Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1647
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.
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 correspondence is for Ignatius a battlefield on which Myrna details her crusading activities, tells him what's wrong with him, and urges him to come to terms with his problems; he can only respond with his own special brand of outrageous insults. To counter all Myrna's advocacy in civil rights causes, Ignatius instigates an overthrow by Levy Pants' factory workers of his inoffensive boss, Mr. Gonzalez, or alternatively, Miss Trixie. The demonstration is a disaster when the workers become disgusted with Ignatius and drop the whole thing.
Fired from Levy Pants, Reilly goes to work for Paradise Vendors pushing a hot dog cart. This arrangement goes awry as Reilly eats the hot dogs instead of selling them. Mrs. Reilly, growing empowered by her newfound bowling enthusiasm and Mancuso's aunt, holds up the patrolman as a paragon of the work ethic even though he has been tasked with looking for suspicious characters in the bathroom at the bus station and told not to come back without one. Reilly sends Mancuso a copy of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy to keep him occupied during the assignment. Lana Lee's porn courier, who has time to kill between deliveries, is discovered loitering in the bus station bathroom by Mancuso, who receives a blow to the head with the Consolation of Philosophy and loses his suspect (and the book). Lee uses the book as a prop in a porn shot. The courier arranges to use Reilly's bun compartment as storage for Lee's packages. Believing the woman in the photo, whose face is hidden by the Consolation, to be a fellow misused intellectual, Reilly resolves to seek her at the Night of Joy.
In the interval, Reilly runs into the young man who bought his mother's hat. A flip remark about one of the Quarter's gay men dressed as a sailor leads to another of Ignatius's Myrna-crushing brainstorms in which he imagines gay men taking over government all over the world and turning war into parties. He proposes to the young man (Dorian) that he lead the organization of the Quarter's gay men to form a new political party, and Dorian agrees to host if Ignatius will come in his hot dog vendor's pirate costume.
Arriving at Dorian's party, Reilly immediately begins making himself obnoxious and is removed by the three hard-bitten upstairs lesbians—Club, Steele, and Bumper—who give him a ten minute head start before they come find him. Ignatius flees to the Night of Joy, where he expects to find the intellectual porn model, whom Jones calls Scarla O'Horror. Instead Darlene's cockatoo attacks Ignatius's pirate earring, and Reilly again finds himself on the street. Jones yanks him back from an oncoming streetcar, causing Ignatius to faint on the curb surrounded by outraged denizens of the Night of Joy. Mancuso emerges from the shadows to examine Reilly, and Lana Lee, taken by his undercover disguise, flashes the patrolman a sample of her merchandise.
Mancuso's night ends in professional triumph. He finally has someone to arrest, and bonus arrests arrive in the person's of Club, Steele, and Bumper, who proceed to assault the unconscious Reilly. Darlene, who has endured the brutal criticism of Lana Lee while developing her cockatoo strip act, is offered a job at a more congenial club. Jones, who has tolerated Lee's abuse only because she claimed to have police "friends," is delighted to see her carted off to jail but worries about no longer being employed himself. Ignatius is fired for wearing his hot dog vendor's pirate costume to a strip club.
At home, Reilly is confronted by Mr. Levy, of Levy Pants, who hopes to extract an admission that Ignatius had written the insulting letter to the retailer who was now suing Levy Pants. Levy is moved by the squalor of the Reilly home, the incessant whine of Reilly's mother (in whom he sees a resemblance to his nagging wife), and the neighbor's sad account of Ignatius's decline after the death of his dog. When asked about the letter, Ignatius blames Miss Trixie, who happily confesses and is finally allowed to retire. Seeing his life in a new light, Levy envisions a brilliant future for Levy Shorts and a charitable foundation to benefit worthy people, beginning with Jones, whose picture is in the morning paper hovering over the beaten body of Ignatius Reilly. He also resolves to offer Jones a job in the newly renamed company as a gimmick to improve employee relations.
Mrs. Reilly, having found herself a new love interest through Mancuso's aunt, has been driven frantic by Ignatius's increasingly humiliating imbroglios and his inability to earn anything to help her pay for the demolished balcony. It is clear to her that, even after having his picture in the paper, taken while lying beaten by lesbians on the sidewalk in front of a strip club/porn distribution center in a hot dog vendor's pirate costume, he will never improve. In order to marry, clear her debt, and soothe her nerves, Ignatius must be committed to the Charity Hospital. Ignatius, sensing change and working the plan out for himself, casts about for an escape before the "kind strangers" arrive to take him away.
Rescue arrives in the form of Myrna Minkoff, who has been so alarmed by his latest letter declaring his intention to organize a homosexual political party that she has driven straight from New York to deal with him. Much to Myrna's surprise and gratification, Ignatius is more than eager to leave with her—which she had been persistently advising since college. He capitulates completely, admitting his faults, embracing her ideas, and climbing into the safety of her car's back seat. As Myrna begins the long drive into what Reilly has always considered the "heart of darkness"—that is, anywhere outside of New Orleans—she begins to suspect that the old Ignatius has not been quite as vanquished as she thought.
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