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The world that we live in is governed by a certain reality: when events take place, the fact that they happened becomes an absolute truth. Human beings, however, have the freedom to skew that truth by lying. Why, and under what conditions, would we be dishonest about things that have happened? This is one of the many questions that Tom Wolfe addresses in his novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. Wolfe satirizes 1980s New York City using stereotypes and exaggeration. Many of Wolfe’s characters are willing to disregard the truth if it serves their own selfish needs. Because these characters represent the society of that era, Wolfe is conveying the idea that the denizens of 1980s New York City are more than willing to twist the truth when it suits them. Furthermore, even individuals who originally intend to stick to the truth will be forced to stray from it as a consequence of all the other corruption. Sometimes what is considered “true” can be so far from actual fact that truth becomes almost irrelevant. Consequently, he who sets out to abide by the truth must, at times, disregard it in the name of practicality. In essence, New York has become a place where everyone must eventually, in one way or another, discount the truth.
A character who discounts the truth from the very beginning of the novel is Peter Fallow, a British reporter. When Fallow first hears about the Lamb case, he begins to construct a story around it. He includes details that he knows to be false, such as the fact that Henry Lamb was an honor student. He also declares questionable evidence to be absolutely true, and exaggerates facts. He is unsure as to whether or not the story he is printing is true, but he prints it nevertheless because he knows it will bring him fame and recognition. His own selfish needs override any concern for the truth. Wolfe uses Fallow to represent the media of the time as a whole, thereby conveying the idea that the media is an untruthful institution. The newspapers are more concerned with sales than with truth, so they take Fallow’s story at face value, without bothering to check his story. This demonstrates how one person’s disregard for the truth can create a snowballing problem, eventually corrupting society as a whole. The media in New York is a shining example of how dishonesty and self-interest can breed a culture of deceit.
Two other figures who put self-interest before truth are District Attorney Abe Weiss, and the Mayor. Both characters, in response to the Lamb case, only take actions that will bring them the respect of the people, regardless of whether these actions are founded in truth and justice. These two characters are representatives of the politicians of the time, who are only concerned with the election. Their actions in the Lamb case are governed by what they think the people want. For example, before the Lamb case becomes a hot topic, Weiss plans on giving it up due to lack of evidence. When the people start attacking his office for failing to take action, however, Weiss changes his position and loses his concern for the truth, because he wants to please the people and get elected. This is another example of how a corrupt society can corrupt individual people, as it does Weiss and the Mayor. In Wolfe’s estimation, the public figures in 1980s New York City are acting only out of concern for their campaigns, and not based on their desire to uphold fact and morality.
Sherman McCoy’s development is another example of how New Yorkers must often to stray from morality in order to survive. An innocent man, Sherman is accused of having run over a young black male, Henry Lamb. Because of the racial nature of this case, the entire city is easily convinced of Sherman’s guilt. While an innocent should ordinarily be able to prove himself simply by telling the truth, the residents of New York are so egocentric and accustomed to disregarding the truth that one must play by their immoral rules even in order to prove oneself innocent. Essentially, Sherman is forced to lie in the name of the truth, telling a falsehood about a piece of evidence in order to get himself off the hook: “Sherman sat down to learn the manly art of entrapment. ‘Not entrapment,’ he said to himself. ‘Truth'” (Wolfe, 572). Even though Sherman knows that it is wrong to lie, he assures himself that it is acceptable in the name of the greater justice. Here, Wolfe is demonstrating that even the most honest man must eventually sink to the level of the dishonest public. Even though Sherman originally intends to stick to the truth, his corruption represents the impossibility of wading through the city’s sinfulness unscathed.
Does Wolfe, then, believe that it is entirely impossible for New Yorkers to maintain a concern for the truth? The only character who actually holds on to his appreciation for the truth is Judge Kovitsky. Kovitsky is originally portrayed as a powerful man, willing to stand up to criminals who are taunting him by spitting on them. In the end of the novel, he is given the task of making the final decision about Sherman’s guilt. Even though he is pressured by the public both in and out of the courtroom, Kovitsky stands by his beliefs and the tenets of the law. He even attacks Larry Kramer, the prosecutor:
What makes you think you can come before the bench waving a banner of community pressure? The law is not a creature of the few or of the many….Those that come into courtrooms waving banners lose their arms! (Wolfe, 648)
Kovitsky is swayed by Sherman’s case and believes that he is telling the truth, so he throws out the indictment. Even though doing this is in his best interests, he places the truth before his own needs. After he makes his judgment, the courtroom is stormed by angry people, and he and Sherman are almost killed. Here, Wolfe is expressing the belief that it takes more than a single honest man to overcome the sinfulness of New York City, and that to perpetuate the ideal of truthfulness leaves one vulnerable to attack.
In “The Bonfire of the Vanities”, Wolfe creates an image of a New York City populated by individuals who unfailingly put themselves before their morals. Even those who want to be honest are forced to conform to the dishonesty of the culture. In this society, it’s not enough to want to be honest; one must have backbone and tenacity, like Kovistky. Perhaps this is why the ’80s were dubbed “The Me Decade”; everyone put themselves before anything else. In the end, we must ask: does Wolfe think that there is hope for New York? Maybe, if people make a concerted effort to put an end to their egocentrism and realize that they live in a society. Then, and only then, will the truth be accorded the proper respect.
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