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"Bonfire of the Vanities:" In Tom Wolfe's depiction of 1980s New York there are no moral values. All his characters are driven by the imperatives of greed and desire. How far do you agree?

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Introduction

In Tom Wolfe's depiction of 1980s New York there are no moral values. All his characters are driven by the imperatives of greed and desire. How far do you agree? By Edward Worboys The novel is a satirical novel based in 1980s New York. It highlights the problems of the era by using exaggerated characters and events, which are often blackly comical. Before passing judgement on Tom Wolfe's multitude of characters, it is necessary to realise the economic situation in New York at the time the Bonfire of the Vanities is set, which was the 1980s. It happened to be a very prosperous period for America, and indeed most of the developed world. However, poverty in the Bronx is described very vividly by Wolfe, which contrasts heavily with the luxurious, opulent lives that those in Manhattan experience. We must be careful not to confuse prosperity with greed. Sherman McCoy is immediately comes across as greedy, self-obsessed and unfaithful so our first impression of him is negative to say the least. He coins himself "Master of the Universe" and refers to himself in the third person, which is a sign of someone who thinks a lot of himself. ...read more.

Middle

Something that is connected to youth and innocence contains images of women with snakes. "Technically, he had been unfaithful to his wife. Well sure...but who could remain monogamous with this, this tidal wave of concupiscence rolling across the world." This is one of the few moments where a character relates their behaviour with their surroundings, although it seems to me to be an important factor. There is a great deal of tension within the city, most notably racial tension. The Rev. Bacon describes the political pleasing of his people as "steam control". This is a very clever metaphor to describe the situation. The cocktail of different cultural groups is probably to blame for this. Although the two main groups in the novel are the black and the whites, the Puerto-Ricans, Irish, Italians and Jews are also mentioned. The problem is that the overall picture seems to be that the blacks are poor and the whites are rich, creating a serious division which in turn creates tension. This is brilliantly depicted by Wolfe who describes both the affluent Manhattan and the poverty stricken Bronx completely differently to amplify the tension in the readers mind. ...read more.

Conclusion

Dickens, for example, used Oliver Twist as a mechanism to introduce various unscrupulous characters such as Fagin and Bill Sykes as well as some well-meaning characters like Nancy. Wolfe's story is not all about unprincipled, unethical individuals. There are a few characters who seem to be 'good' as such. The two that I observed were Campbell McCoy and Judge Kovitsky. Campbell has a natural childish innocence and at her age, can do very little wrong. I think she was only included in the novel as a device to create and take away sympathy for McCoy. Kovitsky exercises good judgement in the actual court case and does not let the overwhelming media coverage for the incident affect him. Wolfe's book is, in essence, about the desire for wealth and power in New York at the time so naturally many of the characters include this love for money and material things. We have to remember, however, that it is a satire and this kind of literature is most effectively written by exaggerating character flaws (in this case greed and desire) to depict the author's view and enhance the readability. It also makes clear in the readers mind what the novel is trying to get across about the weaknesses of modern society. 1164 words ...read more.

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