A Confederacy of Dunces
Comprehension Through the Smoke, Awareness Beyond the Glasses in A Confederacy of Dunces
In his novel A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole casts Burma Jones in a stereotypical role in society. By hiding Jones’ face behind space-age sunglasses and a cloud of smoke, Toole maintains Jones’ ambiguity while gradually diverging from his stereotype. During Jones’ employment at the Night of Joy bar, he knows his limitations regarding Lana Lee and his own duties. Jones becomes familiar with his surroundings to the point that he not only recognizes his own exploitation, but also the many other atrocities committed by Lana Lee. When Jones exposes Lana Lee at the end of the novel, he breaks his stereotype altogether. Throughout A Confederacy of Dunces, Jones remains fully aware of his circumstances and uses his stereotype to effectively manipulate his situation. From the moment Toole introduces Jones at the police station, he makes routine references to Jones’ glasses and the cloud of smoke that seems to surround him in order to subtly deemphasize Jones’ identity. Along with keeping Jones relatively anonymous, Toole uses the smoke and sunglasses as metaphors to symbolize the stereotype in which society casts Jones. When Lana Lee physically attempts to see Jones through his dark glasses, she also attempts to see Jones beyond his stereotype. Her lack of success in doing so often makes her feel uneasy. “I told you to take the glasses off, Jones.”“The glasses stayin on.” Jones bumped the push broom into a bar stool. “For twenty dollar a week, you ain running a plantation in here.\“Stop knocking that broom against the bar,” she screamed. “Goddammit to hell, you making me nervous.”\ Then the cloud of smoke and the broom moved off across the floor (Toole 70). Toole uses the word “nervous” to reveal Lana Lee’s feeling of discomfort. Lana becomes nervous not only because of Jones’ seemingly reckless sweeping patterns, but because of the anonymity he manages to maintain throughout his employment. Toole reveals that Lana Lee senses something out of the ordinary concerning Jones, and she cannot make sense of his sarcastic comments and sharp remarks. Physically hidden behind his glasses and metaphorically hidden behind his stereotype, Jones skillfully escapes any interpretation from Lana Lee. Lana sees Jones only as “the cloud of smoke and the broom.” Toole employs this metonymy to emphasize Jones’ lack of identity in the eyes of Lana Lee and the rest of society. Toole refers to Jones as “the cloud of smoke and the broom” to present society’s nescient view of Jones. While hidden behind his stereotype, Jones also recognizes the security of his job due to his codependent relationship with Lana Lee. He understands Lana Lee’s economic dependence on him and regularly tests his limitations while working. Jones knows he cannot quit for fear of vagrancy, but he regularly asserts his opinions. When asked to run an errand for Lana, Jones flatly refuses.You cain scare color peoples no more. I got me some peoples form a human chain in fron your door, drive away your business, get you on the TV news. Color peoples took enough horseshit already, and for twenty dollar a week you ain piling no more on. I getting pretty tire of bein vagrant or workin below the minimal wage. Get somebody else run your erran (Toole 71).Toole employs the verb “scare” to emphasize Jones’ sense of confidence as he responds to Lana Lee. Along with this confidence, Jones applies his understanding of his circumstances to ascertain his own limitations at the Night of Joy. Knowing that Lana Lee will not fire him, Jones routinely tests and manipulates Lana Lee to make the most of his imprisonment. In response to Jones’ refusal, Lana Lee replies, “Aw, knock it off and finish my floor. I’ll get Darlene to go” (Toole 71). With regard to Lana Lee, Jones knows exactly how far he can go. Jones’ understanding of his circumstances leads to his composure when confronting Lana Lee. Lana attempts to appease Jones only because she has “an investment to protect” (Toole 72). Lana sees Jones as no more than a cheap and stereotypical piece of property, and she unconsciously treats him as such. Aside from recognizing his own limitations, Jones also remains aware of his environment in order to determine the best way to use his inside information. Jones cannot immediately report Lana Lee’s obscene pornographic activities, so he uses his knowledge to further manipulate Lana. “Whoa! I knowed it all along. Well, if you ever plannin to call up a po-lice about me, I plannin to call up a po-lice about you. Phones at the po-lice headquarters really be hummin. Ooo-wee. Now lemme in peace with my sweepin and moppin. Recor playin pretty advance for color peoples. I probably break your machine” (Toole 219). Jones recognizes that he and Lana Lee both have information to hold against one another. Along with his elaborate plan to expose Lana, Jones uses his knowledge to attack her. Jones’ comical sarcasm referencing his own record playing abilities serves only to further insult her intelligence. Lana immediately dismisses the idea of Jones’ intellectual dexterity because she cannot see past his stereotype. Toole explains, “Lana studied Jones’ face, but his eyes were invisible behind the smoke and dark glasses” (Toole 219). Perfectly hidden under the guise of his stereotype, Jones uses Lana’s nescience against her. Lana continues to ignore Jones’ motives and quick wit, and lets him continue “goofing off behind them goddam glasses” (Toole 167). Ironically, Jones plans to “break” more than Lana Lee’s record player. Through the course of Jones’ planned sabotage of the Night of Joy, Toole includes several seemingly inconspicuous hints to foreshadow the effects of Jones’ actions. When Jones manages to manipulate Darlene and Lana into incorporating the bird into Darlene’s dance routine, Toole adds that Jones “created a dangerous-looking nimbus that seemed ready to burst.” Toole uses this metaphor as an omen to Lana Lee, which she fails to recognize due to her underestimation of Jones. As Jones manipulates his situation to the best of his ability, Lana Lee cannot determine his true motives. Toole again alludes to Jones careful manipulation of Lana Lee when Jones briefly removes his stereotype. Toole describe that Jones, “for the first time in the Night of Joy, took off his sunglasses” (Toole 224). In briefly removing his glasses, Jones removes his stereotype as well. By actually writing the Night of Joy address on the packages, Jones completely emerges from the cover of his stereotype. Ironically, Lana Lee had left the room immediately preceding Jones’ removal of his stereotype for the first time in the novel. While Jones undoubtedly benefited from a lucky series of events following his planned sabotage of Lana Lee, he undeniably made the most of imprisonment through clever use of his stereotype. Jones ultimately succeeds in his sabotage through a combination of luck and dexterity. While he could not have sabotaged Lana Lee without the coincidental help of Ignatius and Officer Mancuso, he skillfully puts these characters in place to execute his plan. While vigilantly manipulating other characters in the novel, Jones manages to simultaneously escape any interpretation from the outside world by hiding behind his stereotype. Rather than accepting confinement by his stereotype, Jones uses it to his advantage.
Ignatius and Irene: Partnership and Polarization
Ignatius and Irene: Partnership and Polarizationby Daniel G. DolgicerDecember 07, 2005Familial bonds add arresting dimensions to even the most torturously mundane of novels. The literary options are truly myriad; family ties can represent both complexity and simplicity, and provide characters with both adversity and appeasement. The intricate interaction between mother and son has particularly saturated the authorial mind since the dawn of literature. In A Confederacy of Dunces, author John Kennedy Toole utilizes the sacred union between mother and son in unprecedented fashion. In particular, the attitudes and activities of Irene Reilly and her son Ignatius determine the tone of the novel and guide its course of events. While Irene and Ignatius Reilly are both inherently insecure and unassertive, they attempt to remedy these debilitating traits in contrasting fashion. Irene betters herself, while Ignatius pursues negativity; Irene attempts high fashion, socialization, and dominance, while her son pursues pompousness, malignity, and gluttony. The psyches of the mother and son clan shed their default parallels and conclude the novel amidst tense polarization.At the core of her complex character, Irene Reilly is defined by unadulterated meekness. She is idle, unmotivated, and discouraged. Living with her son–who preys on the weak–has only furthered Irene’s despair. She listens to Ignatius’s belittling critiques, yet responds with silent bashfulness. Clueless in regards to proper postnatal childcare, Irene often attempts to stymie her son’s seemingly endless arsenal of affronts with pleasantries:Ignatius, I’m gonna have to go by the Homestead tomorrow.We shall not deal with those usurers, Mother. [Ignatius speaking]Ignatius, honey, they can put me in jail.Ho hum. If you are going to stage one of your hysterical scenes, I shall have to return to the living room. As a matter of fact, I think I will. (Toole 42)Choosing humiliation over dignity, Irene Reilly desperately tries to appease her son–probably out of fear that he will descend into an irrational rage and physically harm her. Furthermore, Irene releases her understandably gargantuan sum of stress via whimpering, rather than discipline and preventative measures: “What am I gonna do with a boy like that?…He don’t care about his poor mother. Sometimes I think Ignatius wouldn’t mind if they did throw me in jail. He’s got a heart of ice, that boy” (Toole 42). Irene’s rhetoric embodies an attitude of inaction. Even a shallow review of the novel’s inaugurating chapters will lend revealing insight into her default dolefulness and her self-destructive acceptance of the status quo. Irene, recognizing her pitifully powerless personality, spends the whole of the novel recovering from such melancholy.Ignatius Reilly’s natural disposition is one of fervent insecurity. His facade of control and abuse deteriorates outside the boundaries of his mother’s home. When surrounded by unfamiliarity, his true demeanor is instantly revealed; he becomes almost comically apprehensive, self-doubting, and eager to please. He is so powerless and unsure of his social abilities that he allows complete strangers to dictate his every action. When Ignatius finds himself in a proletarian-packed dance venue, his desire to appease the workers and protect himself–all at the expense of his dignity–is unmistakable. Ignatius acknowledges his blunders, and defies his own cravings in an anxious bid to seamlessly fit in: I…turned off the switch which controlled the music. This action on my part led to a rather loud and defiantly boorish roar of protest from the collective workers…So I turned the music on again, smiling broadly and waving amiable in an attempt to acknowledge my poor judgment and to win the workers’ confidence. (Toole 21)If Ignatius’s homebound attitude of supremacy applied to foreign environments, he would refuse to honor the desires of his fellow laborers. Ignatius is clearly aware that he is unable to intimidate, and is afraid of the ramifications of his behavior. Thus, instead of displaying impatience and high-volume vocal antics, he displays nothing but a consortium of friendly gestures and a synthetic smile. Ignatius–clearly afraid of revealing his true disposition and becoming a target of mockery–tirelessly tries to conform to blue-collar culture when under pressure: “I knew that I had recovered my ground with them when several began pointing to me and laughing. I laughed back to demonstrate that I, too, shared their high spirits” (Toole 21). Ignatius’s inherent insecurity is epitomized by his inability to defend himself and his ferocious desire to “further pacify the workers” (Toole 21). He assumes a position of weakness and acquiescence when in public, and thus feels compelled to amplify his grievances when in the seclusion of his mother’s home.To quell her inherent insecurities, Irene Reilly attempts to take control of her fate and her image; she attempts to better herself. Irene commences this scheme with a bold effort to make herself more attractive. She abandons her typically mundane (and stereotypically motherly) outfits in favor of clothing that she feels is modern and chic. Simultaneously exerting desperation and style, Irene clumsily attaches an article of botanic beauty to her clumsily matched outfit: “…she added a dash of color by pinning a wilter poinsettia to the lapel of her topper” (Toole 116). Furthermore, she increasingly delves into the realm of makeup and various facial stimulants: “His (Ignatius’s) mother’s maroon hair was fluffed high over her forehead; her cheekbones were red with rouge that had been spread nervously up to the eyeballs. One wild puff full of powder had whitened Mrs. Reilly’s face” (Toole 16). Although many feel that her newfound awareness for superficiality has transformed her into an over-clothed fashion catastrophe, Irene is steadfastly proud of her new poshness. Irene’s attempted transformation from functional to fabulous is a blatant bid to legitimize her presence and raise her confidence. She recognizes that her lack of authority is a product of her lack of confidence and sedated spirits. She recognizes that regaining her personal prestige and societal presence requires a reversal of this lack of confidence. She recognizes that first impressions often craft relationships for the long-term, and thus wisely decides to loft her spirits via superficial improvement. To further her recovery from the doldrums of powerless depression, Irene Reilly initiates a steadfast bid to liven her social life. Irene–a widower who is dependent on her abusive son–has historically been a weak and lonely entity. Particularly because she suffers from homebound hardships, Irene needs to balance her home life with social endeavors. The obvious antidote to her sorrow is an infusion of jolliness, laughter, and company. Realizing this, Irene strives to create a tighter bond with her acquaintances, with a concentration on Santa Battaglia; achieving this goal requires appropriate attire, frequent phone conversations, and outings to the bowling alley. Ignatius quickly takes notice of his mother’s influx of companions, and responds with his typically cynical and deriding rhetoric: My mother is currently associating with some undesirables who are attempting to transform her into an athlete of sorts, depraved specimens of mankind who regularly bowl their way to oblivion. At times I find carrying on my blossoming business career rather painful, suffering as I do from these distractions at home. (Toole 101)Ignatius, perhaps jealous of his mother’s increasing socialization, consistently mocks his mother’s social efforts–but to no avail. Irene steadfastly strengthens her public exposure as the novel progresses. Although her demeanor remains relatively morbid, Irene’s efforts to infuse companionship into her meanderings breed tangible results. Irene changes her appearance, her daily schedule, and her attitude towards strangers. Most importantly, Irene increasingly confides in her acquaintances, especially regarding Ignatius’s merciless behavior. Irene’s embrace of social buoyancy–which contrasts with Ignatius’s defeatism–rescues her from the brink of irreversible hermitage.To directly combat her waning lifelessness, Irene adopts an aggressive attitude towards her son, Ignatius. Irene gradually replaces her prototypical acquiescence with a newfound voice of dominance, resilience, and independence. Irene increasingly counters Ignatius’s demoralization, and becomes increasingly willing to criticize her son’s generally reprehensible actions. By the conclusion of the novel, Irene does the unthinkable; she assumes full control of her son’s future, and decides to send him to the lowly realities of institutional incarceration: “I finally made up my mind. Now is the time. He’s my own child, but we gotta get him treated for his own sake… We gotta get him declared temporary insane” (Toole 381). Irene’s decision to contact the Charity Hospital signifies the culmination of her incremental empowerment. She is no longer a pawn of Ignatius, and no longer yields to his every demand. Irene manages to reverse the status quo which her insecurity fostered; she commenced the novel as the dominated entity, and concludes the novel as the premier dominator. She succeeds in relegating the incumbent tyrant to a position of subordination.Much like his mother, Ignatius is cognizant of his unassertiveness and attempts to quell it; unlike his mother, Ignatius implements this policy in flagrantly repugnant fashion. To conceal his insecurity, Ignatius spews arrogance at every juncture. He lofts himself above all others, believing that he is more sophisticated than the working masses and more genuine than the aristocratic classes. Believing that he is too formidable a person to take part in the culture of dunces, Ignatius vehemently refuses to wear the headgear of frankfurter distributors: “I will not wear that paper cap!…Plunge the fork into my vital organs, if you wish. I will not wear that cap. Death before dishonor and disease” (Toole 158). Ignatius attempts to establish a respectable societal presence by constantly referencing his unrivaled intelligence and physical aptitude. When in conversation with his ex-girlfriend Myrna, Ignatius boasts that his amalgam of abilities overwhelms others in his presence: “As the magnificence and the originality of my worldview became explicit through conversation, the Minkoff minx began attacking me on all levels…I both fascinated and confused her; in short, I was too much for her” (Toole 124). Ignatius glorifies his personality as singular and complex when in fact it is wholly primitive. His pompous rhetoric is a method of escapist self-manipulation; he attempts to disguise his inherent insecurity by convincing himself that he is empowered, admired, and has a “rich inner life” (Fletcher).Ignatius attempts to counter his default weakness by mistreating his embattled mother. Amidst the mid-century Cajun conservatism in which Ignatius resides, a male cannot simultaneously shun assertiveness and maintain sanity. Ignatius is incapable of combating public humiliation, and thus diverts his desire to exert stereotypical masculinity unto his mother. Irene is forced to weather the ramifications of her son’s public weakness. Ignatius and Irene seldom engage in dialogue that is not marred by critique and chaos. He condescendingly refuses to afford his mother a good-bye kiss, despite her desperate pre-departure pleas:Open the door, babe, and come kiss me goodbye.Mother, I am quite busy at the moment.Don’t be like that, Ignatius. Open up.Run off with your friends, please. (Toole 115)Although Irene subscribes to a strict policy of conversational civility, Ignatius responds with a steady spew of childish belittlement. Instead of embracing his mother–whose emotional stamina is seemingly eternal–Ignatius insults her appearance and her lack of productivity: “Are you ruining that pair of absurd shoes that were bought with my hard-earned wages?” (Toole 116) Ignatius’s lack of public fortitude provides him with an insatiable desire to abuse the seemingly defenseless–a desire that leads to the constant victimization of Irene Reilly.Ignatius Reilly combats his insecurity and internal strife by achieving a seemingly impossible degree of gluttony. Ignatius’s life is devoid of familial love and friendly affection. Ignatius’s life is devoid of consistent romance and sexual indulgence. Ignatius’s life is devoid of productivity and self-sufficiency. To compensate for such gaps in his lifestyle–and to strike an emotional equilibrium–Ignatius consumes tremendous sums of artery-clogging edibles: “Believing that the human need for food and sex are equal, Ignatius substitutes food for sex by doubling or even tripling a normal food intake.” (Fletcher) Ignatius replaces sex with eggnog, love with éclairs, and his dignity with deep-fried and breaded eggplant. Ignatius becomes dependent on food to alleviate stress and give him a sense of purpose. By pursuing gluttony, Ignatius gains short-term gratification, yet becomes increasingly shackled by the uneasiness and depression that he strives to quell. He becomes obsessed with the production patterns of his intestinal labyrinth, which he believes is activated by nervousness. He suspects that his mother’s seemingly empowered state disrupts his gizzards’ tranquility: “…the sight of his mother in full regalia always slightly appalled his valve” (Toole 116). Ignatius becomes a bastion of physical flabbiness, and becomes substantially less physically attractive as his life progresses. Despite such adverse effects of overeating, Ignatius feels that he must continue such policy or risk worsening his depression and degree of stress. He is truly the pinnacle of the pathetic.Irene and Ignatius Reilly are an unwieldy duo of dynamism and dysfunction. Their dialogue is dominated by scuffles and maternal suppression. However, Irene and Ignatius have parallel genetics, and deceptively parallel personalities. Both halves of this familial relationship are subsumed by fundamental weakness and disabling self-consciousness. Both characters realize these flaws, and pursue behavior aimed at improving their abilities to function amongst the emotionally stable masses. Although the motivations of Ignatius and Irene are alike, their personal resurrectional schemes are starkly contrasting. Irene’s recovery focuses on self-improvement and empowerment; she beautifies, socializes, and becomes less tolerant of abuse. Ignatius’s recovery focuses on being “so obnoxious, arrogant, and self-righteous that he becomes a walking farce” (Caviness); he concludes the novel in a state of flatulent and frustrated solitude. Add to this Ignatius’s abdication from New Orleans (prompted by his mother’s newly obtained mental muscle) and the rational reader will conclude that Irene’s attempted improvement is substantially more successful than that of her son. The patient and tactful are able to overcome their weak genetics, while the bitter and cruel are captive to their inherited flaws.
Ignatius J. Reilly and His Confederacy of Unforgettable Supporting Characters
More than a few critics, academics, scholars and just plain average book readers have declared a winner in the title of funniest novel ever written by an American author: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. This remarkable novel would likely have become one of the legendary efforts of American fiction even without its tragic real-life origin story of a determined mother hell-bent on getting her dead son’s masterpiece published following his suicide. Without doubt, what makes A Confederacy of Dunces one of the most truly enjoyable reading experiences available in the English language is the majesty of its most unforgettable character, Ignatius J. Reilly. While Fitzgerald ultimately felt the compunction to guide the reader to believing Gatsby is great by putting it right there in the title, Ignatius needs no such assistance. His greatness fairly leaps off every page on which he appears. Ignatius Reilly is an obese, intolerant, unemployed man-child still utterly dependent upon his mother despite being a 30-year-old scholar eternally at work scrawling “a lengthy indictment against century in longhand on elementary school lined paper. The ostentatious presence of Ignatius is so commanding that his presence lingers over those scenes in which he does not even appear. What may be surprising to many who are only familiar with A Confederacy of Dunces as a result of the legendary status attained by Ignatius is that a considerable number of scenes in the book do not feature Ignatius in any but that hovering presence of personality.
The bulk of A Confederacy of Dunces—as well as most its most memorably funny incidents—revolve around the jobs which Ignatius is forced to take as a result of a car accident which takes place quite early on. John Kennedy Toole’s legend rests primarily upon his almost preternatural ability to crawl inside the mind of a genuinely unique literary creation like Ignatius and make his perspective toward society that is unquestionably non-conformist, but very often treads upon thin ice of insanity seem endearing if not downright preferable.
As remarkably unforgettable as Ignatius J. Reilly is, however—and no one who ever picks up his story ever stops much less forget him—what may be Toole’s true sign of being a genius is that his modern day Quixote is far from the whole story of A Confederacy of Dunces. Intertwined throughout the story of Ignatius being forced out into the real world are a collection of oddball characters who would themselves be the single greatest creation of a lesser talent. What is truly exhilarating and downright inconceivable is that Toole manages not only to create a gallery of characters worthy of becoming part of Ignatius’ larger narrative, but he manages to link them together in a way that never seems forced and works inexorably toward a satisfying climax in which each of the main supporting characters gets to where Toole needs him (or her) to be without veering from their established patterns of behavior.
Throughout the pages of Ignatius’s laugh-out-loud journal entries and his particularly incisive view of Doris Day movies, the reader is gradually brought into the distinctive individual yet collectively New Orleans milieu of characters as disparate as Ignatius’ put-upon dipsomaniac mother and the owner of a strip club whose kinkiness is equaled only by her genius for grasping the fundamental elements of pure, unrestricted capitalism. Then there is sweet Darlene the stripper-wannabe who dreams of training a cockatoo to remove her clothes on stage with a naiveté that is in some odd way matched the far different obsession of Claude, an old man Mrs. Reilly would not mind dating if only he weren’t so obsessed with seeing a communiss on every corner. Fortunately, her good friend Santa has the perfect advice: “Once Claude gets married,he’ll stop thinking about them communiss.”
Two of the most striking characters in the novel never actually cross paths except by virtue of both coming into contact with the force of nature that is Ignatius. A man of Ignatius’ prodigious singularity could never be expected to have a girlfiend in the normal sense and on that score, Myrna Minkoff is every his equal. Ignatius has a mind which finds the Middle Ages to be the apex of human intellect and as a result pursues a life of celibacy except for far-from-occasional experimentations with self-love. (On that score, he turns out to have more in common with Lana Lee). As for this unique girlfriend who spends nearly the entire book existing only in the form of letters: “Myrna’s cure-all for everything from fallen arches to depression was sex.” One could not get much farther away from Myrna than Burma Jones who also seems to have little in common with Ignatius until it becomes evidence that the jive-talking Negro perpetually hidden behind sunglasses and cigarette smoke is in pretty much exactly the same predicament as the big white man himself: he must finally break down and get a job in order to avoid serving time in jail. And just as one of Ignatius’ most memorable attempts at entering the workforce ends in a spectacular failure to rise up against oppressors, so is Jones sly biding his time for his own small effort at insurrection: “You cain scare color peoples no more. I got me some peoples form a human chain in front your door, drive away your business, get you on the TV news. Color peoples took enough horseshit already, and for twenty dollar a week you ain piling no more on. I getting pretty tire of bein vagran or workin below the minimal wage. Get somebody else run your erran.”
Ignatius alone would make A Confederacy of Dunces worth reading. Add in the collection of supporting players mentioned above and it is impossible to keep it from becoming a recognized masterpiece. And yet there are still two more characters without whom the novel would suffer considerably. One is a decidedly major character, Patrol Mancuso whose continuing efforts to prove his worth to his captain make him an essential thread that ties all the other characters into the narrative of Ignatius. The other is Miss Trixie who appears all-too-briefly in the extended episode culminating in the humiliation of Ignatius as an emancipator of the oppressed working class.
A Confederacy of Dunces succeeds not just as an example of how to create a legendary protagonist, but also as a consummate example of how to create supporting characters who are instrumental in the construction of that legend. What reader of this extraordinary tale can ever forget Ignatius, of course, but it is well worth asking how many readers have ever forgotten Miss Trixie, longtime employee at Levy Pants who wants nothing more than to be able to retire. As large as Ignatius looms in the pantheon of great American literary heroes, without the little touches of the dunces forming in confederation around him like Miss Trixie’s unfathomably hilarious propensity for referring to him as “Gomez” the humor of Ignatius J. Reilly would suffer in ways it is best not even to contemplate.