The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 14 - "I Don't Know How to Lie" and Chapter 15 - "The Masque of the Red Death"


Sherman's body begins to fail him. Insomnia and nightmares plague his nights while he continues the farce of his everyday life, acting as if nothing has changed. He intermittently longs to confide in and be comforted by his wife, but he dismisses the idea. He walks Campbell to the bus stop as usual, and goes into work while frantically looking for information on the case in all the newspapers.

The City Light has another piece about the accident, entitled "Hit-or-Miss Justice." The article admits the legal difficulty of prosecuting the still-hidden Henry Lamb perpetrator, but calls for the search to continue in the strongest language. Sherman realizes that the case has become a crusade.

Freddy Buttons calls him, and informs him that he's called Tommy Killian. Sherman, frayed at the edges, decides to leave work early (at five o' clock, which is early by his former workaholic standard). He arrives at his apartment and collapses with exhaustion.

Bonita, the housekeeper, awakens him to say that two policemen are waiting downstairs to see him. Sherman panics and leaves the cops waiting while he tries to pull himself together. Detectives Martin and Goldberg don't appear particularly suspicious; they admire the Park Avenue splendor of the apartment. Sherman starts evading their investigative efforts, refusing to answer simple questions, which leads the detectives to look more closely at Sherman's case. Sherman's nerves are compounded by annoyance at the familiar mannerisms of the policemen as they question him -- he feels that they should behave like his inferiors. Thus Sherman McCoy comes off very badly. The detectives finally leave, after Sherman insists on speaking with his lawyer, and head straight to the garage where the Mercedes is kept.

Campbell and Judy come home, and Judy inquires if something is wrong. Sherman frantically tries to reassure her that all's well, and that he just needs to run out to Freddy Button's house for a minute. Judy tries to make him stay, reminding him of their important dinner engagement at the Bavardages' place. Sherman tries again to come clean to Judy, but he can't get the words out, and he flees the apartment. He tries dialing Maria from a payphone, but can't reach her either at her home or at the hideaway. In despair, he returns home to dress for dinner.

In Chapter 15, Sherman and Judy arrive at the Bavardages' apartment, a few blocks away from their own. As was the fashion of the rich of Park Avenue at the time, they hire a car for the evening, which costs nearly $250. Sherman, fully aware that his money is just as jeopardized as his good name, frets bitterly about the enormous amount of money he and his family spend on such extravagances. His bitterness continues at the apartment itself, as contempt for the fashionably thin, affected women and inane men of society smolders within him. Moreover, he is unnerved by casual conversational references to the Lamb affair.

At dinner, he is seated by chance next to Maria Ruskin. He worries that his wife will make the connection between the fateful phone call and his dinner companion. The dinner is obscenely lavish, with expensive wines, food, and flower arrangements. Again, Sherman muses on the amount of money spent, and begins to reflect on the vanity of his circle. He tries to talk discreetly with Maria about the Lamb affair, but she maintains that they have nothing to worry about. He promises to call her the following day.

Aubrey Buffing, a poet with AIDS, makes a long speech at the end of the dinner, alluding to Edgar Allen Poe and his story "The Masque of the Red Death." Buffing proposes that the story's description of a culture of excess dancing on amid a horrible plague suits their 1980s culture vis-a-vis AIDS as well. The speech doesn't make much of an impression on the guests. Sherman and Judy then take their leave: she chatting about how nice the party was; he depressed and drunk.


The Dickensian caricatures continue, as Wolfe mocks his characters with hidden jokes -- the word "bavardage", for example, is a French word for incessant prattling -- and plainly insulting names, like the writer Nunnally Voyd (nothing-void), Mrs. Rawthrote (raw-throat, with incessant talking), and Lord Gutt, the corpulent British aristocrat.

The broad hint of the "Masque of the Red Death" reference has more than one meaning. The poet Buffing uses the comparison primarily to draw attention to people's indifference toward the AIDS epidemic despite the material abundance of the 1980s. However, another (and Wolfe seems to suggest, greater) plague is raging as well -- a class-sickness engendered by poverty and racism -- which threatens to swallow up the "offshore boutique" of Manhattan. The wealthy and privileged continue their Masque (or "masked ball," an allusion to the social masks that abount at the Bavardages') unaware of the reckoning to come. Wolfe suggests that, like the aristocrats dancing away in the Poe tale, New York society as a whole (not just Sherman) is deluded, and New York society as a whole will fall. He connects this allusion to the "Masque" with the outside, poverty-plagued boroughs by placing Henry Lamb and his mother in the Edgar Allen Poe Towers housing project in the Bronx (where Poe once lived).

In contrast to the obvious caricatures at the party, Wolfe handles the deterioration of Sherman McCoy believably and subtly. Sherman is a man in shock. He refuses to think about the extent of his trouble -- thus he refuses to see Killian, to discuss the Lamb accident with his wife -- even as his body (and bodies are always aware of massive trauma before minds catch up) falls apart. To cave in and see the Irish Killian would be to give up the W.A.S.P. fantasy, and Sherman is not ready to do that yet. Nevertheless, Sherman has begun on the road to change. His bitter criticisms of the nonsense and excess at the Bavardages' apartment show that he begins to see the vanity of his own class, even if he cannot yet understand the perspective of other classes. Wolfe seems to suggest that "knowing thyself" is a first important step to knowing others, and Sherman seems capable of empathy yet.

Not to belabor the point, but Wolfe's gift for creating complicated, flawed-yet-redeemable characters seems limited to the men in his story. This seems true even in the peripheral characters. Goldberg and Martin, for instance, exhibit complicated personalities, mixing pride, belligerence, acumen, wit and common sense. The detectives are good at their job -- and they show Sherman, the self-dubbed "Master of the Universe," to be the bumbling child that he is. Judy, by comparison, exists as a foil for her husband -- first as a vessel for her husband's disappointment, and then to reflect his self-hatred. Likewise, Maria is little more than a "Lemon Tart" (the nickname Sherman has for young and desirable women), conforming to the predictable trope of the beautiful woman as selfish and morally bankrupt.