Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces

It took me twenty years to finish Toole’s book. Someone in college gave it to me, shocked that I hadn’t already read it, and I practically threw the book away after reading only about thirty pages, believing (I confess to you ashamedly today) myself to have been identified by the gift horse as the Ignatius Reilly character. Perhaps if I had been more accurate, I would have realized the only person who had identified me as Ignatius was myself. But to say we’re stupid when we’re twenty years old is a truism, so we’ll just skip on by that and say that twenty years later, I did see what everyone liked about the tragic Toole.

First, if you don’t know, Walker Percy, one of U.S.’s great writers, wrote the introduction to the book, explaining how it came to be published—and to cult classic status. Toole committed suicide in 1969 before the novel ever met human eyes. Toole’s mother decided in 1976 to take it to Loyola University where Percy taught. As one might imagine, explains Percy, “if ever there was something I didn’t want to do, this was surely it: deal with the mother of a dead novelist and, worst of all, to have to read the manuscript that she said was great and that, as it turned out, was a badly smeared scarcely readable carbon” (7). Much to Percy’s shock, though, Confederacy turned out to be not just okay, but very good—in fact, also very funny, but at the same time, he reminds us, very sad, not least because we remember as we read it that the book will be the only John Kennedy Toole novel that we ever read.

But what a novel Confederacy of Dunces is, most of all because the characters are drawn so intensely. The protagonist, the aforementioned Ignatius Reilly, who wears a bizarre New Orleans version of a Holden Caulfield Hunting Cap, is morbidly overweight and behaviorally challenged. He complains constantly about his stomach in times of stress: “My [pyloric] valve closed on the streetcar,” he says to his mother, explaining why he looks like he’s about to die—and why he didn’t get a job (70). He lives alone with his mother, who he badgers because he believes she drinks too much—he accuses her constantly of clandestinely storing booze in the oven. Early in the story, Mrs. Reilly has a car accident that she must pay for, which requires Ignatius to go to work—a turn of events he finds immensely distasteful, since he believes he is writing important works of literature in his bedroom. He gets a job at Levy Pants as a file clerk, where he systematically throws away the files because he’s too fat to reach the lower drawers and where he tries to organize the factory workers to rise up against the management (but fails because he’s so offensive). Other equally absurd characters figure into the story including a dancer and a doorman in a French Quarter bar as well as friends of Mrs. Reilly’s. They’re so aptly drawn, when I was reading the book, I kept feeling as though I saw them on street corners, saying to myself, “now that guy there, he could be Ignatius.” It’s not very often that I read a book so vivid.

Another fascinating part of the book is that it truly is a novel of place. Like Walker Percy’s novels of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, this book truly evokes the New Orleans-ness of the city with the descriptions of the place around the seedy strip club where Darlene and Jones work:
Twilight was settling around the Night of Joy bar. Outside, Bourbon Street was beginning to light up. Neon signs flashed off and on, reflecting in the streets dampened by the light mist that had been falling steadily for some time. The taxis bringing the evening’s first customers, Midwestern tourists and conventioneers, made light splashing sounds in the cold dusk. (29)
Toole also captures the place around which Ignatius ends up selling hot dogs. When Ignatius goes to collect the hot dog cart, we read about the location of the vendor:

Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, was housed in what had formerly been an automobile repair shop, the dark ground floor of an otherwise unoccupied commercial building on Poydras Street. The garage doors were usually open, giving the passerby an acrid nostrilful of boiling hot dogs and mustard and also of cement soaked over many years by automobile lubricants and motor oils that had dripped and drained from Harmons and Hupmobiles. The powerful
stench of Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, sometimes led the overwhelmed and perplexed stroller to glance through the open door into the darkness of the garage. (164)
What’s funny about it? Well, first of all, Ignatius is the biggest of the buffoons, and it’s clear that Toole most wants us to laugh at him. But, just as Percy points out in the introduction, it’s hard not to infer some autobiographical sense to the novel—outlandish as it is. After all, it’s about a depressed young man living with his widowed mother, so we—or probably more accurately I should say I–feel pretty sad about laughing at Ignatius. Mrs. Reilly herself is pretty silly too, though. However, then, for much the same inferential reasons, I find myself feeling sorry for the long suffering Mrs. Toole. But the many absurd characters—even the racistly drawn African American, Jones—are very funny because of the absurdity of their behavior. I have the sense that Toole must have had that sense of the world, that people, in his view, really do act stupidly—that they (like Flannery O’Connor’s Aunt said, have certain things that they just have to “go and do.”).


Anonymous said...


This was a great write-up on The Confederacy of Dunces. I am writing an analytical paper about three great New Orleans authors and the works they produced. One of my books is the Confederacy of Dunces, so I also was fortunate enough to get to read this work. What you said about feelings sad about wanting to laugh was right on.

I have really enjoyed reading through your blog. I am also a lover of fine literature, and it is really fun to get to read others opinions on them. It makes me sad how feel people these days really appreciate a good story.


Anonymous said...


In your opinion does the Confederacy of Dunces have universal significance? My teacher is always looking to have us find the symbolism in a story, but I really did not have much jump out at me at this story, and I'd be interested in hearing your views.

Heidi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Heidi said...

Thanks a lot, Michael. When I was posting today, I was thinking, “I’ll bet not a single soul ever reads this” – well, except maybe my doctoral committee…and even them only sometimes. So thanks.

That’s really cool that you’re writing about three New Orleans writers. I’m guessing that Percy is the second one, and if he is, that’s great. Who is the third?

As for your second question about universal significance: it’s a good one. I just re-read my post, and I decided that what I said about not “getting” the book when I was in undergrad. and then “getting” it 20 years later (in school yet again) could be related to the notion of universal significance. At 20, I could only connect the ideas of Ignatius Reilly to myself; I couldn’t generalize them to any universal significance. However, at 40, I am able to see there’s a misfit in every one of us. The enormous, bumbling Ignatius is the part of us that, horrified, walks into a party knowing no one, trips on a shoelace and spills a drink down the front of a shirt. I guess that’s a very simple discussion of the universality. Maybe a more complex discussion would have to do with Ignatius’s pretentious intellectualizing and moralizing. That whole discussion would have a universal significance and application to scholars, for sure, as would a discussion of Ignatius’s immense sense of denial about his own problems.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...


Ha! Sorry It took me so long to return to answer your questions. The end of the semester never leaves me much time for anything.

I read, Interview with the Vampire, by Ann Rice; The Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Tool; and A Street Car Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams.

I originally had "The Moviegoer" by Percy Walker, but in all honesty I did not care for the novel. I hope that it's just a matter of me growing into that book intellectually. I know that Walker is one of the greats, so I do feel like I'm missing something by not being able to sing his praises.

Your thoughts on the universal significance behind The Confederacy of Dunces were excellent. I kicked myself as I read your reply; I should have thought of some of those ideas myself.

I sat here for awhile after reading your reply just thinking, and I wonder if the entire book was a jab at the US Government. Even as I said that it feels very far fetched, but my logic is as follows: The book was written in the mid 1960s while Tool was in the US Army. This was the height of the civil rights, and the women’s liberation movements. The main character is one of bumbling incompetence hiding behind a mask of “pretentious intellectualizing” as you put it. Ignatius had no real idea of the correct role that women, ethic minorities, and homosexuals should play in our society, and does this parallel the US government treatment of these groups during that time period? I really don’t know because all of this was before my time.

Lastly, I think the theme of outcast and alienation is definitely a surface theme that has universal significance. It’s also easy to see how this theme showed up in the story. Everyone who has read this book knows the story of Tool’s untimely death, so it’s easy to believe that Tool included this theme of alienation out of a need to share his own pain with the reader. However, I think that Ignatius’ over-the-top style detracts from this theme. An example of this is the party in the French Quarter. Ignatius is made a fool of, and the pain he felt at the mockery they made of him was easy to see. The problem I have with seeing him as a part of all of us is that Ignatius brought these pains on himself. It’s easy to feel pity and empathy for the person who spills punch on themselves because they tripped on their shoe laces, but harder when the person is fall down drunk.

On a more personal note, are you obtaining your doctoral to teach? I am seriously consider returning to school when I finish this degree in radiology to obtain a master or doctorate in literature (Which type is undecided.. I love so many).