A Confederacy of Dunces

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A Confederacy of Dunces
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Written by: John Kennedy Toole
Central Theme:
Synopsis: In 1960s New Orleans, an overeducated, puritanical, pompous NEET unwittingly sows chaos as he has to deal with the culture and the counterculture of the city on his job search.
Genre(s): Picaresque
First published: 1980
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When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him

Published in 1980, 11 years after the suicide of author John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces is often hailed as one of the funniest novels ever written.

Set in New Orleans, the plot follows the misadventures and disasters of Ignatius J. Reilly, an over-educated, offensive and puritanical (not to mention grotesquely fat) slob as he is sent out by his mother to find work to pay for damages caused by a car crash. In his quest Reilly provides the catalyst for a range of sub-plots involving hot-dog vendors, university protests, factory owners, pornographers, and sociopathic lesbians as he wages war on modern culture across the city. His ghastly personal habits and complete marginal ability to notice the existence of other people stun the gentle reader.

Tropes used in A Confederacy of Dunces include:
  • All Gays Are Promiscuous
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Reilly, who yearns for a time before the Enlightenment, preferably with a monarchy.
  • Break the Haughty: Happens to Reilly progressively over the course of the book, though most of it is his own fault.
    • Also Mrs. Levy, whose Henpecked Husband fights back in a glorious way when Ignatius rather improbably provides him with the means to shatter her pretentions.
  • Brick Joke: Most of the jokes/plot points beyond the first few chapters are started long before they actually come into play. The more you can remember from earlier in the book, the funnier it is.
  • Butch Lesbian: The local gay community includes several of these.
  • Camp Gay: Dorian Greene is the prime example, though everyone at his party (except Ignatius) is flamboyantly homosexual.
  • Celibate Hero: Well, celibate anti-hero (and not of his own device, either).
  • Cheap Costume: Mancuso is forced parade around in a series of these as punishment for what happens in the first scene of the book with Ignatius.
    • To say nothing of Ignatius selling hot dogs dressed like a pirate/gypsy.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Too many to count, but let's start with Ignatius' copy of The Consolations of Philosophy, as well as Darlene's "dance" routine and Ignatius' letter from Levy Pants.
    • Tracing how all of the characters and events of the book interact with each other is one of the more fascinating parts of reading the book, and a source of much of the humor.
  • The Chew Toy: Patrolman Mancuso, oh so very much.
  • The City: New Orleans, particularly the French Quarter.
  • Comedic Sociopathy: Just try to read the chapter where Ignatius blithely eats all the hot dogs in the Paradise Vendors cart without cracking up. It's impossible.
  • Covert Pervert: Ignatius' moralistic facade hides his bizarre masturbatory fantasies.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: One of Ignatius' more common responses to frustration and disappointment.
  • The Ditz: Darlene.
  • Dye Hard: Apparently, Mrs. Levy has been dying her hair platinum-blonde for so long that she forgot that she was a natural brunette.
  • Dysfunction Junction: There is absolutely no one in this book that is quite right in the head, and pretty much everyone has issues to work out. In the end, many of them do (or are at least well on their way to getting better).
  • Fatal Flaw: Much of Ignatius' troubles would be resolved if he understood that his own actions actually had consequences and accepted his need to improve himself.
  • Fetish Retardant in-universe example: Darlene's striptease isn't appreciated too much by Burma Jones and Lana Lee.
  • Freudian Excuse: Ms. Annie, of all people, explains that most of Ignatius' bizarre habits and beliefs can be traced back to the death of his dog, Rex, as well as (what he felt was) the inappropriate response to his loss from his pastor and his mother.
  • Freud Was Right: Or so Mrs. Levy believes. She took a correspondence course in psychology (which she failed) and constantly tries to apply her "knowledge" to her husband and Miss Trixie. Of course, there's a real Freudian moment when it's revealed that, with the right makeup and a wig, Miss Trixie looks almost exactly like Mrs. Levy's mother.
  • Gasshole: Ignatius and his "temperamental valve".
  • Gray and Grey Morality: No one is really a bad guy, but very few people seem to be actively working towards any good either. It makes it difficult to say who the heroes or the villains are in this story, but it works quite well.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Woman, actually. Miss Trixie hasn't been allowed to retire due to the insistence of Ms. Levy; as a result, she becomes increasingly hostile and senile towards everyone except Ignatius.
  • Happy Ending: For the most part.
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Mrs. Reilly, Ignatius' mother, is accused of this by Ignatius and Ms. Annie. It is unclear how true their accusations are, but she seemed to have no qualms about getting plastered at the Night of Joy, early on in the book.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Ignatius keeps warning people to stop "molesting" him.
  • Henpecked Husband: Mr. Levy.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Ignatius, repeatedly, though he seems to think he just has bad luck.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Everyone seems to catch the stupid when Ignatius comes around with his insane ideas, at least long enough for him to convince them to do what he wants them to do.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    • Reilly is obsessed with the chastity of every woman around him, especially those he sees in movies. He sees no contradiction with his obvious sexual fantasizing or obsession with Myrna.
    • Reilly's speech to Mancuso at the beginning of the book is hilariously hypocritical, as he fits into at least two or three of the categories of people he rails against.
  • Jerkass: Reilly is the ultimate example, though most others in the book qualify at points.
  • Jive Turkey: Burma Jones. Pages and pages of the book is written in his own, hysterical, highly N'orleen-accented first person. "Woah! You don't gotta be like that. Hoo-wee!"
  • Large Ham: Ignatius, figuratively and literally.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: More like heat-seeking Karma, but Lana Lee and George get their just desserts in the end.
    • Sort of; a bit of Values Dissonance here, as the crime of which they are convicted ( distribution of pornography in high schools) got them a much more severe punishment than most people today would say they deserved. This, however, is Truth in Television for Louisiana, which has a morality streak a mile wide in its criminal code and retains some exceptionally harsh punishments to this day.
    • Lana Lee was still something of a Jerkass, though. It helps that she's given a major Kick the Dog moment immediately before her arrest when she fires Darlene, Jones, and one of her waitresses out of spite because Ignatius unintentionally ruined Darlene's stripper act.
      • She was also blackmailing Jones to keep him working for her while paying him under minimum wage, so she seems to deserve what she got.
    • Ignatius suffers this as well, on a fairly regular basis... not that he understands the misfortune that befalls him is pretty much all his own fault.
  • Literary Allusion Title: See page quote.
  • Lord Error-Prone: Reilly has many of these attributes, but without any of the influence and power.
  • Malaproper: Darlene keeps screwing up the lines she is supposed to deliver as the Southern stripper character "Harlot O'Hara." Thankfully, no one seems to notice.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Ignatius, surprisingly, seems to be very good at getting people to do what he wants them to do... at least, in the short run.
  • Meaningful Rename: Dorian Greene; see the Shout-Out entry below.
  • Odd Friendship: Ignatius and Miss Trixie, though Ignatius is mostly just using her.
  • Only Sane Man: Mr. Levy
    • Also, Patrolman Mancuso. Even then, he's a complete idiot in every other department.
    • Burma Jones would also qualify.
  • Prison Rape: The implied fate of Lana Lee in the prison cell with Frieda, Betty and Liz
  • Psycho Lesbian: Frieda, Betty and Liz. Well, not so much "psycho" as incredibly violent and stereotypical for butch lesbians.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Ignatius' mother gives him a good one towards the end.

Mrs. Reilly: You learnt everything, Ignatius, except how to be a human being.

  • Serial Escalation: You will not believe the ways in which the plot threads interact with each other, or how they all manage to tie up so well in the end.
    • Also, despite being by far the heaviest person in the book in the beginning, Ignatius manages to gain even more weight as the story progresses especially after he gets his job at Paradise Vendors.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Oh God Fortuna, yes.
  • Shout-Out: Numerous, but the most obvious one that isn't a direct reference is Dorian Greene, who was named for the title character in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
    • It should be noted that he named himself that, as his original name was too dull for his tastes.
  • The Sixties: The time in which the book was written, as well as when it takes place.
  • Spicy Latina: Deconstructed with a waitress who works at Lana Lee's bar. She speaks in a combination of colorful Spanish phrases and You No Take Candle English. Toole initially describes her as vaguely flirtatious and wearing high-heeled sandals, so we get the sense that she's a sexpot. However, beauty is only skin-deep: she's loud, pushy, and has really bad breath.
  • Strawman Political:
    • Ignatius and Myrna hold political and philosophical positions that are both almost too absurd to be believed. Ignatius believes that Western morality took a wrong turn at the Renaissance and favors the return of a monarchy, and Myrna is a combination of a Straw Feminist and a free-love hippy whose favorite activity is organizing protests and rallies of various sorts.
    • Also, the old man from the beginning of the book who tries to stand up for Ignatius and whom Mrs. Reilly ends up running off to marry. He has a bizarre obsession with the "communiss." Some of the bystanders who see him get arrested feel sorry for him, though, especially since he has some beloved Catholic "grandchirren."
  • Sword Fight: Ignatius with a plastic sword vs. Clyde with his giant two-pronged fork. For no reason at all. (Well, maybe one particular reason....)
  • Unreliable Narrator: While everyone embellishes the truth a bit, any story told by Ignatius is guaranteed to be at least 50% untrue. His grandiose language and mannerism helps him to over-dramatize his problems.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Ignatius, obviously.
  • Unusual Euphemism: It is implied by Ignatius' outrage while reading Myrna's letters that, any time she describes a man as being "very real", there is a better than average chance that she has slept with him. Considering her position on sexuality, this isn't surprising.
  • Watering Down: One of the many ways Lana Lee tries to make a profit on her "investment."
  • Why Do You Keep Changing Jobs?: The plot of the book focuses on Ignatius getting various jobs to pay for his mother's car accident, including Levy Pants worker and hot dog vendor. He was also a college professor at one point.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Ignatius' valve keeps coming up, despite the fact that no one (probably including him) knows what valve he's talking about or whether it's actually possible to feel this (potentially non-existent real, believe it or not) valve open or close.
  • You Need to Get Laid: What Myrna thinks Ignatius' problem is. She thinks it's the whole world's problem, actually.