A Confederacy of Dunces | Study Guide

John Kennedy Toole

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A Confederacy of Dunces | Symbols


The Green Hunter's Cap

There are a lot of hats in A Confederacy of Dunces, which is appropriate given that the typical image of a dunce involves a pointed hat. Dorian Greene buys Mrs. Irene Reilly's antiquated hat in one of the opening scenes. Patrolman Mancuso allegedly brushes up against a woman on the bus while wearing a sombrero. But Ignatius J. Reilly's green hunting cap is seemingly out of character for someone who fancies himself a kind of medieval scholar out of place in the modern world. However, Ignatius is on a quest for his own relevance. Even at his lowest moments, he is hunting for a way to make an impact on the world. He claims to be a victim of blind fate, but the hunting cap says otherwise. It symbolizes his search for self, much as the red hunting cap worn by Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, symbolizes his confidence.

The Shutters

Before going off to work, Ignatius spent his days cloistered in his womb-like room in his childhood home where he yells at Miss Annie through the shutters. At one point, he is about to splash a pan of water on her through the shutters as a punishment for intruding on his privacy. By the end of the novel, however, he imagines smashing through the shutters to get at Myrna Minkoff and strangle her with her own pigtail. There are different ways to read his reaction. One is that Ignatius is furious with the "minx" for continuing to triumph over him by finding fulfillment, even if that fulfillment lies in nothing more than rescuing him. Another is to see that he is finally sick and tired of the soul-destroying isolation of his life, which can only end with a trip to the Charity Hospital's mental ward. The shutters symbolize the prison he has imposed on himself. In the last scene of the novel, he has managed to break free.

Levy Pants

On two occasions, the reader gets a detailed description of the company's headquarters from the outside. The first time, Toole describes it as "a silent and smoky plea for urban renewal." The second time, as the Levys drive past, the place looks "equally moribund from the street." In fact, the factory is an emotional imprisonment for Mr. Levy, whose only desire is to escape it as soon as possible. It symbolizes the tyranny of the past over the present. This is something that is present in the novel in various ways, most notably in the virtual enslavement of black citizens by the white establishment.

Whether he is consciously aware of it or not, Ignatius is also tyrannized by his own past. He cannot even feel passion unless he conjures up an image of Rex, his childhood dog. According to Miss Annie, this animal is the only creature he ever really loved. The dog is buried in the Reilly's front yard, a weathered Celtic cross marking the site. Ignatius's devotion to the past, like this tribute to his pet, prevents him from moving into the present. Likewise, Mr. Levy is held captive by his father's success, embodied in the silent and smoky figure of Levy Pants. At the end of the novel, with the probable resolution of the Abelman lawsuit at hand, he decides to break free from the specter of the past by renaming the company Levy Shorts.

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