A Confederacy of Dunces  

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"This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs and lesbians. If you have a moment, I shall endeavor to discuss the crime problem with you, but don't make the mistake of bothering me." --Ignatius J. Reilly

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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

The title derives from the book's 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 the city of New Orleans in the early 1960s. The central character is Ignatius J. (Jacques) Reilly, an intelligent but slothful man still living with his mother at age 30 in Uptown New Orleans, who, because of family circumstances, must set out to get a job. In his quest for employment he has various adventures with colorful French Quarter characters.


Major characters

Ignatius J. Reilly

Ignatius — a "mama's boy" and something of a modern Don Quixote — is eccentric, idealistic, and creative, sometimes to the point of delusion. 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, especially that of Boethius. However he also enjoys many modern comforts and conveniences, and is given to claiming that the rednecks 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. He 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 Rouge on a Greyhound Scenicruiser bus, which Ignatius recounts as a traumatic ordeal of extreme horror.

Myrna Minkoff

Myrna "The Minx" is a Jewish beatnik from New York City, 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 the other.

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 is fond of drinking cheap wine and is occasionally tipsy, although Ignatius describes her as a raving, abusive drunk. She falls for Claude, 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.

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