Before the whole story begins...
When a true genius appears in the world,
you may know him by this sign, that the dunces
are all in a confederacy against him.

Johnathan Swift--"Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting"

Everybody else has told you who the book was written by and how they felt about it, so I think that I will try to give a brief analysis of the book and its more aparent themes. If you haven't read the book, and you don't want to ruin the surprise, don't read on.

John Kennedy Toole's opinions on the middle class society reverberate throughout every paragraph, sentence, and word of A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius Reilly embodies the antithesis of middle class America through his vulgar mannerisms, his elevated speech, and his general contempt for the society constructed by the middle class. His overall outlook on work magnifies the social value that we place upon it; instead of being freed from our responsibilities as laborers by the Industrial Revolution, we have enslaved ourselves with the concept that everyone must work. We cannot allow those of us who wish to be free spirits and artists to live out their dreams, or--if they should choose either of these paths--they are to be frowned upon and we should attempt to "repair" them into to conformity (asylums are mentioned several times throughout the book. Resistance to conformity to middle class society is punished by placing the offenders into the asylums; Toole suggest that those who we, as a society, consider mad may not be insane at all, but rather, they are those who cannot live with the insanity of our society).

Toole mocks the American Dream throughout the book, most noticeably through the use of minor characters. Irene Reilly, Jones, and Darlene all try desperately to meet their monetary desires, but can never seem to get a firm grip on them. Their comments and ideologies echo the societal theme that materialism is the key to happiness; in stark contrast, Mr. Levy is the paradigm of a financially successful man, yet he is miserable and depressed due to his money. Even the revolutions that Ignatius unsuccessfully led were fueled by worldly desires (I personally feel that the failures of his social revolutions were due to the fact that those who he was trying to help were only interested in their materialistic gains--not the ideals which they represented).

One other major theme which ran throughout the book was the degredation of art in America. Ignatius blasphemed, cursed, and screamed at all instances of "art" which appeared on television and at theaters. These supposed acts of art are nothing more than soulless creations of psuedo-artists for the sole purpose of appealing to the masses in order to make money; the art which once was prevalent has been snuffed out by consumerism, yet another construct of the materialistic society created by the middle class. Those artists who do stay true to themselves--such as Ignatius, and perhaps even Toole himself--are often cast aside for not being mainstream. This anti-artistic theme also parallels a slightly different anti-intellectualism theme.

And that's it. I loved this book and everything about it: its striking characters, its interesting setting, and its powerful themes. If you have read the book and you could not see past the chubby Ignatius and see the true art involved, I urge you to find a discussion group. The more you examine and analyze A Confederacy of Dunces, the more vivid, and perhaps disturbing, its story becomes.

Although a truly complete description of even the basics of John Kennedy Toole's masterpiece is perhaps a vain dream, I will attempt to provide an outline.

One of the first things to know about the book is its unusual publication history. The author wrote the book during the mid-1960s, and committed suicide in 1969, perhaps because he could not get his book published. His mother spent the next decade trying in vain to find a publisher for the book, until she finally did in 1980. That year, the book won the Pulitzer Prize. The author's depression and his relationship with his mother are very important, since they closely parallel the main characters of the book.

The plot of the book is convoluted, involving many different subplots interacting with each other in a way that could be described as slapstick. The basic engine of the plot gets set into motion when the protagonist, Ignatius Reilly, and his mother get in a car crash after Reilly's attempted arrest for loitering and a trip to a dive bar. This causes the over-educated but under-experienced Reilly to go out and get a job, which leads to a series of misfortunes as Reilly's personal convictions and mannerisms grate against the rest of the world. Reilly pushes over a line of dominoes as he goads characters into actions that finally all come together at the end of the novel. Many of these plot threads only make sense in retrospect.

The characters are one of the major draws of the book, and the book could be seen as character-driven more than plot driven. Almost every named character in the book will have a reoccurring roll, and often one that is important in the plot of the book. The main characters are:

  • Ignatius Reilly, the protagonist and partial author avatar, is a fat, overeducated, opinionated and socially unskilled man who has spent most of his life in his mother's house, writing manifestos on writing tablets which lie scattered around his room. When the deceitful and hypocritical Reilly is forced to go out and get a job, his interactions with the world provide most of the book's humor.
  • Irene Reilly, his long-suffering mother, is a blue collar woman who spoils her son. During the book's course, Irene opens up and rediscovers the world, although whether she is left wiser for it is a matter of debate.
  • Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius' friend from college and penpal, is a stereotypical beatnik and early-60s social revolutionary. She sends Reilly letters filled with revolutionary jargon, and the desire to compete with Minkoff launches him on some of his more hilarious adventures.
  • Burma Jones, a Negro who is arrested for vagrancy and has to get a sub-minimum wage job to avoid getting arrested again. His acts of sabotage against his employer provide a climax to the plot. Jones' accent and simplistic take on the world could be seen as racist, except for the fact that all of the working-class residents of New Orleans are portrayed similarly.
  • Angelo Mancuso is the patrolman who attempts to arrest Reilly for loitering near the start of the story, and who is then punished by his sergeant by taking on the vice detail, attempting to pick up homosexuals in a variety of increasingly ridiculous costumes.
  • Gus Levy and his wife are the absent owners of the Levy Pants factory where Reilly gets a job as a file clerk, and whose business and personal lives are turned upside down by the intrusion of Reilly. The Levy's are the only upper class people portrayed in the book.
  • Dorian Greene is a homosexual of stereotypical behavior. Reilly attempts to impress Minkoff by organizing New Orleans' homosexual population into a political party at a party at Dorian Greene's house, with humorous results.
There are other characters than this, and the connections between the characters would need a fairly ornate diagram to describe them. One of the major draws of the books is the depiction of the characters, whose mannerisms and personalities skirt the line between realism and satire.

Thematically, the book is a complex work. One of the first tasks is to decide whether the book is a tragedy, a comedy, or a tragicomedy. Much of what I have read about the book stresses its humorous nature, and while reading it, I did find it humorous, although that did not seem to be its primary feature. Perhaps because of the author's suicide, it is hard to read the book too light-heartedly. The issue of tragedy versus comedy is also an important one when we consider the problem of what social views the book is presenting. Reilly (and Minkoff's) social views are depicted as hypocritical, overblown, self-righteous and the like, yet I still read the book with Reilly being a hero, despite his numerous flaws. Reilly's attempts to rise above the world around him are meant to be taken seriously, no matter how flawed and ridiculously they are portrayed. The same question can be asked in reversed, about the book's characters that choose to accept the reality they have been dealt. Are they being portrayed affectionately, as people trying to live a good life in an imperfect world, or are the caricatures of their lives meant to be more cutting? I have also read that the book is a reaction against the activist culture of the 1960s, and that Toole is skewering the social movements of that era. My reading of the book doesn't suggest such a thing, while Toole finds plenty of humor and hypocrisy in the ideas of social change, they are still presented in a better light than the ignorant complacency of the rest of the society. However, that is just one of many readings of the book. But I do believe that the central problem of the theme of the book revolves around how much Toole identifies with Reilly, and whether the portrayal of New Orleans in the early 1960s is meant to be a matter of derision or affection.

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