A Confederacy of Dunces: Metaphor
Wheel of Fortune
The Wheel of Fortune from medieval philosopher Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy (524 CE) is the primary metaphor of the novel. Ignatius refers to the wheel of the goddess Fortuna constantly whenever things are going up or down for him. Boethius said that human life was ruled by Fortune or Fate rather than human effort. A person could be on the top and then suddenly reverse and be on the bottom. Ignatius refers to cycles indicating that the wheel is in constant motion. The point is that humans should never feel secure in their material life, for change can happen at any moment, bringing good luck or taking it away. Boethius shows worldly fortune to be capricious and therefore, humans should not pin their hopes on worldly success. They must seek the consolation of a higher philosophy. Fortuna rules the lives of individuals but also that of the human race. Ignatius writes that the medieval period was the top of the wheel, but that modern history is a downturn in the fortune of humanity: “The luminous years of Abélard, Thomas à Beckett, and Everyman dimmed into dross; Fortuna’s wheel had turned on humanity” (Chpt. 2, p. 33).
Fortune is pictured as a blind goddess spinning humans on a wheel so that luck comes in cycles. Ignatius is always speculating each day where he is on the wheel, whether in some major or minor cycle of bad luck; sometimes “we find ourselves in a good, small cycle within the larger bad cycle” (Chpt. 3, p. 96). When Fortune spins him downwards, he generally goes to the movies.
Ignatius’s misogyny seems bound up with the image of Fortune as a goddess. He associates the two women in his life, his mother, and Myrna, as moving his life in directions he does not want, like the goddess Fortuna. He mentions he was there “on the very rim of our age” when his mother unfortunately conceived him (p. 266). She is “the agent of my destruction” (Chpt. 9, p. 266). Myrna has also turned on him in telling him he is headed for a breakdown, and his “cycle is dipping lower and lower” (Chpt. 9, p. 267). However, it is Myrna who rescues him at the end, forcing Ignatius to admit that “Fortuna had saved him from one cycle” and wonders where she will send him next (Chpt. 14, p. 461).
Ignatius is described almost solely in animal images or else, as a child. His huge, fat body is likened to an elephant, or a “pink hippo” in the bathtub (Chpt. 7, p. 206); Mr. Clyde calls him an “ape” and a “baboon” (Chpt. 11, p. 333); Santa calls him a “washed-up whale” (Chpt. 13, p. 405). He also “pawed through a pile of yellowed drawers like a dog digging for a bone” (Chpt. 14, p. 456). His hands are always called paws. They are hairy and moist. Dorian Greene calls him “You terrible animal” (Chpt. 10, p. 293). For all his intellectual nature, Ignatius spends most of his time on bodily comforts such as eating, sleeping, and watching TV and movies. He is very sensitive and responds to every stimulus by opening or shutting down, identifying with his digestive valve. His thighs are called “Smithfield hams” (Chpt. 6, p. 159). His speeches about the people of New Orleans debauching themselves and destroying their souls seems contradicted by his own physical nature. True to medieval Christian symbolism, Ignatius sees the body and soul as separate and opposed. He speaks of Myrna assaulting “the castle of my body and mind” (Chpt. 5, p. 147), images from medieval literature, depicting the body as a castle attacked by those who would seduce the soul into sin. In this way he makes himself a hypocrite because he is obsessed with bodily functions, which he reports constantly. The reader is made aware of his many discomforts, his belches, gas, his overtaxed energy, his voracious hunger and thirst. Though he may think he is of a higher nature, he gives most attention to the body.
Ignatius has a master’s degree and is thirty years old but is still at home being cared for by his mother. He is terrified if she goes out at night leaving him alone. His hysterical story about the Greyhound bus tells of his only trip outside New Orleans by himself. He came back quickly needing security. For the same reason he insists on wearing a green hunting hat in all weather. He has a Mickey Mouse watch, a Shirley Temple mug, and writes on Big Chief tablets even as an adult and as a graduate student. He is dependent on routine and makes demands of his mother, used to being spoiled. He is a complete child in the world and does not know how to get around.
The image of the city is important in the book, particularly New Orleans. Society is best shown in cross-section in a city, and Toole’s hometown is described in its various neighborhoods, from Canal Street and Bourbon Street to the lower-class Catholic section, to the French Quarter with its tourists and prostitutes, the bars on the river, the hot dog vendors, the movie houses, the Charity Hospital, and above all the carnival atmosphere of Mardi Gras. Many of the characters are in costume, such as Patrolman Mancuso as he tries to catch criminals in various undercover outfits, and Ignatius himself, who sees himself in heroic roles as leading social crusades. He has his own strange clothing like the hunting cap, but also dresses like a pirate to sell hot dogs. Miss Trixie is “made over” from a senile woman in dirty socks and sneakers to a hip woman with make-up and short skirt by Mrs. Levy. Darlene dresses like a Southern Belle for her strip act; the punk George wears flamenco boots, and Dorian and his gay friends have a costume party for the kick-off of the gay peace initiative. Dorian is from Nebraska but has settled in New Orleans where “You can masquerade and Mardi Gras all year round if you want to . . . Sometimes I can’t tell friend from foe” (Chpt. 10, p. 301). People are not who they appear to be. Lana Lee the businesswoman sells her nude photos to schoolchildren disguised as a teacher reading Boethius. Toole also includes the Mississippi river in his city scenes with its “polluted brown waters” (Chpt. 5, p. 141). A lot of the action happens on the street or in bars.
Myrna calls New Orleans “that decaying city” (Chpt. 12, p. 356) and warns Ignatius to get out because he is rotting there. As a New Yorker she feels she is in the middle of the current ideas and social action, while Ignatius lives in the past in a backwater. He is falling apart there unable to grow up and live his life. In the end she gets him out to a new life in Manhattan. There is however, an opposite image of New Orleans presented in the headnote calling it a Mediterranean city “within the orbit of a Hellenistic world that never touched the North Atlantic.” The novel presents the cities of New York and New Orleans as opposites, and this is reinforced by the headnote. A Hellenistic city implies a culture like the Greek with its cosmopolitan and civilized atmosphere as opposed to a Puritan moral place like New England. Myrna is constantly banging the drum of some cause or other from New York, while New Orleans offers a laid back and worldly place of crumbling beauty and hedonism. In either case, focusing on a city is appropriate as an image of satire on human behavior.