A Confederacy of Dunces | Study Guide

John Kennedy Toole

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A Confederacy of Dunces | Themes

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Unlovable Women

Mrs. Irene Reilly is a pushover at the beginning of the novel, rushing through the French Quarter to meet her 30-year-old boy with a box of his favorite cakes. Ultimately, however, women in A Confederacy of Dunces bear more of a resemblance to that "splendid monster," Toole's own mother, Thelma, than the reader might think at first glance. Lana Lee, for instance, is the "Nazi proprietress." She rules her establishment with an iron hand. She doesn't give a second thought to hiring Jones for less than minimum wage or to using her own body as the vehicle by which to make a profit. This formidable businesswoman is cold and calculating; the only thing she cares about is money. Mrs. Levy is another character who fails to radiate warmth. Throughout the novel, she berates her husband for lacking his father's ambitions and business skills. At the same time, she uses Miss Trixie as an object to satisfy her unfulfilled desires. She also implies that her daughters, who are away at college, harbor scorn for their father as a kind of extension of their modern intellectual ideas. And, of course, there's Myrna Minkoff, who is passionate about all causes but never exudes the warmth capable of making herself attractive to men—her letters to Ignatius detail one failed romantic conquest after another. Moreover, she lacks the tact that could make her compassionate.

Toole's misogyny reveals itself in the assumption that powerful women are cold and domineering. It is a consistent theme throughout the novel, from the stereotypical butch lesbians of the French Quarter to the "slovenly" Myrna and the nagging Mrs. Levy. At the other end of the spectrum are women like Darlene and Mrs. Irene Reilly, who are weak, tentative, and easily taken advantage of. One of the more interesting features of the novel is Mrs. Reilly's progression from a drunken martyr to a desirable woman who finds the courage to stand up to her bullying son. She pushes him out of his womb-like room and into the world.

With the help of her new friend, Santa Battaglia, Mrs. Reilly attracts a kind but slightly dotty widower, Claude Robichaux, and takes gradual steps to rid herself of Ignatius. When Mr. Levy goes to the Reilly home to confront Ignatius about the insulting letter he wrote to Abelman, he feels sorry for Ignatius because his mother sleeps around and abuses him. This is projection on Levy's part, of course. After all, he is the one who has suffered years of verbal abuse. Yet it is also a projection on the author's part. As hard as he may have tried to create a maternal figure who bore no resemblance to his own domineering mother, Toole ends up having Mrs. Reilly take steps to institutionalize her son. She pushes him out of her life with nothing more than a brief good-bye. Miss Annie's testimony confirms that Mrs. Reilly is no saint. Among other things, she failed to show compassion when Ignatius's beloved dog Rex died. In A Confederacy of Dunces, even a victimized woman ends the novel as a perpetrator.

Disguise

One of the themes that Toole explores in the novel is whether people can ever truly connect with each other. Most of the characters are trapped in their own subjectivity. Some are as impersonal as Myrna Minkoff, who writes so many letters to the editor that she begins her correspondence with "Sirs." Others are as frankly materialistic as Lana Lee, who lovingly fondles money but seemingly has no personal connection to another human being.

Toole explores this theme of disconnectedness and alienation through disguise. There is Patrolman Angelo Mancuso, who, due to the whim of a bullying sergeant, is forced to wear a number of absurd costumes. These costumes transform him from an inept police officer into a suspicious character who is accused of molesting women (whether he has is never made clear) and who gets attacked on at least three occasions. Before he finally catches a lucky break, Mancuso is relegated to a bus station bathroom, alone and without hope of advancement. Ignatius dons a pirate disguise to take on the French Quarter. Lana Lee disguises herself behind the pages of a luxury edition of Boethius. Timmy, one of the Quarter's gay citizens, dresses up as a sailor. Mrs. Levy announces her intention to purchase a brunette wig so that she can "change her personality." In fact, she is actually a brunette, and her real hair is only dyed blonde.

Disguises not only allow the characters to be people other than themselves but also let other characters project onto them their own fears and desires. The best example is when Ignatius sees the pornographic photo of Lana Lee and views her as a modern era Hroswitha. She becomes what he wants her to be because she is hiding her true identity. In this way, characters remain isolated from each other, whether they want to be or not.

Capitalism and Consumerism

The reader's first introduction to Ignatius J. Reilly occurs with him standing outside a department store. He freely condemns the passersby for their poor taste, which he characterizes as anything new, trendy, or socially desirable. Standing in stark contrast to Ignatius, Mrs. Levy is the quintessential 1960s housewife. She dabbles in psychology and fills her home with the latest appliances designed to make life easier and to facilitate self-improvement.

The 1960s were marked by consumerism, and Americans continued to enjoy postwar prosperity. Televisions reached an unprecedented 96 percent of households, allowing the homogenization of marketing and cultural ideals. While the New Orleans described in A Confederacy of Dunces is a melting pot of many nationalities and subcultures, what unites most of the characters is the desire for consumer goods and material wealth. Dorian Greene's house was featured in a magazine spread. Darlene gives her used magazines to Burma Jones so that he can covet the lifestyle depicted in their ads. Even Mrs. Irene Reilly is tempted to marry Claude Robichaux for his pension and property.

The only characters who seem genuinely indifferent to consumerism are Myrna Minkoff and Ignatius. As unlike as they might otherwise be—Ignatius is fascinated by popular culture, while Myrna dabbles in popular intellectual fads—they are the characters not bitten by the bug of consumerism.

Fate

The cycles of Fortuna guide Ignatius J. Reilly's exploits through the city of New Orleans—at least, he says they do. Placing himself in the hands of Fortuna, who blindly spins individuals on her wheel of human destiny, allows Ignatius to conveniently absolve himself of responsibility for the inaction of his daily life. For example, he has failed to complete a manifesto out of the separate paragraphs he has been jotting down for years on Big Chief tablets. Likewise, Burma Jones views his situation with fatality: blacks are subjugated, and that's all there is to it. He can comment on the humor in it—it's unlikely that he will spontaneously rape and steal from every white woman he encounters—but he does little to change the reality he experiences.

Toole both complicates and ironizes this perspective, though. Both Ignatius and Jones take decisive actions that shape the outcome for most of the novel's characters. After hearing about Ignatius's disastrous riot at Levy Pants, Jones decides that "the kook" is the right fellow to enact sabotage on Lana Lee's establishment, the Night of Joy. As a result, he invites Ignatius to attend the opening night of Darlene's strip routine. Earlier in the novel Ignatius writes an insulting letter to one of Gus Levy's best customers and forges Levy's name on it. The letter so enrages Abelman, the customer, that he threatens a $500,000 lawsuit. The outcome of Jones's invitation is that patrolman Mancuso finally makes good by arresting Lana Lee, who runs one of the biggest pornography rings in town. Darlene benefits as she gets a decent job offer through the publicity that follows the fracas Ignatius causes at the bar. And because of the insulting letter to Abelman, Miss Trixie finally gets to retire, Levy stands up to his wife, Jones gets an award through the Leon Levy Foundation, and Mrs. Irene Reilly rids herself of Ignatius.

A Confederacy of Dunces is not just an aimless picaresque tale of one man's journey in search of relevance. It is also a tightly woven narrative that shows, surprisingly enough, the power of free will.

Questions for Themes

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