A Confederacy of Dunces | Study Guide

John Kennedy Toole

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A Confederacy of Dunces | Context


The 1960s

The 1960s, a decade of political unrest, consumerism, and social change, form the backdrop for A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole's novel takes place several years before 1967, the "summer of love" when long hair, miniskirts, protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1955–75), and free love became popularized. In the early 1960s, as Toole was writing the novel, anti-establishment views had just begun to filter down to mainstream culture.

For example, the character Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius's former classmate and love interest, is a beatnik, or member of the intellectual subculture. She preaches sexual revolution from a safe perch in New York City, where she is insulated from the real world by a wealthy father. The novel parodies the hypocrisy of her left-wing political views when she recruits a young black woman to star in a play but refuses to pay her.

Pop culture of the early 1960s plays a part in the novel. When the reader first views the novel's main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, he is home watching Dick Clark's American Bandstand. The wholesome music television show, a primary vehicle for exposing America to pop stars, was one of the most popular programs of the 1960s. The family of wealthy Mr. Gus Levy, for whom Ignatius works, watches color television. The product was available in the 1950s but not mass-produced until the mid-1960s. It was then that the major networks began broadcasting in color.

Attitudes in the novel toward tolerance of racial and gender differences are also reflective of the era. Although buses and streetcars in New Orleans were officially desegregated in May of 1958, the city of New Orleans itself was still segregated. In fact, the character Burma Jones notes the fear and suspicion of the white passengers with whom he rides. Even Ignatius's attempt to spur New Orleans's gays and lesbians to activism reflects the reality of the time. New Orleans's gay population enjoyed a thriving private subculture but was slow to politicize.

Civil Rights Movement in New Orleans

Author Toole satirizes race relations of the early 1960s, mining them for humor at the expense of the characters. For example, the porter Burma Jones, who is black, comments freely about his exploitation at the hands of "Scarla O'Horror" (Lana Lee). But Jones himself becomes fodder for satire. He can't make the connection between his exploitation at the hands of white capitalists like Lana and his desire to enrich those white capitalists by purchasing consumer products.

Toole's tongue-in-cheek treatment of race belies the seriousness of the subject in the postwar South. The era began with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which said that segregation of schools was unconstitutional. However, segregation continued well into the 1970s as the civil rights movement led the way to forced integration of cities throughout the South. Nonviolent protests included "sit-ins," where black customers sat at whites-only lunch counters and continued to sit after being refused service. The assassination of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and white college students' arrival from the North to register black citizens to vote were top news stories around the time Toole's novel was written. His native New Orleans was no exception.

In 1960 New Orleans was 40 percent black. Canal Street, the main shopping district, was white-owned and segregated. Black customers were forced to shop at stores on Dryades Street, which allowed their patronage but were white owned as well. Moreover, the shops did not employ blacks to wait on customers.

Various civic organizations formed to boycott the stores on Dryades Street, demanding that they hire black employees. Eventually the segregated shops on Canal Street also became their target. By 1961 the boycotts led not only to many arrests but also to such a decline in business that white owners from the Chamber of Commerce were forced to negotiate with black organizers. These events built a strong foundation for the eventual integration of the city following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law called for equal employment and desegregation.

Ancient and Medieval References

Throughout A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly makes several important allusions:

  • Cycles of Fortuna: The Roman goddess Fortuna ruled over fortune and luck and is often depicted with a wheel that could spin good luck or bad. Ignatius consoles himself with the idea that Fortuna controls his every move, and he uses this belief as a further excuse to avoid taking action.
  • Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524 CE): This philosophical treatise on fate by a Roman senator awaiting execution is Ignatius's favorite book. Whenever Ignatius attempts to control events, things seem to end in disaster. Finding no resemblance between his internal world view—as represented by his fragmentary writings—and the outside world, Ignatius is unable to take action. Thus, he prefers to think of himself as like Boethius, wrongfully imprisoned in modern society. The book itself figures into the plot at certain key moments as it travels from one character to another. Like Boethius did in his treatise, Tool divides the chapters of the novel into numbered subsections.
  • Cloistered Poet-Nun Hroswitha (c. 935–c. 1000 CE): Hroswitha was a late 10th-century nun who wrote plays about the virtues of chastity. Ignatius muses that if Hroswitha were "with us today, we would all look to her for counsel and guidance."
  • Bobby Byrne: According to Toole's biographer, Cory MacLauchlin, the inspiration for Ignatius J. Reilly was Bobby Byrne, a real-life medievalist with a mustache. Byrne collected musical instruments, assigned readings from Roman philosopher Boethius to every class he taught, and believed that civilization peaked sometime in the 14th century.
  • Medieval Hierarchy: A possible reason for Ignatius's fascination with the medieval era (476–1299 CE), aside from parody, lies in the hierarchical nature of society from the collapse of the Rome (476 CE) to the Renaissance Era (1300–1700). When confronted by his mother about whether he is a communist, Ignatius replies that he prefers monarchy. In the medieval hierarchy, power was concentrated in the monarch. The monarch was thought to obtain his or her right to rule directly from God. These rights were passed down through various classes until it ended with the disenfranchised peasantry. Religion unified and controlled this rigid structure, keeping everyone in line. In contrast, society in New Orleans in the 20th century is chaotic and decentralized.
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