A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

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Summary

(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 when his mother forced him to leave his room and seek work. With his retreat cut off, he goes on the attack. He takes a job as clerk for the failing Levy Pants company. There he performs his filing duties so easily (by throwing the documents in the trash) that he has ample energy to “improve” the company in other ways, all of which glorify Ignatius. Ultimately, in one of the novel’s great comic scenes, he decides to prove his talent as a revolutionary to his former girlfriend Myrna Minkoff (who is in New York advocating sexual liberation) by leading the plant’s unimpressed black factory workers on a “Crusade for Moorish Dignity” against the meek office manager, Mr. Gonzalez, using a stained bedsheet as their banner. The factory workers want wage increases; Ignatius wants violence for the fun of it. His exploit results in comic failure, and, after he is fired, Fortune’s wheel sinks him a notch lower; he takes a job as a hot dog vendor.

Meanwhile, two other major (and several minor) lines of action have been set in motion. His mother, Irene, has developed friendships with Patrolman Mancuso, the officer who attempted to arrest Ignatius in the novel’s first scene, and Claude Robichaux, an elderly but solvent suitor who finds Communists lurking behind every chair. These new friends, to the disgust of Ignatius, who exclaims, “It’s not your fate to be well treated,” succeed in getting his mother out of the house for the first time in years. They take her bowling and to films and in the process gradually convince her that Ignatius is crazy and that her path to happiness is to marry Robichaux, whom her son treats with contempt, and have Ignatius put away in an insane asylum.

The other major story thread in this novel full of such traditional devices of...

(The entire section is 2,563 words.)