A Confederacy of Dunces: Theme
Celebration of Diversity
Toole picks up a theme prevalent in the 1960s—cultural diversity. This was the decade of ethnicity coming to the fore as a positive social attribute in American life. Before, one tried to downplay one’s ethnic or social group in favor of being a mainstream American. Difference of race, religion, sexual orientation, and politics is highlighted and discussed. African Americans are represented in Jones, Mattie’s Ramble Inn, and the factory workers at Levy’s. Jews are represented by Myrna Minkoff and the Levys. The Reillys are Irish Catholics. Claude Robichaux is French Catholic. Dorian Greene is both gay and from Nebraska. Mr. Gonzalez is a Mexican American. Miss Trixie is one of the growing number of the senile population, while George represents the juvenile delinquent. Toole tries to create an atmosphere of tolerance with his humor and caricatures. Myrna lectures and demonstrates for equal rights as activists of the times were doing, but Toole uses satire to ridicule prejudice and to change awareness, allowing every group its due place.
The black community is especially well done by Toole in his dialects and his portrait of the indirect political strategy of “sabotage.” Jones is a comic masterpiece and creates sympathetic identification for blacks. Gonzalez is the ethnic person climbing out of a lower position as worker to management. He thinks of the black workers as below him and not part of the “brain” of the company. Toole thus picks up a subtle discussion of minority culture and minority rights. Jones is always comparing the economic plight of blacks to the days of slavery. Claude, Santa, and Irene worry about communists, very much a topic during the Cold War while Viet Nam was in full swing. Ignatius would like to see a gay military in order to have world peace with only parties and no fighting. Irene and Myrna are a nod to women’s rights with Myrna being a sexually liberated woman and an activist. Irene is the lower class mother who constantly complains about how hard a mother’s lot is. She sympathizes with other mothers and wishes she had not conceived Ignatius at all.
Ignatius has a master’s degree but sees himself as disadvantaged in modern society: “I have always felt something of a kinship with the colored race, because its position is the same as mine: we both exist outside the inner realm of American society” (Chpt. 5, p. 144). He notes that his position is, however, “voluntary” (Chpt. 5, p. 144). He tells his mother he wants to “be an observer. I am not especially anxious to mingle” (Chpt. 1, p. 22). He believes he is persecuted and misunderstood because he is stranded in the wrong century. He thinks the human race has degenerated since the Middle Ages when there was a perfect balance with strong kings and an authoritarian pope. He tries to rule his life according to the doctrines of Hroswitha, that austere and medieval nun whose mere gaze would destroy television and its horrors, he believes. The hero stranded in the wrong time has resurfaced as a popular theme in Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, where a writer feels he belongs in Paris in the 1920s among other writers like Ernest Hemingway. In Ignatius’s case, the time difference is a little more extreme, because nothing in modern life is like the Middle Ages, and nothing funnier than Ignatius trying to bring back medieval politics, for instance, in his Divine Rights political party.
Ignatius is a misfit for his philosophy, but his lifestyle is also not acceptable in twentieth-century America where he does not believe he should have to work, and where he thinks he should spend his time documenting modern life from a medieval point of view on Big Chief tablets. Everything Ignatius does causes trouble because he is incapable of following the rules of society. His scrapes get more and more severe until it seems he may go to jail for forging a letter at Levy Pants. The denunciation of his own mother, who wants to have him committed to the insane asylum, is evidence he is a misfit. He is rejected by every group he tries to be part of, including the extremely lax Levy Pants company, and the amused and tolerant gay community. His graduate professor still remembers the trouble Ignatius brought to campus five years earlier, and this continues when his slanderous denunciation is circulated among the students. Darlene decides that “That big crazyman was really the kiss of death” (Chpt. 13, p. 409). Jones calls him a “nucular bum” that catches everyone in the fallout (Chpt. 13, p. 410)
Ignatius seems to play it on the edge. Is he mentally ill or rebellious? He is a type of the Wise Fool who is absurd but also morally right in a way. Mr. Levy notes that when Ignatius comes through a landscape, he leaves a mess, but he also unconsciously causes changes that are beneficial. Ignatius prays to St. Mathurin, the patron saint of madness and clowns. He recalls other fat fools who play clowns and commentators on the margin of society: Oliver Hardy, Jackie Gleason, John Candy, Jack Black, and Shakespeare’s Falstaff, to name a few. His mother asks, “Ignatius, what’s all this trash on the floor?” pointing to the many Big Chief tablets. He answers, “That is my worldview that you see. It still must be incorporated into a whole, so be careful where you step” (Chpt. 2, p. 55). He meets no one who is interested in a worldview many centuries behind the times.
Fate vs. Hard Work
One of the themes of the book comes from Ignatius’s medieval worldview. He devoutly believes in the goddess, Fortuna. If a person is lucky or successful, it is due to fate or fortune, not to hard work, initiative, or creativity, all of the modern explanations we give for those who make it to the top. It was the Renaissance with the rise of the scientific worldview and the discovery of the power of material cause and effect that humans began to believe they could control their environment and their lives. The ancient view gave power over human outcomes to deities or simply to a capricious fate or coincidence. When Jones tells Ignatius “I wanna get someplace” in life (Chpt. 11, p. 347), Ignatius is disgusted he wants to become bourgeois and lectures Jones that there is no point in trying to better his life, for Boethius teaches “striving is ultimately meaningless . . . we must learn to accept” (Chpt. 11, p. 349). Even a man who makes it to the top is going to take a fall sooner or later at the whim of the goddess. Take Boethius, for example, who was a great statesman and philosopher. He was thrown in jail and executed for his political views.
This philosophy seems to comfort Ignatius who is not the striving type anyway. He likes to lie around in his bed or watch TV. This causes him to run against a brick wall as far as society is concerned, for the work ethic predominates. The American Dream is that any person can succeed by putting forth effort. When forced to get a job, Ignatius finds the least demanding positions, not caring about money or prestige. His master’s degree singles him out, he believes, not for a high-paying job, but to be an intellectual, a writer, and a social philosopher like Boethius. He compares himself to the medieval philosopher, in fact, as a marginal person. Even if he takes up a project, such as the political rallies in order to compete with Myrna, he believes he will succeed or fail based on Fortuna. Fortuna is the reason he fails, not his own incompetence.
The other view is the American idea of hard work. Mrs. Reilly gives Patrolman Mancuso as an example of the kind of worker Ignatius should be. Mancuso is having a hard time on the police force and is being punished by his superiors causing him hardship and illness and depression. He does not give up, however. He invests his own money in expensive clothes that will draw prostitutes and others to think he is a customer. When he takes this initiative, he succeeds in bringing in Lana Lee who propositions him. Similarly, Mrs. Levy lectures Gus that it was his father Leon’s hard work that made Levy Pants a big company. He is going to let it go down the drain because he does not work hard. This seems to prove true as his negligence contributes to its falling apart.
In the end, however, Fortuna seems to win out, for who could have predicted or even controlled Ignatius, likened to a bomb being dropped? Suddenly, Gus wakes up and becomes a capitalist again, Jones becomes a hero for saving Ignatius from the bus and helping with the Lana Lee bust. He is given a job and reward by Levy. Miss Trixie suddenly gets to retire. Myrna descends and rescues Ignatius at the eleventh hour when it seems he is really going to the insane asylum. In modern realistic fiction these coincidences would be flaws in the plot. Toole, however, constructs the plot as picaresque like many medieval narratives, reflecting a worldview that sees human action as somewhat random in its results. The hero goes through one scrape after another, and who can account for his luck or his misfortune?