snobbery of Sherman McCoy and his peers reaches a suffocating level in Bonfire of the Vanities. Sherman seems to categorize everyone in his world on ethnic and social terms. Explain how this thick fog of prejudice affects Sherman in his business and personal life.

  7. 7

    Discuss one of the subplots, and explain what it adds to the novel. For example, examine The Detectives Martin and Goldberg subplot, the Fiske-Bacon subplot, the discussion between the Episcopal Bishop of New York and the Mayor of New York, the entire description of Peter Fallow, the heckling by the prisoners of Kramer and Judge Kovitzky, or any other periphery event you wish.

  8. 8

    Does the fact that Sherman has a child, Campbell, have any bearing on the novel? What is revealed about Sherman in his interactions with Campbell? How are children generally treated in Sherman's Park Avenue world? Were Sherman's actions more or less justified, regarding the accident, when viewed in light of his status as a father of a young child?

  9. 9

    How does Reverend Bacon use the "fronts" of his charitable and church organizations, such as the Little Shepherd Day Care center, and the Third World Anti-Defamation league? Could a group composed of any other race or ethnicity (in Tom Wolfe's 1980s New York) have gotten away with such practices? Explain how the extortion and influence-peddling works, and how it relates to the Reverend's use of the media. How does the white power structure's guilt about African-Americans affect these illegal practices?

  10. 10

    Is the complete dismantling of Sherman McCoy's life a fit punishment for his "crimes"? Explain whether you think that Sherman's actions were criminal. Does the novel cast a sinister light on Sherman, or paint him sympathetically?

  11. 11

    Discuss Wolfe's writing style. Examine his linguistic tricks, like allegorically-charged names, as well as his style in general. What is Wolfe's tone throughout the novel? Does it change? On the whole, is Wolfe's novel comic or serious or both?