Part III – Confederacy and Slavery
Toole challenges the classic American belief in work and self-improvement by weaving a motif of slavery, exploitation, and indenture through the novel’s storylines. Make no mistake; none of the characters in this novel are actually enslaved. To imply otherwise is to trivialize the history of slavery, America’s original sin. But the references to slavery importantly underscore A Confederacy of Dunces’ birthplace (the South during the years of the Civil Rights Movement) and philosophy (don’t believe what they tell you about work and getting ahead). The book’s title introduces the theme. Taken from a quotation from Jonathan Swift, the word “Confederacy” also had a specific association and emotional resonance in the early sixties in the Deep South. The main black character, Burma Jones, is essentially enslaved by Lana Lee (note the connotation of that last name) as he is forced to work in her disreputable establishment for less than “the minimum wage.” Why not up and quit? Because he has been told he will be thrown in jail for vagrancy if he does. The black factory workers at Levy’s Pants fare slightly better than Jones, but not much. When Ignatius first spies their working conditions, he calls the scene a vision of “mechanized slavery.” Hoping to liberate the quasi-enslaved workers, Ignatius mounts a ridiculous rebellion branded “The Crusade for Moorish Dignity” in one of the book’s funniest episodes. Even the conceit of the amateurish striptease act at the Night of Joy bar is “Harlot O’Hara,” an allusion to the seminal American novel about the antebellum South. The white, more middle-class characters aren’t exempt. Gonzales is a modern-day Sisyphus, condemned to push the boulder of bureaucracy up and down the hill of a failing apparel factory. His direct report Miss Trixie is compelled to work well past the age of retirement because the dimwitted Mrs. Levy believes the elderly lady would go to seed without a job. At the center of it all is Ignatius, pushing a hot dog-cart along the sidewalk and knowing full well that no amount of weenie sales will never result in the money needed to free his mother from the spurious auto accident lawsuit.
Tomorrow, this series will wrap-up with a discussion of A Catcher in the Rye, by J.S Salinger, which was very influential during the time that Toole was writing a Confederacy of Dunces. Murray Ellison will also offer a note on a parody of Dunces, entitled A Cornucopia of Dunderheads, that was published in 2015.
Rebecca Jones earned her M.A. in English Literature at VCU in 2016. She is an editor and copywriter at VCU and a founding member of the Working Titles Book Club.