Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Ignatius’s “worldview,” which he is convinced is very original, embraces such standard ideas of medievalism as Boethius’s wheel of Fortune, which in Ignatius’s mind excuses laziness (all failures are already determined). It also includes most of the canards of modernism. His highly ahistorical vision of the Middle Ages as “a period in which the western world had enjoyed order, tranquility, unity, and oneness with its True God and Trinity” is a sort of bastardization of the vision of the Middle Ages developed by John Ruskin, Henry Adams, and T. S. Elliot. He echoes with comic hyperbole the standard modernist sentiment that contemporary technological society (symbolized in the mind of Ignatius by the Scenicruiser ride he took to Baton Rouge to interview for a teaching job) is “the vortex of the whirlpool of despair,” and he glibly identifies himself with Marcel Proust’s imaginative seclusion and with Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when, during that one departure from New Orleans to search for a teaching position, “he was faced with the ultimate horror”—work. The novel’s central theme is the necessity of individual effort, and Ignatius exploits references to despair in modern literature as excuses to reject industrial society because that society demands what Ignatius calls “the perversion of having to GO TO WORK.” He gives his fundamental laziness away when, in explaining his preference for New Orleans, he describes it as “a comfortable metropolis which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive.”
The novel’s comedy depends repeatedly on the way Ignatius will expend almost unlimited energy, ingenuity, and low cunning to protect his sloth. The book is a send-up of the intellectual self-congratulation and readiness to despair that is promoted by what Saul Bellow calls “the Waste Land mentality,” and, by contrast, it is a celebration of the diversity and crude comic energy that even an “apathetic” city such as New Orleans can contain.
Ignatius is ultimately spared the imprisonment and humiliation that he appears to deserve because his sloth is less powerful than his instinct for self-preservation. His willingness to depart from his room, that travesty of a Proustian monastic cell, and to face adventure and risk in a larger world, symbolically justifies his continued life at large.