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.
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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 […]