A Confederacy of Dunces | Study Guide

John Kennedy Toole

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A Confederacy of Dunces | Quotes

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1.

Possession of anything new or expensive ... could ... cast doubts upon one's soul.


Narrator, Chapter 1

This early quotation sets the stage for the reader to understand Ignatius J. Reilly's worldview. The statement is a renunciation of consumerism, but it is also a tongue-in-cheek commentary on Ignatius's self-serving personality. Does Ignatius condemn people for owning things that are new and expensive because that makes them shallow, or does he condemn them because he himself has no money? This is an open question in the novel, one that Toole allows the reader to decide.

2.

What had once been dedicated to the soul was now dedicated to the sale.


Ignatius J. Reilly, Chapter 2

From the womb-like seclusion of his childhood room, Ignatius contrasts the sacred life of medieval writers like Boethius and Hroswitha with the corrupt life of his contemporaries. He is not just talking about a renunciation of material goods. He also means a renunciation of the flesh. This is ironic for two reasons. For one, his ruminations lead him to masturbation, which is one of his chief occupations in the room. For another, later in the novel, he sees the pornographic image of Lana Lee, her face obscured by his own copy of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. He concludes that she is a woman of great intellect, a "seer and philosopher cast into a hostile century by forces beyond her control." Of course, Lana is nothing of the sort; instead, she has shrewdly offered herself up for sale.

3.

Employers sense in me a denial of their values.


Ignatius J. Reilly, Chapter 2

Taken at face value, Ignatius means that it is difficult for him to work with people who don't share his views of the world. The statement is also an example of projection—he feels fearful and rejected by the world outside academia and New Orleans. And finally, it is ironic. Unlike Boethius, who was put to death for his beliefs, Ignatius doesn't suffer from persecution. Simply put, he is a terrible employee. He wastes time, makes absurd demands, destroys property, and, generally speaking, wreaks havoc on the workplace.

4.

I am an anachronism.


Ignatius J. Reilly, Chapter 3

Claiming that he does not fit in modern life is Ignatius's excuse for not living. His exasperated mother, Mrs. Irene Reilly, simply tells him that he needs to "look up." Myrna Minkoff relates a similar message, albeit in more sophisticated language, telling him that he has "suffered feelings of failure" and must "identify with something" and "commit ... to the crucial problems of the times." This is exactly what Ignatius proceeds to do, with disastrous effect.

5.

The universe ... is based upon the principle of the circle within the circle.


Ignatius J. Reilly, Chapter 3

Ignatius frequently states that he is a hapless subject of Fortuna, or blind fate, who spins people on her wheel, sending them up or down according to her whim. Being led from one set of circumstances without the will to change the outcome is a lot like giving up on life, which is certainly Myrna Minkoff's impression of what Ignatius has done. It's also not an entirely honest characterization of how Ignatius operates. When Ignatius writes the insulting letter to Abelman, for instance, he sets in motion a chain of events that have an impact on several characters' destinies. He himself has spun the wheel, and things don't pan out exactly as he imagines—the wheel within the wheel points downward at the threat of a $500,000 lawsuit. Still, the end result is that Mr. Levy becomes more authoritative, exactly as Ignatius intended when he wrote the letter.

6.

The home was as sensually comfortable as the human womb supposedly is.


Narrator, Chapter 4

This description of "Levy Lodge" demonstrates the extent to which Toole—not any single one of the characters—views human beings as closed off from each other. Ignatius is close enough to his neighbor, Miss Annie, to throw water on her from inside his room, but he never sees her thanks to the shutters that enclose him. Burma Jones is unknowable behind his cloud of smoke and dark glasses. Patrolman Angelo Mancuso moves from one disguise to another. Likewise, the Levys are enclosed in the artificial womb they have created with expensive furnishings and the latest gizmos and appliances. Toole's larger message seems to be that society alienates and isolates human beings regardless of their socioeconomic status.

7.

Mr. Reilly was all heart. Of course, he was part valve, too.


Narrator, Chapter 5

This observation comes when Mr. Gomez Gonzalez, the office manager of Levy Pants, sees Ignatius kneeling down to change Miss Trixie's socks, an almost Biblical allusion to Christ. The reader knows that Ignatius is more valve than heart—that is, he is governed by digestive disturbances rather than emotional reactions. However, Ignatius does seem to have a soft spot for Miss Trixie, perhaps because she, like him, has turned her back on the modern world and lives in a space filled with towering piles of papers. Miss Trixie also has a keen appetite, accepting Ignatius's offer of food and wolfing down the cookies Mrs. Levy brings when she visits her. She is obsessed with receiving holiday gifts of turkey or ham. Perhaps Ignatius is drawn to her because she is, like him, governed by the urges of her valve.

8.

You try you a little sabotage. That's the only way you fight that kinda trap.


Mr. Watson, Chapter 6

Like Ignatius, Burma Jones is a fatalist. He knows he is trapped in a white man's world with rules that are stacked against him. His primary form of rebellion is to wear dark glasses and send up a perpetual smoke screen—his version of the womb—and to pepper his remarks with sarcasm. Mr. Watson, the owner of a variety store for black customers, offers a more effective means of protest. Blacks can give the appearance of accommodation while sabotaging the status quo from the inside. Watson's advice leads Jones to seek out the disruptive Ignatius and bring him to the Night of Joy, a strategy that works out better than he could ever have dreamt.

9.

Music should basically be an instrument of social protest and expression.


Myrna Minkoff, Chapter 7

Music is a recurring motif in the novel. Myrna brings her guitar with her into Ignatius's room when she comes to rescue him at the end of the novel. At the beginning of the novel, Ignatius has purchased strings for his lute. Darlene celebrates her promotion by dancing to the tune of a three-piece band playing "You Are My Lucky Star." The sound of the Reillys playing music drives Miss Annie to distraction throughout. What music represents in the novel is a bit less clear, though. Is it the vehicle through which individuals express themselves to the world? Or is it just noise, as Miss Annie believes? Toole never really makes this point clear. He does have Miss Annie relate that Mrs. Irene Reilly was forced to sell her piano to help support Ignatius, and the readers know that his musical expenses are a drain on the family finances. Perhaps music becomes whatever the individual makes of it, a floating signifier with no fixed meaning in the novel.

10.

What I want is a good, strong monarchy with a tasteful and decent king.


Ignatius J. Reilly, Chapter 9

Ignatius's desire for a strong monarch reveals itself in several different ways throughout A Confederacy of Dunces. It is in keeping with his preference for medieval society, in which the king, God's true representative, stood at the pinnacle of the social, cultural, and economic order. Everything beneath the monarch stayed in its fixed place. This worldview precludes the need for free will and choices. For Ignatius, who cannot make up his mind to follow through on anything, the idea of no free will is comforting. However, there is no guarantee that the ruler would be either "tasteful" or "decent." Lana Lee, who rules over the Night of Joy, is neither, and she subjects blacks like Jones to a fixed station that is beneath them.

11.

Anybody can insult a tramp. These jerks wanna see a sweet, clean virgin get insulted and stripped.


Lana Lee, Chapter 9

With her usual directness, Lana Lee demystifies the South's greatest treasure, saintly womanhood. To make the most of the strip act, she deliberately casts Darlene's exotic act as a reenactment of the plantation South, complete with slaves and Southern belles. Ironically, Ignatius comes to the Night of Joy when Darlene opens her act, in search of his own saintly woman, the face behind the pornographic body reading Boethius. His disillusionment is complete when Darlene's cockatoo grabs its ultimate prize, the hoop earring from his pirate costume—as if trying to strip him of his illusions.

12.

Two nerves met in Ignatius' mind ... he had found a means of assaulting the effrontery of M. Minkoff.


Narrator, Chapter 10

Ignatius's active but undisciplined mind combines with his continuing obsession with Myrna Minkoff. The two nerves that meet and immediately produce a new—and preposterous—idea are emblematic of Ignatius's thought process, and his life in general. He does a mental about-face, easily moving from feeling disgusted by and angry with Dorian Greene, to forming a partnership with him. Ignatius's thoughts and actions essentially lack the coherence and order he thinks he believes in. The real coherence lies in his ongoing desire to dominate Myrna.

13.

You look like a queer with that earring. People'll think this is a gay bar.


Lana Lee, Chapter 11

Lana echoes the sentiments of many others in the town: Ignatius appears to be gay because he is wearing an earring. Lana's blunt remark echoes what other characters have also suggested. It also draws a connection between her and Ignatius, who himself professes to be disgusted by homosexuality. Although these two characters are essentially adversaries, at their cores they are more alike than different. This is the case for most of the characters in the novel. There is an intolerance toward difference and a desire among many of them to enforce normalcy despite their own erratic behavior.

14.

Ignatius' valve responded to his emotions by plopping closed. His hands ... sprout[ed] ... tiny white bumps.


Narrator, Chapter 12

Ignatius's body expresses the emotions he relentlessly represses. The spreading of disease across his body suggests the growth of his emotional and psychological disease. At this point in the novel, the reader is quite familiar with Ignatius's valve, which is almost a character unto itself. Dominated by his appetites and emotions, Ignatius continues in a downward spiral. Ironically, his mind, body, and self are even more degraded than the consumer-driven, corrupt, exploitative society he criticizes.

15.

Now that Fortuna had saved him from one cycle, where would she spin him now?


Narrator, Chapter 14

Abandoned by his mother, and at the point of being involuntarily committed to a hospital, Ignatius is rescued by Myrna Minkoff and taken away to a new life. This ending seems to offer a glimpse of hope. In the closing paragraph Ignatius, feeling gratitude towards Myrna, presses her hair to his mouth, suggesting a change in his own sexuality. But by having framed his thoughts in terms of Fortuna, Ignatius shows that he remains deeply entrenched in his old obsessions and habitual thought patterns. The medieval hierarchy and the chance to blame "fate" for whatever befalls him are ever-present. The novel closes with the barest flicker of optimism: "The new cycle would be so different from anything he had ever known." Change, however, is surrounded by the looming shadow of Ignatius's stubborn mind.

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