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A Confederacy of Dunces is a picaresque novel written by John Kennedy Toole, published in 1980, 11 years after the author's suicide. The book was published through the efforts of writer Walker Percy (who also contributed a revealing foreword) and Toole's mother Thelma Toole, quickly becoming a cult classic, and later a mainstream success. Toole posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. It is now considered a canonical work of modern Southern literature.

The title derives from the epigraph by Jonathan Swift: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." (Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting)

The story is set in New Orleansmarker in the early 1960s. The central character is Ignatius J. Reilly, an educated but slothful man still living with his mother at age 30 in the city's Uptown neighborhood, who, due to an incident early in the book, must set out to get a job. In his quest for employment he has various adventures with colorful French Quartermarker characters.

Major characters

Ignatius J. Reilly

Ignatius Jacques Reilly is something of a modern Don Quixote — eccentric, idealistic, and creative, sometimes to the point of delusion. In his foreword to the book, Walker Percy describes Ignatius as a "slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one." He disdains modernity, particularly pop culture. The disdain becomes his obsession: he goes to movies in order to mock their perversity and express his outrage with the contemporary world's lack of "theology and geometry." He prefers the scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages, and the Early Medieval philosopher Boethius in particular. However he also enjoys many modern comforts and conveniences, and is given to claiming that the redneck of rural Louisiana hate all modern technology which they associate with progress.

Ignatius is of the mindset that he does not belong in the world and that his numerous failings are the work of some higher power. He continually refers to the goddess Fortuna as having spun him downwards on her wheel of luck. Ignatius loves to eat, and his masturbatory fantasies lead in strange directions. His mockery of obscene images is portrayed as a defensive posture to hide their titillating effect on him. Although considering himself to have an expansive and learned worldview, Ignatius has an aversion to ever leaving the town of his birth, and frequently bores friends and strangers with the story of his sole, abortive journey from New Orleans, a trip to Baton Rougemarker on a Greyhound Scenicruiser bus, which Ignatius recounts as a traumatic ordeal of extreme horror.

Myrna Minkoff

Myrna Minkoff, referred to by Ignatius as "that minx", is a Jewish beatnik from New York Citymarker, whom Ignatius met while she was in college in New Orleans. Though their political, social, religious, and personal orientations could hardly be more different, Myrna and Ignatius fascinate one another. The novel repeatedly refers to Myrna and Ignatius having engaged in tag-team attacks on the teachings of their college professors. For most of the novel she is seen only in the regular correspondence which the two sustain since her return to New York, a correspondence heavily weighted with sexual analysis on the part of Myrna and contempt for her apparent sacrilegious activity by Ignatius. Officially, they both deplore everything the other stands for. Though neither of them will admit it, their correspondence indicates that, though separated by half a continent, many of their actions are taken with the intention of impressing one another.

Irene Reilly

Mrs. Reilly has been widowed for 21 years. At first, she allows Ignatius his space and takes him where he needs to go, but throughout the course of the novel she learns to stand up for herself. She also has a drinking problem, most frequently indulging in muscatel, although Ignatius exaggerates that she is a raving, abusive drunk. She falls for Claude Robichaux, a fairly well-off man with a pension, and at the end of the novel she decides she will marry him, but first she agrees with Santa Battaglia (who has not only recently become Mrs. Reilly's new best friend, but also harbors a grand dislike for Ignatius) and attempts to send Ignatius to a mental hospital.

Other characters

  • Santa Battaglia is an elderly woman who becomes a friend of Mrs. Reilly's. The two meet through Santa's nephew, Patrolman Mancuso, and quickly become friends. She shows a marked disdain for Ignatius suggesting that Mrs. Reilly force Ignatius to get a job and not put up with his antics. She attempts to set up Mrs. Reilly with Mr. Robichaux as a potential husband.
  • Claude Robichaux is the said potential new husband — an old man constantly on the lookout for any "communiss" [sic] (Communists) who might infiltrate America, and who takes an interest in protecting Irene.
  • Angelo Mancuso is an inept police officer, the nephew of Santa Battaglia. After making several wrong arrests, the sergeant in charge is angry with him, and he must somehow make a major bust to avoid being kicked off the force; he is reduced to wearing ridiculous disguises, and spending time in the bus station toilets in order to arrest "suspicious characters".
  • Lana Lee runs a downscale French Quarter strip club, the "Night Of Joy." She employs Darlene and Jones, and runs an illegal pornographic photo ring on the side.
  • George is Lana's high-school-aged partner in the pornography ring.
  • Darlene is the "Night Of Joy's" goodhearted but none-too-bright stripper who has a pet cockatoo. It is Darlene's intention to better herself, moving up from getting the clients to buy watered-down drinks, to dancing and having an "exotic" routine involving her pet.
  • Burma Jones is the porter/janitor for the "Night Of Joy" who resentfully holds on to his job only because the police will arrest him for vagrancy if he does not (an indignity not uncommon for African Americans in the U.S. South in the Jim Crow era). Most of the white characters tend to pay only peripheral attention to him, though his actions are central to the plot.
  • Mr. Clyde is the owner of Paradise Vendors, an old man frustrated with his hot hog vendor business and his vendors' growing disrepute, not at all aided by Ignatius' contemptible guise.
  • Gus Levy is the Jewish owner of Levy Pants, a family business in Bywatermarker whose best days seem gone. He prefers to visit Levy Pants as little as possible, as it reminds him of his father, from whom he inherited the business.
  • Mrs. Levy is Gus Levy's wife. Having taken (and failed) a correspondence course in psychology, she attempts to apply psychoanalytic principles to her husband and Miss Trixie. She also specializes in making her husband's life miserable, often blackmailing Mr. Levy with their two daughters by threatening to show them the horrors to which Gus has exposed her.
  • Miss Trixie is an aged clerk at the Levy Pants office who suffers from senile dementia. Mrs. Levy thinks she's doing a good deed by keeping Miss Trixie employed, although Miss Trixie would rather retire. Moreover, Miss Trixie is a liability to the company and repeatedly demands a holiday turkey and ham, both of which were promised to her and not given.
  • Mr. Gonzalez is the office manager at Levy Pants, meek and skittish in demeanor, but fervently loyal to the company and a strong believer in its philosophy, if it indeed has one.
  • Dorian Greene is a flamboyant French Quarter homosexual who puts on elaborate parties for the subculture. Ignatius tries to recruit him and his "sodomite friends" to infiltrate the army and thus "take down worldwide government" in his unsatisfying failure at eclipsing Myrna Minkoff's political endeavors.
  • Frieda Club, Betty Bumper, and Liz Steele are a trio of aggressive lesbians who run afoul of Ignatius, and who figure belligerently in the climactic French Quarter brawl.
  • Dr. Talc is a sub-mediocre college professor at Tulane Universitymarker who had the misfortune of teaching Myrna and Ignatius in separate classes one semester. He still feels the effects years later.
  • Miss Annie is the disgruntled neighbor of Irene and Ignatius Reilly who professes a severe addiction to headache medication due to the Reillys' constantly noisy domestic activities.


Ignatius at the movies

Toole provides comical descriptions of two of the films Ignatius watches without naming them; they can be recognized as Billy Rose's Jumbo and That Touch of Mink, both Doris Day features released in 1962. In another passage, Ignatius declines to see another film, a "widely praised Swedish drama about a man who was losing his soul". This is most likely Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, also released in 1962. In another passage, Irene Reilly recalls the night Ignatius was conceived: after she and her husband viewed Red Dust, released in October 1932. This would place Ignatius' birth around July 1933, and since he is 30 in the novel, would place the story in 1963.

Confederacy and New Orleans

The book is famous for its rich depiction of New Orleans and the city's unique dialect. Many locals and writers, for example, Poppy Z. Brite, think that it is the best and most accurate depiction of the city in a work of fiction.

The city described in the novel differs in some ways from the actual New Orleans. The first chapter mentions the sun setting over the Mississippi River at the foot of Canal Street. As this direction is to the south-east, this is clearly impossible in reality. Possibly this is a joke by Toole related to the fact that the area across the river is known as the "West Bank", despite the fact that because of the twists of the river it is actually to the south or east from parts of central New Orleans. Such details are not likely to be noticed by people who are not familiar with New Orleans.

A bronze statue of Ignatius J. Reilly can be found under the clock on the down-river side of the 800 block of Canal Street, New Orleans, the former site of the D.H. Holmes Department Store, now the Chateau Bourbon Hotel. The statue mimics the opening scene: Ignatius waits for his mother under the D.H. Holmes clock, clutching a Werlein's shopping bag, dressed in a hunting cap, flannel shirt, baggy pants and scarf, 'studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste.' The statue is modeled on New Orleans actor John "Spud" McConnell, who portrayed Ignatius in a stage version of the novel.

Various local businesses are mentioned in addition to D. H. Holmes, including Werlein's Music Store and local cinemas such as the Prytania Theater. Some readers from elsewhere assume Ignatius's favorite soft drink, Dr. Nut, to be fictitious, but it was an actual local soft drink brand of the era. The "Paradise Hot Dogs" vending carts are an easily recognized satire of those actually branded "Lucky Dogs".

Structure

The structure of Confederacy of Dunces reflects the structure of Ignatius's favorite book, Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. Like Boethius' book, the Confederacy of Dunces is divided into chapters that are further divided into a varying number of subchapters. Key parts of some chapters are outside of the main narrative. In Consolation, sections of narrative prose alternate with metrical verse. In Confederacy, such narrative interludes vary more widely in form and include light verse, journal entries by Ignatius, and also letters between himself and Myrna. A copy of the Consolation of Philosophy within the narrative itself also becomes an explicit plot device in several ways.

Certain aspects of this novel mirror author Toole's real-life experiences. For instance, Ignatius' two main jobs through the course of the novel are pants factory worker and hot dog vendor. For a brief time after graduating from Tulanemarker, author Toole worked at a pants factory. During free time, he spent days in New Orleansmarker' French Quartermarker, where he helped a friend sell food from a stand. Post-college, Toole also lived with his mother, who was thought to be overprotective. However, in other aspects, the author was quite unlike his most famous character; Toole enjoyed travel, and was known for being neat and well dressed.

The difficult path to publication

As outlined in the introduction to a later revised edition, the book would never have been published if Toole's mother had not found a smeared carbon copy of the manuscript left in the house following Toole's 1969 suicide at age 31.

She took it to Walker Percy, an author and college instructor at Loyola University New Orleans, demanding he read it. Reluctantly, Percy began to read through the manuscript, but became more captivated with each page.

The book was published in 1980. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.

The original manuscript is currently at Tulane Universitymarker in New Orleans.

Film adaptations

There have been repeated attempts to turn the book into a film. In 1982, Harold Ramis was to write and direct an adaptation starring John Belushi and Richard Pryor, but Belushi's death would prevent this. Later, John Candy and Chris Farley were touted for the lead, both of whom died at an early age, leading many to ascribe a curse to the role.

British performer and writer Stephen Fry was at one point commissioned to adapt Toole's book for the screen. He was sent to New Orleans by Paramount Studios in 1997 to get background for a screenplay adaptation.

A version adapted by Steven Soderbergh and Scott Kramer, and slated to be directed by David Gordon Green, was scheduled for release in 2005. The film was to star Will Ferrell as Ignatius and Lily Tomlin as Ignatius's mother. A staged reading of the script took place at the 8th Nantucket Film Festival, with Ferrell as Ignatius, Anne Meara as his mother, Paul Rudd as Officer Mancuso, Kristen Johnston as Lana Lee, Mos Def as Burma Jones, Rosie Perez as Darlene, Olympia Dukakis as Santa Battaglia and Miss Trixie, Natasha Lyonne as Myrna, Alan Cumming as Dorian Green, John Shea as Gonzales, Jesse Eisenberg as George, John Conlon as Claude Robichaux, Jace Alexander as Bartender Ben, Celia Weston as Miss Annie, Miss Inez & Mrs. Levy, and Dan Hedaya as Mr. Levy.

Various reasons are cited as to why the movie has yet to be filmed. They include disorganization and lack of interest at Paramount Pictures, the head of the Louisiana State Film Commission being murdered, and the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. When asked why the film was never made, Will Ferrell has said it is a "mystery."

See also



References

  1. Bookslut | An Interview with Poppy Z. Brite
  2. Huffingtonpost.com article
  3. Fry, S.: 'Stephen Fry in America' (Harper Collins, 2008), 138
  4. Filmforce article


Scholarly studies

  • Dunne, Sara L. "Moviegoing in the Modern Novel: Holden, Binx, Ignatius." Studies in Popular Culture 28.1 (2005): 37-47.
  • Lambert, M. Michele Macgregor. Masquerading and the Comic Grotesque in John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces". Ph.D. diss., The University of Toledo, 1999.
  • McNeil, David. "A Confederacy of Dunces as Reverse Satire: The American Subgenre." Mississippi Quarterly 38 (1984): 33-47.
  • Patteson, Richard F. and Thomas Sauret. "The Consolation of Illusion: John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces." Texas Review 4.1-2 (1983): 77-87.
  • Pugh, Tison. "'It's Prolly Fulla Dirty Stories': Masturbatory Allegory and Queer Medievalism in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces." Studies in Medievalism 15 (2006): 77-100.
  • Simmons, Jonathan. "Ignatius Reilly and the concept of the grotesque in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces." Mississippi Quarterly 43.1 (1989): 33-43.
  • Simon, Richard K. "John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy: Fiction and repetition in A Confederacy of Dunces." Texas Studies in Literature & Language 36.1 (1994): 99-116.
  • Wilson, Katharina M. "Hrotsvit and the Tube: John Kennedy Toole and the Problem of Bad TV Programming." Germanic Notes. 15.1 (1984): 4-5.


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