A Confederacy of Dunces: Essay and Quotes
1. What is the history of the city of New Orleans and the significance of its setting for the novel?
The city of New Orleans was founded in 1718 by French traders. It was basically a swamp but in an important trading location. In 1803 Napoleon sold the city to the Americans in the Louisiana Purchase. Many flocked to the city in the nineteenth century including Americans, French, Hispanics, Creole French, Creoles of Color, and Africans. It was known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere and mixture of cultures. By the time of the Civil War it was the largest city in the South. Railway and telegraph and congested river trade connected it to the north.
New Orleans retains many colonial landmarks. It was captured by the Union early in the Civil War and thus escaped destruction. New Orleans became one of the more racially liberal Southern cities, though it upheld segregation. After World War II tourism became a major industry. Today the old streetcars and ironwork have been returned to Canal Street.
New Orleans is ethnically rich and divergent in subcultures. English, French, Spanish, Cajun French, and Vietnamese are some of the languages spoken in New Orleans, giving it a continental rather than American feel. Toole includes the city’s distinct Southern dialect called Yat. It is a city known for its music: jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, Cajun music, Zydeco, and Delta Blues.
Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, famous for their nightlife, are included in some central scenes in the novel. The city is known for its many festivals including Mardi Gras, its gardens, ornate cemeteries, intellectual centers, French colonial buildings, football, and its Southern hospitality and diversity.
Much of the city exists below sea level and is surrounded by levees. It has repeatedly suffered from hurricanes, fires, and epidemics. The majority of the city flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when the levees failed. Katrina would have justified Ignatius’s belief in Fortuna, for the storm was originally headed in another direction and then shifted. It was the costliest storm in U.S. history with billions of dollars of loss and 1,100 deaths.
New Orleans is ideal as the setting for Toole’s story. His festival of fools, a satire on human folly, is at home with Mardi Gras. The character of the city, known for its hedonism and high crime rate, allows Toole to create a medieval allegory where Ignatius is Everyman journeying through a territory of temptation and sin. Cities in medieval allegories are not so much centers of civilization as they are moral landscapes to try the spirit, such as Vanity Fair and The City of Destruction are in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).
2. What is the philosophy of Boethius and its importance to the meaning of the novel?
The Roman philosopher Boethius (ca. 480-524 CE) came from an old and important Christian patrician family. Emperor Theodoric ordered Boethius to be arrested for treason and thrown in prison on false charges. Boethius was stripped of his titles and wealth and executed. He wrote his great work, De Consolatione Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy) in his last year in prison. It became, next to the Bible, the most popular work in the Middle Ages.
Boethius was a Platonic philosopher who believed in the immortality of the soul and the ability of human reason to know divine truth. There are two sorts of humans, those who have fallen below the human level and who live by their animal passions, and those philosophers who live by reason, thus raising themselves to a divine level of life. Though Ignatius does not actually expound religious doctrines, it is clear he sees himself as one of the higher beings and other humans as living a disgusting animal life.
Boethius said suffering humans are a plaything of Fortune, but there is divine justice in Providence for those philosophers who have risen through faith and understanding. Fate or Fortune was a term the Greeks used for what was beyond the control of humans. Boethius is trying to understand if perhaps he is in prison because he is caught in such a trap of Fate. He has tried to live a virtuous life, but maybe the cards were stacked against him. This is Ignatius’s point of view that he is a victim of a fate he does not deserve. Ignatius gives a copy of the book to Patrolman Mancuso explaining, “The book teaches us to accept that which we cannot change. It describes the plight of a just man in an unjust society” (Chpt. 7, p. 188). Mancuso is depressed by the book, because despite his philosophy, Boethius was tortured and executed.
Boethius showed that the closer to God and to the light one lives, the less Fate is an influence. If one lives a life of reason, one will not come under the influence of Fate, but under the benign influence of Providence, where all is working in a timeless way for one’s good. Though Ignatius does not speak of Providence, he somehow providentially escapes the worst consequences. He speaks primarily of Fortuna, whereas Boethius dismisses Fortune as lower than Providence.
The goddess Philosophy visits Boethius in prison and tells him he must have faith in God and use his reason to stay under the sway of Providence where everything will turn out to produce the good for him. She describes the human mind finding consolation by turning back within itself to find wisdom. The mind holds its own treasuries within. Ignatius also assert that what is within is far better than what he sees around him, and for this reason he says he has a “rich inner life” (Chpt. 1, p. 2).
3. What is the significance of the medieval period?
Ignatius, like Toole, had studied medieval and Renaissance literature and was attracted to aspects of the earlier worldview. Toole was a great mimic and had a sense of the absurd. He saw the tremendous contrast between the coherence of medieval society and the fragmentation of our own leading Ignatius to write “a lengthy indictment against our century” (Chpt. 1, p. 7). Ignatius’s name suggests Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), the founder of the Jesuits, Catholic missionaries during the Counter-Reformation. In the novel Ignatius defends the Great Chain of Being, that medieval metaphor for the structure of the universe in which everything has an ordered place, from an oyster to a human being to an angel. There was thought to be a hierarchy with God and heavenly beings at the top and animals, plants, and material substances at the bottom. Human beings were in the middle and because they had free will could go up or down the ladder towards God or towards materialism and the senses, denying their souls. Ignatius feels he has to document the abuses of the times, accusing everyone of surrendering to material pursuits and neglecting the soul.
Ignatius points out that the Great Chain of Being “had snapped like so many paper clips strung together by some drooling idiot: death, destruction, anarchy, progress, ambition, and self-improvement” were part of the New Order that had one message: “GO TO WORK” (Chpt. 2, p. 34). He feels work in the modern commercial world has replaced the just medieval synthesis where people were sorted into their natural and set places on farms or city guilds or the aristocracy or universities. No one sees he is of the scholarly order and should be supported to do his writing. He keeps a “Journal of a Working Boy” to document the abuses of the workplace. He sprinkles medieval references throughout, such as William Langland’s allegory, Piers Plowman (written ca. 1360-1387) that includes social commentary detailing the failure of society to live up to Christian principles. He also mentions Everyman, the fifteenth-century morality play showing Death summoning a man to heaven to account for his life. Ignatius’s journey is similar to the journeys of medieval characters like Everyman. They are not literal but spiritual. For instance, he conquers the Deadly Sin of Pride after falling on the floor of the factory in front of the workers (Chpt. 5). He writes up his adventures in the French Quarter as going through “an allegorical forest of evil” (Chpt. 9, p. 269). He mentions that we should live by the counsel of Hroswitha (ca. 935-1002 CE), the “legendary Sybil of a holy nun” (Chpt. 2, p. 54) who wrote plays and verse showing the chastity of Christian women as opposed to the passion of Latin women. Ignatius expresses disgust with sexy women, though he likes to see them at the movies.
In terms of politics, Ignatius dislikes the middle class and is for monarchy, especially the divine right of kings. He also makes reference to the medieval idea of humours as giving rise to character. He calls the gay community “You distempered people” (Chpt. 12, p. 382), accounting for their behavior by some imbalance of bodily fluids. Every evaluation that Ignatius makes is based on a worldview totally obscure to the modern way of thinking. It is no wonder he is a comic outcast.
4. How did the Southern Gothic genre influence Toole’s writing?
The European Gothic story, or supernatural mystery, that took its name from the spooky Gothic mansions of its settings, originated in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and was adapted to fiction or drama that takes place in the Southern United States. The style may include old mansions, threats of violence, grotesque characters, death or a murder mystery, the theme of decay, an appeal to the supernatural, a haunting past with family secrets, omens and prophesies, and a spiritual or moral dimension. William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, Erskine Caldwell, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote are among writers of this genre.These authors write about deeply flawed characters, and the stories often include racism, poverty, ignorance, religious bigotry, and violence. Southern Gothic is often more psychologically realistic than the supernatural stories associated with the European Gothic tradition. Authors fathom the issues of internal evil rather than the external sensationalism of ghosts and curses and spirits. Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was one of Toole’s favorite Southern Gothic writers. Like Toole, she was Catholic and wrote ironic, humorous and allegorical fiction about the spiritual delusions of modern characters. She saw Southern fundamentalism as engendering ignorance and intolerance. She indicts the twentieth century, as Toole does, for its secular world unable to support spirituality. Toole imitated her in his first novel, Neon Bible, written when he was sixteen. He described it as “a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South.” It is set in Mississippi in the 1940s in a Baptist community. He used the regional settings and grotesque characters in moral situations reminiscent of O’Connor and the Southern Gothic writers. Shortly before his suicide, Toole tried to visit O’Connor’s farm Adalusia in Georgia, though she was deceased
This first work of Toole’s can be called Southern Gothic in theme and style. This type of fiction often has a tragic outcome or tone. The hero in Neon Bible commits murder over a moral outrage. Confederacy of Dunces has the Southern Gothic sense of decay and moral outrage, but it is turned into a comedy. It could have turned tragic if Ignatius had been sent to an insane asylum, demonstrating what happens to the eccentrics in society. Though Ignatius is obnoxious, his comments point out ironies in twentieth-century culture. Fortunately, Myrna arrives to whisk him away to New York instead.
5. How does this novel fit into the tradition of satire?
Satire attacks the practices of society through ridicule, exaggeration, irony, burlesque, and humor. Human nature is exposed in its worst follies and illusions Toole seems familiar with the works of other famous satirists, such as Charles Dickens, Laurence Sterne, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain, whom he mentions or imitates in technique. For instance, he uses Dickens’s method of personifying houses and objects when he speaks of Constantinople Street where Ignatius lives: “It was a neighborhood that had degenerated from Victorian to nothing in particular, a block that had moved into the twentieth-century carelessly and uncaringly—and with very limited funds” (Chpt. 2, p. 43). The Reilly house is tiny, “a Lilliput” but which contains a giant Gulliver-like Ignatius. This reference to Swift’s Gullivers Travels (1726) highlights some of the grotesque perspective in terms of contrast that Toole uses. He also recalls Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” that proposes dealing with the poor Irish by eating excess children to keep down population numbers. Ignatius uses a similar logic to Jones proposing that black people should be content with poverty so they do not have ulcers worrying about their money.The title of the book also comes from Swift’s Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Swift’s definition of satire would probably be endorsed by Toole: “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own, which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” Toole makes us laugh at human behavior in a generous manner, without venom, in the humanist tradition, with the hope of stimulating reflection and self-knowledge.
His characterization is in the great tradition of Dickens and Thackeray. Ignatius recalls the fat and vain Jos Sedley in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848). He also recalls Gargantua in Francois Rabelais’s series, Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532), with its bawdy jokes to tell the satiric story of a gigantic father and son let loose in Paris. Toole also brings up bawdy topics or details usually regarded as taboo or in bad taste, especially in the nineteen-sixties, when such things as masturbation were first being openly mentioned (Ignatius refers to it by its Biblical name, onanism). Toole refers to Ignatius as the “gargantuan [hotdog] vendor” (Chpt. 7, p. 189).
Ignatius compares himself to Mark Twain composing while in bed, though he claims Twain is boring. He also calls him a “dreary fraud” for romanticizing the polluted Mississippi River (Chpt. 5, p. 141). Mention is made by both Mrs. Reilly and Ignatius of the moment of his conception (“ I am the result of particularly weak conception . . . [My father’s] sperm was probably emitted in a rather offhand manner” Chpt. 11, p. 347), a nod to Laurence Sterne’s satiric hero in Tristram Shandy (1759) who begins with an account of his conception. Another favorite technique is the mock-heroic where he treats a trivial scene like a great epic battle. In trying to incite the workers at Levy Pants to stage a demonstration or in vending hotdogs in the French Quarter, Ignatius believes himself to be a crusader or a pilgrim or a warrior with his plastic pirate sword.