“When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” – Jonathan Swift
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Meet Ignatius J. Reilly, (think “Comic Book Guy” from the Simpsons) a 30-year-old, aspiring writer who lives in his mother’s basement in 1960s New Orleans. Ignatius is over-educated, over-weight and over wrought. After years of living off his doting, alcoholic mother Irene’s welfare checks, Ignatius reluctantly determines that success in life means striving to do better rather than resting on ones laurels; he decides he must leave the basement and become an actual member of society if he is ever to be somebody and impress his old girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff, who is living her own life in New York City.
As a former graduate student and medieval scholar, Ignatius assumes he is more than qualified for any menial job he might find, but he quickly learns this is not true. Since Ignatius believes in the medieval system, he feels that all failures are predetermined and “Fortuna” controls our lives; he blames bad luck when he is eventually hired and subsequently fired from the Levy Pants Company for writing a fraudulent letter in the owner’s name and organizing a failed protest. Fortuna is also at fault when Ignatius fails to find success as a hot dog vendor because he eats most of the profits. Finally, Ignatius tries to make money with ridiculous side jobs he finds around his eclectic New Orleans neighborhood, but is too lazy and arrogant to do even the simplest thing properly and manages to get himself wrapped up in a sting operation involving a shady local business and the inept police department.
While the plot weaves through the many adventures and the unique characters Ignatius and his mother meet, the true theme of the story begins to unfold. Although Ignatius finds being out on the world among those he deems not worthy of his intelligence troubling, it is the only way to truly experience life and to understand and appreciate what others have to offer. The story serves as a prologue to the life of 30 year-old Ignatius, as it follows his rebirth, this time from the basement into the world, and leaves the reader at the beginning rather than the end of his story.
This book is ridiculous and sophisticated all at once, with themes of cultural diversity, fate, ethics and morality; it is one of the smartest laughs you can find in literature. It is simple and funny enough for a beach read and philosophical enough to write a scholarly paper on.
“The day before me is fraught with God knows what horrors.” – Ignatius J. Reilly
While the novel is hilarious, thought provoking and hopeful, the story of the author is a sad one. After years of trying to publish A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole fell into a depression; he took his own life in 1969 at age 31. After his death, his mother, Thelma, continued to submit the manuscript to publishers; eleven years later, in 1980, the book was picked up. The following year, John Kennedy Toole won a Pulitzer Prize.
Statue of Ignatius J. Reilly in New Orleans.
Whatever you may take from this incredible feat of literature, the story of Ignatius Reilly and the story of his creator, John Kennedy Toole, should remind us never to give up on our dreams or on ourselves.
To read more about John Kennedy Toole, we recommend Butterfly in the Typewriter by Corey MacLauchlin.
Blog post by Alex Frey, Technical Services.