A Confederacy of Dunces | Study Guide

John Kennedy Toole

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A Confederacy of Dunces | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Each chapter of A Confederacy of Dunces is divided into sections numbered with Roman numerals. Some of these subsections have been combined in this study guide for the purpose of summary and analysis.

Summary

I–II

Ignatius J. Reilly is a tall, obese man in his early 30s, sporting a green hunting cap, a "bushy black moustache," and well-worn tweed and flannels. He awaits his mother under the clock of D.H. Holmes, a New Orleans department store. While he scans the crowd judgmentally and broods about his swollen feet, a policeman approaches and demands his identification. This is Patrolman Angelo Mancuso. Ignatius protests and scuffles with Mancuso. An old man, whom the reader later learns is Claude Robichaux, appears in the crowd surrounding the scuffle and defends Ignatius. He accuses Mancuso of being a "communiss." The reader learns that Ignatius is unemployed except for work on "a lengthy indictment against our century." Mrs. Irene Reilly appears and demands to know why her son has been apprehended.

Due to the old man's outraged intervention, the mother and son are able to escape to a nearby bar, the Night of Joy. Mancuso takes Robichaux to the police station instead. Mrs. Reilly downs several beers while her son recounts the familiar story of his one trip outside New Orleans. He took a journey by bus (Ignatius cannot drive) to interview for a professorship in the Medieval Culture Department of a university in Baton Rouge.

At the precinct, Claude Robichaux strikes up a conversation with Burma Jones, a black man wearing "spaceage sunglasses" and perpetually smoking cigarettes. The police sergeant reacts with disgust at Patrolman Mancuso's attempted arrest of a "grampaw." He tells Mancuso that if he wants to arrest suspicious characters, the precinct will "fix him up."

III

Back at the Night of Joy, neon lights come on up and down Bourbon Street, bringing out the evening's first customers. Despite his mother's plea that they should leave, Ignatius insists on remaining to "watch the corruption." They are joined at the bar by a "B-girl" named Darlene, who gets to hear another retelling of the Baton Rouge trip, and an elegantly dressed vintage clothes dealer whom the reader later learns is Dorian Green. Mrs. Reilly passes around some bakery cakes she bought for her son and sells her hat to Green. The owner of the bar, Lana Lee, comes in and lambasts Ignatius and his mother for making a mess and potentially driving away customers.

Ignatius and his mother leave the bar and walk along the wet pavement until they spot their ancient Plymouth parked on the curb. Mrs. Reilly, who may be drunk, has difficulty maneuvering out of the space but eventually shoots out, skids across the street, and hits the post of a wrought-iron balcony. The balcony falls on the roof of the car and smashes the rear window as Mrs. Reilly attempts to back away from the accident. Patrolman Mancuso, dressed in an absurd costume that the sergeant tells him will help to attract suspicious characters, arrives on the scene just in time to see Ignatius vomiting down the side of the car.

Analysis

Most of the characters and plot elements are introduced in this first chapter, down to the hot dog cart that Ignatius will later push through the French Quarter. The reader learns that Ignatius is narcissistic, judgmental, lazy, and selfish. His mother plays the role of a martyr with an ill grace, alternating between generosity and feeble complaints. Mancuso is kindhearted but inept, unable to distinguish characters from criminals. Jones views the subjugation and persecution of Southern blacks with comic fatality. And Lana Lee is a heartless materialist. That the action begins in the French Quarter of New Orleans suggests the city's historical milieu is important to the novel. However, Mrs. Reilly and Ignatius—eccentric as anyone in the French Quarter—do not belong there. Not only are they kicked out of a Bourbon Street bar and nearly arrested, but they destroy one of New Orleans's famous wrought-iron balconies. This accident is the catalyst for everything that follows: in order to pay back the money she owes the building owner, Mrs. Reilly insists that Ignatius go to work. Thus, as much as Ignatius reveres the past, the past, in the form of the balcony itself, has dealt him a cutting blow.

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