A Confederacy of Dunces | Study Guide

John Kennedy Toole

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A Confederacy of Dunces | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

I–II

The chapter opens at the Reilly family home. Ignatius J. Reilly sits in his bedroom writing about the fall of civilization as "the gods Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy." He believes this fall is the result of the "breakdown of the Medieval system." He views the yellowed collection of ruled tablets that surround his bed as "the seeds of a magnificent study in comparative history." However, he only produces six paragraphs a month. Ignatius reflects that he is the victim of Boethius's Fortune, who blindly "spins us on a wheel," causing luck to come in cycles. Meanwhile, his pyloric valve is acting up. Attempting to dislodge the trapped gas, he becomes inadvertently aroused and masturbates while imagining that his dead collie, Rex, is jumping on the bed.

Advised at the police precinct that he must get a job unless he wants to be arrested on vagrancy charges, Burma Jones arrives at the Night of Joy in response to Lana Lee's advertisement for a porter. Lana reflects that Jones's brush with the law puts him in a vulnerable position, allowing her to exploit him with an offer of substandard wages. She announces that the pay is $20 a week. Jones grumbles that she "ain exactly hire me" but is "kinda buyin me off a auction block." Nonetheless, he has little choice and accepts. Darlene walks in late and receives a lecture from Lana about encouraging people like Ignatius and Mrs. Irene Reilly to remain at the bar. As soon as the boss is gone, Darlene tells Jones that Lana waters down the drinks and refuses to let her perform exotic dances.

III

Patrolman Angelo Mancuso rides his motorcycle through New Orleans. He wears Bermuda shorts and a false red beard, the latest undercover costume his sergeant has dreamed up to humiliate him. He arrives a neighborhood of once-grand Victorian homes that are in decline. He stops at a tiny cottage built in the 1880s with a Celtic cross cut from plywood next to a dead tree in the front yard. A dented Plymouth sits in the drive. This is the Reilly home. Pop music plays loudly as he raps on the shutters. The next-door neighbor, Miss Annie, tells him to go around to the back door.

Mrs. Reilly invites Mancuso into a dark, high-ceilinged kitchen with antiquated appliances. He informs Mrs. Reilly that the owner of the building she damaged wants an out-of-court settlement to the tune of $1,020. She is horrified at the high figure. Ignatius appears in the kitchen wearing only a "monstrous flannel nightshirt" and says that they will fight the settlement in court. He later reflects, however, that since Mrs. Reilly was drunk they would have no chance of winning. He is nonchalant, viewing this as his mother's problem and seeming more concerned about the quality of the milk and his "anxiety" over the TV program he is watching. Mrs. Reilly says she will mortgage the house, a solution Ignatius violently rejects.

When Ignatius leaves the room, Mrs. Reilly pours out her frustration about her son and takes a bottle of muscatel from its hiding place in the oven. Mancuso commiserates while presiding domestically over the ancient stove to heat milk for his second cup of coffee. He recommends bowling as a wholesome activity to take her mind off her troubles and invites her to go with him and his 65-year-old aunt, Santa Battaglia.

They are interrupted again by Ignatius, who rudely demands that Mancuso leave. Ignatius returns to his room and longs for the days of Hroswitha, a tenth-century German dramatist and poet. Hroswitha was born to a noble family and entered a nunnery as an adult. Erudite, obscure, and chaste, the medieval nun acts as a muse for Ignatius.

Mrs. Reilly enters her son's bedroom and tells Ignatius that he must get a job to help pay the settlement since her sole fortune is $150 dollars in the local bank. Ignatius complains that employers sense in him "a denial of their values." He recalls the time he said "cutting things" that got him fired from a menial job with the New Orleans Public Library. He then remembers another occasion when students revolted against him when he was a teaching assistant because he never graded their essays. He ultimately admits, however, that there is "no alternative" but for him to get a job. He consoles himself with the thought of "being actively engaged in the system" he criticizes. He wonders what an old college comrade, Myrna Minkoff, would think to see how low he has fallen.

IV–V

Sitting in a New Orleans bus, Burma Jones reflects on how his close proximity causes an old woman to fear robbery and rape. Outside the bus window, he sees Patrolman Mancuso getting hit with a rolled-up newspaper. He pages through the Life magazine Darlene gave him and wishes he could look like the men in the advertisements. At the same time, Ignatius is in the theater where he is well-known by the ushers for causing a disturbance. He yells insults at the screen and becomes particularly enraged at a love scene.

Analysis

This chapter reveals important information about Ignatius J. Reilly's worldview. It illustrates his distaste for the chaos and secularism (separation of church and state) of modern society and a clear preference for the feudal hierarchy of the Middle Ages when every member of civilization had an established place in the prevailing order. The Roman Catholic Church provided unity, and fate ruled human destiny.

This theme play outs throughout the novel in a number of ways. The antiquated appliances in the Reilly kitchen contrast with the household of Mr. and Mrs. Levy, which is filled to the brim with the latest gadgetry. Ignatius derides popular culture, while Burma Jones comments wryly on desegregation and longs to look like the models in a fashionable magazine spread. Ignatius prefers to live in monastic seclusion, like the medieval nun, Hroswitha, but he is forced out into the world to earn money. He objects strongly to any whiff of sexuality, yet he is intent on getting a rise out of Myrna Minkoff, who is intent on seducing him. Furthermore, Ignatius's stated distaste for modern culture is not backed up by his actions. He drinks "Dr. Nut," watches American Bandstand, eats junk food, and loves popular films. His character is as paradoxical as he is selfish, manipulative, and lazy.

The reader might wonder if there is anything genuine about Ignatius at all. Yet there is a more generous interpretation of the character. Toole offers the suggestion that one who holds a different set of values than contemporary capitalist society cannot help but go insane and suffer as Ignatius does. He is, after all, positioned as the genius who is surrounded by a confederacy of dunces.

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