A Confederacy of Dunces: Chapter 5
Summary of Chapter Five
Lana reads a newspaper article to Darlene at the Night of Joy bar about three women who were arrested (Frieda, Betty, and Liz) for starting a fight in a bar when a man tried to proposition one of them. Lana calls the three “dykes” and says they are ruining bar business--that and all the plainclothesmen in her bar. Darlene tells Lana what they need in the bar is an animal. All the other clubs have them and draw customers. Darlene proposes they use her cockatoo, which she can use in a dance act.
The orphan George comes in to talk to Lana. Darlene and Jones remark that he looks like a crook with his beige flamenco boots. Lana pulls George aside and tells him they have to be careful. She tells him to come in when Jones is at lunch. He will have to carry the packages around all afternoon. She tells him to check them at the bus station.
Gonzalez is happy at Levy Pants because things have improved since Ignatius came. The filing has virtually disappeared, and Ignatius is so nice to Miss Trixie that the office is pleasant. Ignatius has transformed the office with his decorations, signs, and purple drapes, turning the place into a medieval shrine with a cross and statue of St. Anthony. Miss Trixie forgetfully comes to work in her nightgown, and Gonzalez sends her home to change. She asks hopefully if she is retired now, and he says no.
Ignatius comes to work late as usual and says he will finish the large cross he is making and then he will visit the factory. Gonzalez is conciliatory. Miss Trixie shows up because Ignatius told her he would share his luncheon meat sandwich with her. She kneels down and prays at the cross he has made. Ignatius dumps the filing into the wastebasket and then visits the factory.
Mancuso had been moonlighting to bring in some suspicious characters for the sergeant. He went to a bar as a plainclothesman and was attacked by three wild women. He has a bandage on his head. The sergeant mentions that other plainclothesmen have been at the Night of Joy every night but have not yet turned up any prostitutes. Mancuso gave them a phony lead and for that he will be punished by being staked out at the rest room in the bus station until further notice.
Mrs. Reilly goes out for a night of bowling. Ignatius opens his journal and writes about his day at the office: “All non-essential activities in the office are slowly being curtailed” (p. 139). He goes on to describe the injustice at the factory. It is a sweatshop of Negro slavery. However, it appears that the workers are not actually working. The foreman is a drunk, and the workers are doing whatever they want, making dresses on the sewing machines or taking a break. Jazz is playing from the loudspeakers, and he suspects this music is making them apathetic. The workers are angry when he shuts off their music. When he gets their attention, he speaks in their black dialect as one of them to tell them they are being exploited. They laugh and point at him. He decides, “Negroes are nonetheless a rather pleasant folk” (p. 144). He decides he is a marginal person like they are, though “my exile is voluntary” (p. 144). He is appalled, however, that many Negroes want to be part of the middle class. This would be an insult to their integrity.
He interrupts his narrative to a flashback of his meeting Myrna Minkoff in graduate school. She is a Jewish intellectual activist and accuses him of being anti-Semitic. She tries to get him into bed, and he tries “to guide her toward the path of truth” (p. 148). She is always trying to get him to be an activist, so now he decides to organize the Negroes at Levy Pants.
Dr. Talc in his office at the Social Studies Building on the campus where Myrna and Ignatius met in graduate school, finds among his papers a stack of ungraded essays from five years ago. He finds a sheet of a Big Chief tablet with an insult written on it describing him as ignorant and a “total ass” (p. 151). It was signed, “Zorro.” Talc remembers Ignatius and wonders what happened to him.
Commentary on Chapter Five
Toole continues to add more characters, broadening his satire. The three lesbian women in the newspaper appear later in the gay community scenes. Lana Lee is prejudiced against gays yet is herself a criminal exploiting others like Jones, and using the boy George to sell some illegal product for her. Lana complains about the plainsclothesmen the sergeant sent to her bar based on Ignatius’s hint to Mancuso. Lana acts indignant and righteous: “It’s hard for a person to earn an honest buck” (p. 127).
The scenes at Levy Pants get more and more hilarious, with Ignatius noticing Miss Trixie’s yellowed dirty sox and changing them for her. He is the only one who tries to take care of the old lady. Gonzalez seems to regard Ignatius as a superior person because of the way he takes over, making the office look medieval. Toole carefully shows what the black workers at Levy’s think of Ignatius through indirection. Ignatius writes in his journal that they like him because he can speak like they do: “Hear me talkin’ to ya. Wow!” (p. 143). He lapses from his usual erudite tone to be a man of the people. He plans to improve the lot of the workers, yet he is highly upset that black people want to join the middle class, which was a central civil rights issue. He is firmly embedded in the medieval view of hierarchy, with a fixed social class system. Democracy and the middle class are too modern for him.
Ignatius does not really know black people the way he thinks he does. In fact, he compares himself to Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (1888). Kurtz thought he was civilized but ended up exploiting the African natives in a violent way. Ignatius thinks the Negroes are rather pleasant to be around because they are laughing, but he does not get they are obviously laughing at him. This part of his journal offers an extended look at the Negro Problem, with Ignatius thinking of himself as a fair-minded humanitarian, but it is a satire on white condescension and misunderstanding. He objects to them gathering to sing spirituals, but he thinks they should be free to compose jazz or dance or whatever it is they do.
Myrna Minkoff makes a major appearance in this chapter from Ignatius’s sarcastic point of view: “She was only happy when a police dog was sinking its fangs into her black leotards or when she was being dragged feet first down stone steps from a Senate hearing” (p. 147). He understands Myrna’s misguided mission to black people but does not apply the same insight to himself: “She had stopped throughout the rural South to teach Negroes folk songs she had learned at the Library of Congress” (p. 148). Nevertheless, Ignatius decides he must leave his “Miltonic isolation and meditation” (p. 149) and embrace a life of social action to prove himself to Myrna.
The chapter ends by introducing Dr. Talc, one of Ignatius’s graduate school professors, who unearths an insulting evaluation Ignatius had turned in some years ago. Like the mischief of the letter sent to Abelman’s Dry Goods, this evaluation will prove Talc’s undoing.