Saturday, April 7, 2012

Conferderacy of Dunces - Ignatius Reilly: The Catalyst of Deliberate Life

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In the words of a Volkswagon advertisement “In life there are passengers and drivers ... drivers wanted.” Henry David Thoreau was a driver. While many people take a back seat, Thoreau took the figurative wheel. While many people ask questions in life, he was one of the very few who actually answers. Opening Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” is a mission statement for Thoreau, to live life deliberately. Simply defined, to live life to the fullest. Many of the characters of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces begin the story with lives that are not deliberate. However, through Ignatius Reilly, the story’s main character, many of them fulfill Thoreau’s statement, and change, living their lives deliberately by the conclusion of the story. The destiny of Ignatius Reilly directly or indirectly affected every other character’s destiny. Mrs. Reilly’s new life, Mancuso’s transition to a good cop, Myrna’s self worth, and Mr. Levy’s new motivation are all due in part to the actions of Ignatius.


Before we can fully evaluate how the characters in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces “live deliberately” according to Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”, a closer look into living deliberately as defined in “Walden” needs to be taken.


What is the purpose of life? Human beings have always questioned the purpose of our lives. Many philosophers have spent countless hours pondering an answer. According to philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”, the purpose of life is a journey towards the absolutes of simplification. The first line of “Walden” reads, “I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” (Thoreau 1) This line emphasizes the bare essentials of life. Through this passionate use of double negatives, Thoreau encourages the reader to maximize life by living it to its fullest possible extent.


Justin Eichenlaub in his work entitled “A Paper on the Conclusion of Walden, ” concurs with this analysis of the statement. “Thoreau calls for an “ideological revolution to simplification” in our lives. This concept and sentiment is in extreme opposition to how we actually live our lives today.” (Eichenlaub 1)


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Line two of Thoreau’s “Walden” reads “I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” (Thoreau ) With these words, Thoreau tries to emphasize a life without fear. Fear is the instrument that prevents people from truly achieving what they are capable of accomplishing. In the words of the famous Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his first inaugural speech, “the only thing we have to fear. . . is fear itself. . . nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” (Roosevelt 1) Thoreau identifies fear as a major enemy of living life to its fullest.


The third line of Thoreau’s work reads “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine madness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it on my next excursion.” (Thoreau 1) The rich flavor of this idea can be truly tasted in the Latin phrase “carpe diem.” Seize the day. Thoreau believed that life itself was a precious commodity. As such, he believed that we should both fight for and treasure it. What particularly stands out in this passage is Thoreau’s reference to the Spartans. The Spartans were ferocious fighters. In his work “The Evil Empire”, historian Josiah Ober states, “Once, the very sight and sound of an advancing line of Spartan soldiers had been enough to break the nerve of opponents, even before the shock of arms.” (Ober 1) The reference to a Spartan-like rout of life gives an image of an all out attack on living a full and meaningful life.


The last line of “Walden” reads “For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” (Thoreau 1) Thoreau believes that people often declare their purpose of life to be following the glorification of God. However, Thoreau believed that people failed to see what the glorification of God completely entailed. God, he believed, could be appreciated through a much broader sense. Eichenlaub agrees with this conclusion. He writes, “More and more people have been cut off from spiritual development and the cultivation of the mind and body. Often times the only time people think about their own spirituality and soul is in church or in reference to thinking about their god or religion. The truth is that there is much more to stare at, wonder at, and worship than just an image and idea of God in the mind. Thoreau, a man who believed in God himself and alludes to that being many times throughout Walden, lets us know and see that much more in the world is worthy of deep thought and reverence all that earthly nature has to offer.” (Eichenlaub 1)


The main message of Thoreau’s “Walden” is to live deliberately, to make the most out of life moreover that one can live life to the fullest through enjoying the simplicities of life and seizing the opportunity that is presented to them.


Ignatius Reilly is the character of A Confederacy of Dunces who lives life to the fullest. Characters in Twentieth-Century Literature notes this about Ignatius’s activities He spends his time eating, taking baths, going to the movies, and writing a chronicle of his life.” (Gale 1) To begin with, Ignatius is a character who enjoys the simple things of life. An example of this can be seen in the attire of Ignatius. “Ignatius himself was dressed comfortably and sensibly. The hunting cap prevented head colds. The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius. The plaid flannel shirt made a jacket unnecessary while the muffler guarded exposed Reilly skin between earflap and collar. The outfit was acceptable by an theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse and suggested a rich inner life.” (Toole 1-) Ignatius cares little about how ridiculous he looks. He cares little for what the world thinks of him. He is only concerned with the function of his apparel.


Despite having a masters degree, Ignatius lives at home and works at places like Levy Pants Factory and Paradise Vendors. His work does not even come close towards challenging his intellect. His mom disappointingly states, “With all his education, mind you. Selling weenies out on the street in the broad daylight.” (Toole 0) Ignatius, against the common belief of society, does not find value in a job. Instead, he spends his time on what he finds to be worthwhile social causes. “Ignatius sets out to revolutionize the downtrodden, underpaid workers at Levy Pants, but his ill-conceived plans backfire. Similarly, his Save the World through Degeneracy program fails miserably. Despite their lunacy, however, Ignatiuss social reform efforts are aimed at achieving peace and justice in a world undeniably lacking in both.” (Gale )


Ignatius is an individual who seizes opportunities, or rather, tries to seize them. In outrageous fashion, Ignatius’s attempts to start a political party and rally the workers of Levy Pants both end in outrageous disappointment. However, Ignatius makes an honest attempt to make the world a better place. He tries with his best effort and pours everything that he has into those efforts. Despite the failures of both events, these situations set up a scenario in which Ignatius ultimately betters the lives of the people who surround him. Indirectly, Ignatius helps Mr. Gus Levy find new purpose in his business, Mancuso gain some respect, and Jones get the fair treatment that he deserves. At the same time, he causes the evil Lana Lee to have her high school pornography ring exposed.


Although Ignatius is not a perfect model of living deliberately, his effort at living deliberately helped affect his destiny. His efforts were rewarded at the end of the story with a chance to begin a new chapter of his life.


Mrs. Reilly, Ignatius’s mom, is a unique character. . Characters in Twentieth-Century Literature comments on Mrs. Reilly “Mild-mannered Mrs. Reilly, an apparent alcoholic who stores her wine bottles in the oven, invested great sums of insurance money in Ignatiuss eight years of college, and she is disappointed with the result. As the novel begins, she has already endured several years of her sons constant, tyrannical presence in her tiny, dilapidated home.” (Gale 4)


Mrs. Reilly is a character who has a lot of optimism for her son. Proof of this can be seen in her comment to Ignatius before he is about to go find a job, “Just you wait, babe, you’ll make good.” (Toole 7) Any individual who would have had the background on Ignatius that his mom had would not have been so optimistic.


The situation at the Reilly household was bad. The narrator of the story describes how Mr. Clyde, the owner of Paradise Vendors, viewed the Reilly household. “He had heard the sad tale of vendor Reilly the drunken mother, the damages that had to be paid, the threat of penury for both son and mother, the mother’s lascivious friends.” (Toole 45)


Mrs. Reilly spends most of the story catering to the needs to Ignatius. However, as the story progresses, she gets continually more and more agitated by her son. Evidence of this can be seen in the scene when she announces to Ignatius that she is considering marrying Mr. Claude Robichaux, “Who the hell are you to try to tell me what to do, Ignatius?” (Toole 47)


Mrs. Reilly spends most of the book failing to “live deliberately.” Her life is full of regrets. However, as the story ends, her life starts to turn around. In being relieved of Ignatius and having a relationship with Mr. Robichaux, she begins to find herself after decades of being lost in the shadow of Ignatius’s life. Withdrawing from a life of Ignatius serves as a catalyst towards the beginning of her life of purpose.


Patrolman Mancuso is, simply put, a loser throughout most of the story. One wonders why such an unlucky, inept, and timid individual could ever become a police officer. This quote sums up the situation ” Patrolman Mancuso drifted sadly off to the lockers, wondering why he could never do anything right for the sergeant.” (Toole 74) He was the epitome of ridicule.


However, things would change for Mancuso. After following Ignatius one night, he hits a jackpot. He winds up arresting Lana Lee, Betty, Frieda, and Liz. He also, with the help of Jones, breaks up Lana Lee’s pornography ring. Mancuso is then commended by his sergeant, “Single-handed you break up the city’s most active high school pornography racket. Mancuso, of all people, brings in a women even our plainclothesmen couldn’t fool. “ (Toole 404) The Sergeant continues on his praise of Mancuso on the following page, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you was to get a promotion for this.” (Toole 405)


Mancuso, like Mrs. Reilly, is a character who fails to live deliberately throughout most of the story. He is an oddball cop who cannot seem to do one thing right. However, like Ignatius, Mancuso keeps on trying. He never gives up on his cause and in keeping with the Thoreau-like ideal; this determination leads him to a change of luck. Mancuso is given a golden opportunity by Ignatius and seizes it! Again, Ignatius seems to be the catalyst. Indirectly, Ignatius changes the misfortune of Mancuso and sets him up to live a life of real purpose.


Myrna Minkoff is perhaps the most interesting character of the story. “Described by Ignatius as a loud, offensive maiden from the Bronx with wild black hair, Myrna always wears a black leotard. Presenting herself as an outspoken radical activist, she reveals how shallow her convictions are in her letters to Ignatius.” (Gale 5)


She is perpetually searching for a life’s cause. Myrna is a character who tries extremely hard to live life in a deliberate manner. This is why she attempts to support the various causes that she supports. However, she fails in her attempts to find value in her life through the causes she is supporting. This is evident through her statement to Ignatius as they are driving off in the finale of the story. “This is a very meaningful moment. I feel as of I’m saving someone.” (Toole 45) This quote reveals the lack of fulfillment she had been getting from her role as an outspoken radical activist.


Myrna finally finds something that can help her achieve living a deliberate life in Ignatius. Myrna’s destiny is directly related to the destiny of Ignatius Reilly. Through Ignatius, Myrna finds real purpose in her life. It is through Ignatius that Myrna begins to live the deliberate life of “Walden.”


Mr. Levy is the character whose life undergoes the most evident deliberate change. “Mr. Levy has seen his wife’s letters to the girls, emotional, irrational brainwashing editorials that could have made Patrick Henry out to be a Tory, that brought the girls home on holidays bristling with hostility against their father for the thousands of injustices he had committed against their mother.” (Toole 175) He is a good-hearted man who failed to live deliberately until his life was touched by the life of Ignatius Reilly. Through the extreme actions of Ignatius, Mr. Reilly is forced to face a five hundred thousand dollar lawsuit.


This lawsuit turns out to be a blessing in disguise for Mr. Levy. Through the lawsuit, he realizes that he needs to change his life. “This Abelman business has made me think about a lot of things. How come nobody buys our pants? Because they stink. Because they’re made from the same patterns my father used twenty years ago, the same fabrics. Because that old tyrant wouldn’t change a thing in that plant. Because he destroyed whatever initiative I had. I want a whole new line of wash and wear swatches from the mills. Levy Pants becomes Levy Shorts.” (Toole 4) This leads Mr. Levy to decide to change things in his life. He decides that “Mrs. Levy wouldn’t really fit into the Levy Shorts plan.” (Toole 44) This decision breaths new life into Mr. Gus Levy and sets him up to finally live the deliberate life he wanted to live.


The characters of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces each begin the story with lives that lack purpose and meaning. However, through Ignatius Reilly, either directly or indirectly, each of their lives change. Ignatius serves as a catalyst for many of the characters in the story to change their lives. Through his actions, he helps the characters realize issues about their lives that lead them down the path towards a more purposeful and deliberate life. Whether it was his letter that led to the rebirth of Mr. Levy or his incident at the Night of Joy with the bus that helped Mancuso revive his career, Ignatius Reilly was a phenomenon. A Confederacy of Dunces shows the impact that a single individual can have on so many different lives. Whether directly or indirectly, everybody’s actions impact the world.


Eichenlaub, Justin. “A Paper on the Conclusion of Walden.” Velocity.net.


(No Date Given) http//www.velocity.net/~jutman/Walden.htm


Gale Research. Characters in Twentieth-Century Literature, Book Two. 15 Literature Resource Center.


Josiah, Ober. “The Evil Empire.” TheHistoryNet.com. (No Date Given) http//www.thehistorynet.com/MHQ/articles/18/sum8_text.htm


Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. “First Inaugural.” The Challenge of Democracy. March , 1 http//www.hpol.org//fdr/inaug/


Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. http//hale.pepperdine.edu/~tflynn/English/10/whitmanthoreau.htm


Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. New York Wings Books, 16


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