(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The action of A Confederacy of Dunces blends such disparate elements as ribald farce, sophisticated intellectual and social satire, and realistic examination of the speech and customs of ethnic New Orleans. Binding these elements together is the magnetic figure of Ignatius J. Reilly, a grossly fat, thirtyish mama’s boy and failed medieval scholar who is convinced of his own genius and of the fact that “the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Ignatius is eager to condemn any product of modern culture and technology for its “offenses against taste and decency,” its “lack of theology and geometry,” often while he is in the act of consuming it.

As the novel begins, Ignatius, a former graduate student whose one halfhearted attempt to secure a teaching position ended in a disaster that confirmed his low opinion of the modern world, is forced to go to work by his doting, alcoholic, weak-willed, but exasperated mother, who is fed up after years of supporting his “career” as a “writer.” Having caused a public disturbance in the novel’s first scene because of his outlandish dress and behavior, Ignatius bellows at the investigating patrolman, Angelo Mancuso, in his pompous diction, “Is it the part of the police department to harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capital of the civilized world?” His instinct is to shift blame in every circumstance and to retreat from modernity into his ivory tower—his smelly, disordered bedroom. There he is composing, on lined Big Chief tablets at a rate of “six paragraphs monthly,” what he is sure will be “a magnificent study in comparative history” exploring how, “with the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy and Bad Taste gained ascendancy.” Quick to condemn disorder and bad taste in others, Ignatius never sees them in himself. He hoots at sex, marriage, a career, industrialization, the profit motive, and American Bandstand as gross excrescences of modern culture, but of the lot he prefers American Bandstand, which he watches every afternoon, chortling at its offenses in a loud voice.

Yet, as Ignatius often says, “the rota Fortunae, or wheel of fortune,” turned against him...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

A Confederacy of Dunces Extended Summary

Ignatius J. Reilly, His World and His Problem

A Confederacy of Dunces opens with a description of the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, waiting for his mother outside a New Orleans department store. He is drawing the attention of a policeman, who suspects that Reilly is a "great big pervert....The biggest I ever saw." Patrolman Mancuso is a well intentioned but luckless and incompetent policeman, desperate to arrest a criminal yet somehow unable to discover actual crime anywhere. His suspicions are aroused by Reilly's wardrobe—a heavy plaid flannel shirt and hunting cap with earflaps—his uncut hair, gigantic size, and a bag full of sheet music and a lute string. It is 1962 New Orleans, and Reilly is outrageous. Though he has not actually done anything to deserve Mancuso's suspicions, the policeman is not far wrong in his general assessment of Reilly, whose perversions take many forms.

Ignatius Reilly is thirty, highly educated, and utterly indifferent to the opinions of others. He is also gluttonous, belligerent, selfish, onanistic, and lazy. His mother, an alcoholic widow, alternately enables and bewails her son's extremes of obnoxiousness. After rescuing her son from arrest by Mancuso (who has gotten the worst of his first encounter with Ignatius) literally by running away and taking refuge in a bar in the French Quarter, Mrs. Reilly brushes off the bartender's pointed attempts to get rid of them and orders the first of many drinks. While Ignatius furiously offends everyone, his mother gathers interest and sympathy. She sells her hat to a young man with a trench coat, then shares wine cakes with Darlene, an aspiring stripper, who berates Ignatius for mistreating his mother. The Reilly's are finally rousted from the bar—the ironically named Night of Joy—when the irascible proprietor, Lana Lee, arrives. Mother and son stagger back to their car. Mancuso, who has been slapped by a man in a trench coat wearing a woman's hat, is just in time to hear a balcony descending onto the Reilly's Plymouth. He is moved by pity for Mrs. Reilly and resolves to help her.

The cost to repair the damage to the building Mrs. Reilly has driven into is far beyond her means. Ignatius must find a job. Though he has a masters degree, Reilly has only ever had two jobs and neither for more than two weeks. One of the "formative experiences" of his life was the single time that he left New Orleans—for a job interview—a harrowing bus ride to Baton Rouge (far more harrowing for his fellow passengers). He cannot bear leaving New Orleans; he cannot even tolerate changing his comfortable old clothes. It is only the threat of having to mortgage or even sell his childhood home, where his dog Rex is prominently interred, that motivates Ignatius to seek work.

Gainful Employment

The Levy Pants factory is so appalling a workplace that the manager eagerly hires Ignatius without even asking his name. Reilly is attracted by the absence of other clerical workers, except for the senile Miss Trixie, and the near absence of expectations. Meanwhile, Lana Lee is distributing homemade pornography to minors from the Night of Joy. Lee's new porter, a sardonic African American who observes everything from behind his sunglasses and an eternal cloud of cigarette smoke, is trying to avoid vagrancy charges from Mancuso's colleagues. Darlene is trying to work up a worthy strip act with her cockatoo. Mrs. Reilly has taken up bowling with Mancuso and his aunt.

Reilly's time at Levy Pants begins with modest efficiencies, such as throwing out the files rather than filing them, and imbuing the company's image with more authoritarianism by responding to a retailer's letter of complaint with a letter of raging insults. He records his progress in a memoir subtitled Up from Sloth. In this journal, he tells his imagined readers of his brief platonic affair with the fiercely activist (and active) Myrna Minkoff when they were college students together. Their continued...

(The entire section is 1647 words.)