63 pages 2 hours read

Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1987

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Summary and Study Guide


Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987, is a critically acclaimed, sprawling saga of the vivid world of New York City in the 1980s. Modeled after Charles Dickens’s socially realistic novels, the book is a satire on the excesses and disparities of New York society. Powered by diverse, opinionated characters and iconic locations, the plot follows the wealthy, married Manhattan investment broker Sherman McCoy as his American Dream begins to unravel. Sherman’s clandestine trip to the Bronx with his married girlfriend Maria leads to tragedy and becomes the boiling point for the city’s simmering racial and class tensions. Wolfe uses irony, satire, and procedural knowledge to trace Sherman’s fortunes and his encounter with the dark underbelly of the city’s criminal justice system.

Considered an example of the Great American Novel, a work that captures the spirit of American life, The Bonfire of the Vanities was a critical and commercial success, landing on top of the New York Times Bestseller List after its release. The novel has been praised for its definitive portrayal of 1980s New York, and in 1990, it was made into a film directed by Brian de Palma. However, it has also been criticized for its approach to race and gender politics and the decision to portray a white defendant victimized by the justice system.

Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) was a journalist, author, and American Studies scholar. Wolfe has been hailed for his contribution to the “New Journalism” movement, a style of long-form journalism that combines reportage with literary techniques. Before publishing The Bonfire of the Vanities, his first novel, Wolfe published best-selling non-fiction books such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). Wolfe lived in Manhattan until his death.

This study guide references the 2018 Vintage Digital e-book edition, with a foreword by Tom Wolfe.

Content Warning: The source text features discussions of racism, including institutional racism, as well as racist, misogynistic, and anti-gay language.

Plot Summary

Wealthy, handsome Sherman McCoy appears to be a living example of the American dream, with a million-dollar salary, a Wall Street job, a plush Park Avenue apartment, a wife, and an adorable daughter. However, Sherman has a secret: He is conducting an affair with Maria Ruskin, who is married to the tycoon Arthur Ruskin. Sherman and Maria often meet in a rent-controlled apartment that Maria illegally sublets from a friend. One evening, Sherman and Maria miss their exit to Manhattan and end up lost in the Bronx, Sherman’s Mercedes stalled against a tire on a ramp. When two Black young men approach the couple, Sherman interprets this as a robbery attempt. Maria drives off in a hurry, inadvertently hitting one of the young men, 18-year-old Henry Lamb. Sherman wants to report the incident to the police, but Maria disagrees since it would expose their affair. Sherman and Maria decide to forget about the incident, assuming no one was injured.

Henry Lamb suffers a concussion and shares with his mother the partially remembered license plate number of the black Mercedes that hit him. Soon after, Henry falls into a coma because of his head injury. The other young man on the scene, Roland Auburn, lies low. Initially, the Bronx district attorney’s office shows little interest in the case of a young, poor Black man in a coma. However, when Reverend Bacon, a powerful Black leader and a friend of Annie Lamb, Henry’s mother, applies pressure on the DA’s office, the case begins to gather steam. Lawrence Kramer, an assistant district attorney, and Peter Fallow, a British expatriate tabloid journalist, take a special interest in the case. The well-connected Bacon provides tips on the case to Fallow, and the story blows up in the tabloids. Soon, the police narrow down the number of suspicious license plates to 124.

When Sherman reads the story of the hit-and-run in the papers, his worst fears appear to have come true. Sherman again considers coming clean to the police but is dissuaded by Maria and the criminal lawyer he has hired, Thomas Killian. Detectives Martin and Goldberg visit Sherman’s apartment to check out his car, but Sherman loses his nerve and acts suspiciously, refusing to show them the Mercedes. The policemen check out the car anyway and learn Sherman took it out on the night of the hit-and-run. Meanwhile, Roland Auburn finally comes forward, willing to turn witness for the state if drug charges against him are dropped. Roland positively identifies Sherman, reporting that it was Sherman behind the wheel when Henry was hit. Kramer and District Attorney Abe Weiss are eager to arraign Sherman for manslaughter and reckless endangerment to dispel the image of Weiss’s office as pro-white and anti-Black.

The night before he is to be brought to the courthouse, Sherman finally tells his wife, Judy, about his affair and the accident. Judy is heartbroken, though she agrees to support Sherman publicly. Sherman is brought to the courthouse in circumstances he considers humiliating and released on bail. The public tide turns against Sherman, with protests that he be tried immediately. To the people fed up with systemic racism, Sherman becomes a symbol of white privilege and disregard for Black lives. Sherman’s acquittal depends on Maria’s testimony that it was her, rather than Sherman, behind the wheel. However, Kramer warns Maria she will be pilloried in the press if a case is made against her. Maria turns witness for the state and testifies against Sherman. However, it is revealed that Maria’s landlord has been secretly recording legally dubious tenants to have leverage over them. A tape comes to light in which Maria is heard explicitly telling Sherman it was her behind the wheel that day. Though Kramer fights the tape being admissible as evidence, the judge accepts it and the case against Sherman is shelved for the time being. It is also revealed to the reader that Roland did plan to rob Sherman and Maria, deliberately throwing a barricade on the road to stop them. However, Henry was just an innocent bystander.

A year after Sherman’s charges are first dropped, Henry dies from his head injuries. Maria is now married to the painter Filippo Chirazzi. Weiss has been reelected DA because of the improved perception of his office and arraigns Sherman again on the serious charge of manslaughter. Sherman is brought to court but seems a changed man after a year of fighting legal battles. Judy is present in the courthouse to support him. Sherman communicates with Judy with a private gesture, suggesting that he is ready to make amends.