A Confederacy of Dunces (Magill's Literary Annual 1981)
When John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was awarded the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the wire services carried a photograph of Toole’s mother, Thelma, accepting the prize for her son. The photograph, like the award itself, heightened the sense of irony with which this book has been received. The story of its publication has been widely told; as Walker Percy recounts it in his Foreword, Mrs. Toole brought him her son’s manuscript in 1976, more than a decade after it had been written. Toole had committed suicide, at the age of thirty-two, in 1969. At Percy’s urging, Louisiana State University Press agreed to publish the novel. Although Percy does not say so, one might infer that Toole’s suicide was in part a consequence of indifference to his literary efforts—yet another case of, to use William Wordsworth’s phrase, “mighty poets in their misery dead.” Thus the Pulitzer, along with the novel’s nomination for the PEN-Faulkner Award, seemed not only a commendation but also an expression of public guilt and regret at prior indifference to Toole’s work.
Toole probably would have appreciated the irony of the prize, and of the photograph, as well. His protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, is also a writer whose efforts seem doomed to obscurity, although at one point in the novel he worries that his mother, Irene, will discover the Big Chief tablets which contain his sprawling, scathing indictment of the modern world....
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Outrageous exaggeration of each character's overriding personality trait, repetition of each character's keywords and actions, and the florid verbose articulation of Ignatius all combine to make a somewhat wordy and drawn-out book. It is episodic and many of the characters do not meet or seem connected; but as previously noted, the author is in control enough to tie all together as every incident eventually contributes to the outcome, leaving no loose ends.
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A Confederacy of Dunces is about a gross, obese, gluttonous, half-mad, thirty-year-old slob, named Ignatius O'Reilly. Ignatius considers himself a genius, and he feels out of place in modern society, which he sees as a conspiracy designed to offend him. He dubs this conspiracy "A Confederacy of Dunces," borrowing the phrase from Jonathan Swift. Ignatius lives shabbily in New Orleans, with his alcoholic, dim-witted mother, who repeatedly subjects him to the ultimate indignity of going to work for a living. Most of the novel consists of his misadventures at several jobs (he sells the world's foulest hot dogs but eats all the merchandise), his run-ins with the people he meets, and his tirades against the outrages of modern life. He rages in inflated, oratory, florid language at whatever displeases him; nearly everything displeases him.
Readers may be surprised to realize the novel's story occurs in 1962, so contemporary are some of its concerns. For instance, a bohemian/beatnik liberal woman, Myra, who tries to become Ignatius' lover, is obsessed with liberal concerns that are much more widely discussed today than they were in 1962 — feminism, open sexuality, civil rights. She resembles, satirically, the protesters and marchers of a few years later.
Ignatius reacts against the complacency, falseness, and hypocrisy which characterized the 1950s and early 1960s. While watching television or movies — notably Doris Day's 1962 films,...
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More recent precedents than Shakespeare or Chaucer include such large, wordy comic novels as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) and Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-1767). Indeed, Ignatius' vocabulary, the author's satirical point of view, and the fact that the novel's title is borrowed from Swift, all point to eighteenth-century influences.
Toole's caricatures are reminiscent of Charles Dickens's style. The novel has been compared to the modern theater of the absurd, and to contemporary black comedy novels such as Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) and John Irving's The World According to Garp (1978). However, Toole's novel is more purely comic than those of Heller and Irving, and it lacks their dark tragic vision.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Britton, Wesley A. “Two Mississippi Views on Medievalism and Determinism: Mark Twain and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.” Southern Quarterly 34 (Fall, 1995) 17-23. Britton compares Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly and Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, Hank Morgan, along with some of Twain’s other medieval characters. Britton demonstrates how both authors use their characters as voices for their own philosophical attitudes toward medieval determinism.
Fennell, Barbara A., and John Bennett. “Sociolinguistic Concepts and Literary Analysis.” American Speech 66 (Winter, 1991): 371-379. A study of Toole’s manipulation of sociolinguistic factors to establish the outsider status of Ignatius J. Reilly. Fennel and Bennett show how Reilly uses speech to create social distance and how he violates maxims of conversation that require speakers to be truthful, informative, relevant, clear, and polite.
MacKethan, Lucinda H. “Redeeming Blackness: Urban Allegories of O’Connor, Percy, and Toole.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 27 (Fall, 1994): 29-39. MacKethan focuses on Catholic novelists O’Connor, Percy, and Toole and their use of religious allegory to explore modern ills. She notes that all three use the city as the nexus of modern life and the unavoidable destination of those suffering from alienation....
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