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What are the vices and failings of contemporary New York revealed in 'Bonfire of the Vanities'?

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What are the vices and failings of contemporary New York revealed in Bonfire of the Vanities'? In 'Bonfire of the Vanities' Wolfe paints a picture of a city racked with sin; the 'Unreal City' that Eliot feared so greatly. The city, its inhabitants and their very principles are flawed to such an extent that the novel, in my opinion, reads as a tragedy. The story opens with a brilliantly ironic situation: black Harlem residents heckle the mayor claiming that he has persecuted their minorities, telling him, "Don't percentage no annual budget with us, man! We want jobs!" The only problem is that they simultaneously taunt him, calling him "Goldberg" and "Hymie." Their distorted sense of values encapsulates the attitudes of this twisted city. In the same way, The Reverend Bacon attacks the power structure, saying, "You think Sherman McCoy stands alone? You think he is by himself? He is one a the most powerful men at Pierce & Pierce, and Pierce & Pierce is one a the most powerful forces in Wall Street. I know Pierce & Pierce . ...read more.


One would think that failure (of an optimistically utilitarian system, perhaps) on such a scale would cause people to notice but 'Pierce and Pierce' along with the rest of Wall Street ignore the damage that their gain is causing; can we fault them? I would say that this question is part of a larger ethical dilemma; if human nature contains inherent flaws, then the real flaw to the 'problem' (or the 'inequality', which would be a more accurate term) must lie elsewhere. I believe it lies not with an individual or even a handful of the elite, but rather with every inhabitant of New York - their crisis is a result of collective ignorance and a lack of responsibility, as I will discuss later. Wolfe, borrowing structural (and stylistic) principles from Dickens, contrasts the poverty and desperation in the prologue with the excess and indulgence of the protagonist, Sherman McCoy in the first chapter. He calls himself a "Master of the Universe" and explains that they "were a set of lurid, rapacious plastic dolls that his otherwise perfect daughter liked to play with...They were unusually vulgar, even for plastic toys." ...read more.


I consider Wolfe's novel not to be social commentary or analysis; Wolfe does not attempt to solve any problems nor condemn any actions. Indeed, Mose Durst in 'Essays Toward a Principled Economics' called 'Bonfire of the Vanities' a 'muckraking novel' rather than an inquiry into capitalism. The novel is a wry look over an admittedly skewed profile of New York: his characters are symbolic and thus function as caricatures and stereotypes. This, of course, is necessary for a satire but ensures that 'A Bonfire of the Vanities' should not be read as an investigation into New York's economic policies or, for example, as an examination of New-York's post-modern ethics. Any attempt to view the writing as Marxist literature would be mistaken because even in the introduction Wolfe admits he wanted only to write a novel 'of the city ... with the city always in the foreground, exerting its relentless pressure on the souls of its inhabitants.' Thus, any conclusions we draw are merely reflections of our own mind - as an author Wolfe is careful to allow the city speak for itself. As Checkhov pointed out, the obligation of the writer is not to propose answers but to pose questions.' Word count: 1145 Shashank Joshi ...read more.

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