The Bonfire of the Vanities is a 1987 novel by Tom Wolfe. The story is a drama about ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed in 1980s New York City. The novel was originally conceived as a serial in the style of Charles Dickens’ writings; it ran in 27 installments in Rolling Stone starting in 1984. Wolfe heavily revised it before it was published in book form. The novel was a bestseller and a phenomenal success, even in comparison with Wolfe’s other books.






The title is a reference to the historical Bonfire of the Vanities, which happened in 1497 in Florence, Italy, when the city was under the rule of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola. The book’s title is evidently a reference to the vanities of New York society of the 1980s and appears to also be influenced by Ecclesiastes: the phrase ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ is from Ecclesiastes, 1:2. Both Ecclesiastes and The Bonfire of the Vanities have similar themes involving the lack of control anyone has over their lives regardless of their wealth, wisdom, or success.


Wolfe deliberately set out to make The Bonfire of the Vanities capture the essence of New York City in the 1980s. Wall Street in the 1980s was newly resurgent after almost the whole of the 1970s had been bad for stocks. The excesses of Wall Street were at the forefront of the popular imagination, captured in films like Oliver Stone‘s Wall Street and in non-fiction books like Liar’s Poker, Den of Thieves, and Barbarians at the Gate.

Beneath Wall Street’s success, the city was a hot-bed of racial and cultural tension. Homelessness and crime in the city were growing. Several high-profile racial incidents polarized the city, particularly two black men who were murdered in white neighborhoods: Willie Turks, who was murdered in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn in 1982 and Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, Queens, in 1986. In another episode that became a subject of much media attention, Bernhard Goetz became something of a folk-hero in the city for shooting a group of black men who tried to rob him in the subway.

Burton B. Roberts, a Bronx judge known for his no-nonsense imperious handling of cases in his courtroom, became the model for the character of Myron Kovitsky in the book.

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