Study Guide

A Confederacy of Dunces Inertia

By John Kennedy Toole

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Inertia

"[…] death, destruction, anarchy, progress, ambition, and self-improvement were to be Piers' new fate. And a vicious fate it was to be: now he was faced with the perversion of having to GO TO WORK." (2.4)

Here Ignatius is explaining how the man of the Middle Ages has been forced to become the worker of the modern era. It's silly to say that folks in the Middle Ages didn't work, of course, but the main point here is that Ignatius is predicting his own horrible destiny. It's a foreshadowing of the job applications on the horizon.

"Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel," Ignatius belched. "Do not crush me beneath your spokes. Raise me on high, divinity." (2.7)

Ignatius is lying down while praying and belching—you can almost see the wheel being turned by the gas from his eruptions. You also get a sense of why the philosophy of Fortuna is so pleasing to the inert. Since you can't affect your fate, you can just lie back and burp and wait.

"If I must go out tomorrow, I am not leaving the house so early. I felt very disoriented all the while I was downtown."

"You didn't leave here until after lunch." (3.40-41)

Ignatius's laziness is the main excuse for him and his mother to bicker. His tireless invention in the service of his tiredness is continually impressive.

"My valve did close quite violently this afternoon when Mr. Gonzalez asked me to add a column of figures for him. When he saw the state into which I was thrown by the request, he thoughtfully added the figures himself. I tried not to make a scene, but my valve got the better of me." (4.200)

The valve protects Ignatius from work, so it's less a valve than a shield. If he didn't have indigestion, he would have to invent it.

"Then too, if I were a N****, I would not be pressured by my mother to find a good job, for no good jobs would be available." (5.186)

Ignatius is fantasizing here about how great it would be to be black and not be able to work. In reality, of course, black people in the early 1960s in the South were often much poorer than even a not-very-well-off white guy like Ignatius might want to think about. For example, Mrs. Reilly owns a house, but black people were often prevented from getting bank loans; as a result, they had great trouble owning homes.

Ignatius only finds the idea of being black and poor appealing because he doesn't actually have to think about what he's talking about. It's a pretty unsavory daydream.

"There was a happy hush in the factory, most of the workers eager for the change of pace." (6.94)

Ignatius spreads inertia wherever he goes, even when he doesn't want to. In fact, we are going to take a nap now. So long…

Oh, right, the factory. Well, here Ignatius thinks he's encouraging the workers to revolt, but in fact, they're just happy to have a chance to take a few minutes off.

And now we are going back to sleep.

"I have answered only two ads. On some days I am completely enervated by the time I reach Canal Street. On these days I am doing well if I have enough spirit to straggle into a movie palace." (7.25)

Ignatius always has energy to straggle into a movie palace. In fact, as the novel moves on and his mother puts a tighter and tighter rein on his finances, he has to work harder and harder to get to his favorite leisure-time activity.

"Susan and Sandra will hate to know that your bum's attitude toward the world almost ruined them, that because you won't even take the time to supervise your own company, we have somebody suing us for half a million. The girls will really resent that. The least that you've always given them has been material comfort." (11.242)

Mrs. Levy enlists Susan and Sandra on her behalf in excoriating Mr. Levy for his laziness. But of course, Mrs. Levy doesn't actually ever do anything except get shaken up by her exercise board, and Susan and Sandra seem to mostly be enjoying college life without making too great an effort. It's because they all aren't doing much else that they have so much time to devote to pointing out that Mr. Levy isn't doing much.

Mr. Levy straightened his newspaper and realized again that…he should have given his time to supervising Levy Pants. Things like this would not happen; life could be peaceful. But just the name, just the three syllables of 'Levy Pants,' caused acid complications in his chest. Perhaps he should have changed the name." (13.119)

It's nice that the main motivation for working harder is "life could be peaceful." Laziness brings chaos… which is certainly true for Ignatius as well.

"You was right, Ignatius. You can't go to work. I shoulda known that. I shoulda tried to get that debt paid off some other way. […] If that Mr. Levy calls, don't answer the phone. I'm gonna take care of you."

"Oh, my God!" Ignatius bellowed. "Now I'm really in trouble." (14.39-40)

Mrs. Reilly finally decides that Ignatius is constitutionally incapable of working… an admission that also leads her to believe he should be placed in the psychiatric ward. Somewhat ironically, the chance of never having to work, or go anywhere again does not make Ignatius happy; instead it sends him into a flurry of activity, and shortly propels him out of New Orleans altogether.

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