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A Confederacy of Dunces

From Academic Kids

A Confederacy of Dunces is a novel written by John Kennedy Toole, but not published during his lifetime. Through the efforts of the writer Walker Percy and Toole's mother, the book was published in 1980; it quickly became a cult classic and won a Pulitzer Prize a year later.

The title is a reference to a saying by the classic master of satire, Jonathan Swift: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." (Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting)

The story is set in New Orleans, Louisiana at the start of the 1960s. The central character is Ignatius J. Reilly, an intelligent but slothful man still living with his mother in Uptown New Orleans who, because of family circumstances, must set out to get a job for the first time in his life at age thirty. In his quest for employment he has various adventures with colorful French Quarter characters.

Contents

Major characters

Ignatius J. Reilly

Ignatius is something of a modern Don Quixote — eccentric and creative, sometimes perhaps to the point of being delusional. He tries to find jobs requiring little or no work which will allow him at the same time to further his plans to somehow achieve greatness.

He disdains modern civilization, especially pop culture, but gets a perverse delight in immersing himself in order to mock its vapidity and express his outrage with its lack of philosophy and geometry. He prefers the scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages, especially that of Boethius.

Myrna Minkoff

Myrna "The Minx" is a beatnik Jew from New York City whom Ignatius met while she was in college in New Orleans. Their political, social, religious, and personal orientations could hardly be more different, but Myrna and Ignatius have a fascination with each other. For most of the novel she is seen only in the regular correspondence which the two keep up since her return to New York. Officially, they both deplore everything the other stands for. Though probably neither of them would admit it, their correspondence indicates that, though separated by half a continent, many of their actions are done with hopes to impress the other.

Irene Reilly

Mrs. Reilly is Ignatius's long-widowed mother. She still thinks of Ignatius as an adolescent, encouraging him to think of himself that way. She is fond of drinking cheap wine and is generally tipsy.

Other characters

  • Santa Battaglia is Mrs. Reilly's best friend. She wants to get Ignatius out of the way so she can fix up his mother with a potential new husband.
  • Officer Mancuso is an inept police officer, the nephew of Santa Battaglia
  • Lana Lee runs a downscale French Quarter strip club. She employs Darleene and Jones.
  • Darleene a goodhearted but none-too-bright stripper
  • Burma Jones is the porter who resentfully holds on to his job only because the police will arrest him for vagrancy if he does not (an indignity not uncommon for African Americans in the U.S. South in the Jim Crow era).
  • Mr. Levy runs Levy Pants, a family business whose best days seem long behind it, with a small delapidated aging factory in New Orleans' Bywater. He wants to have as little actual dealing with the business as possible.
  • Mrs. Levy, his shrewish wife.
  • Ms. Trixie, an aged clerk at the Levy Pants office who is drifting off into senile dementia and often refers to Ignatius as "Gloria". Mrs. Levy thinks she's doing a good deed by keeping Ms. Trixie employed, athough Ms. Trixie would rather retire.
  • Mr. Gonzales is the Levy Pants office manager, apparently the only one there who actually cares about the business and does significant work.
  • Dorian Greene is a flamboyant French Quarter homosexual who puts on elaborate parties for the counterculture.

Notes

The book is famous for its rich depiction of New Orleans and the type of dialogue spoken there. Many locals and writers think that it is the best and most accurate depiction of the city in a work of fiction. The novel is not universally loved locally, however; some New Orleanians think it portrays the city and its inhabitants in an unfavorable light.

The city described in the novel differs in some ways from the actual New Orleans. For example, while the area downriver from the city of New Orleans is named "Saint Bernard Parish," in Confederacy of Dunces it is the "St. Odo of Cluny Parish", although this may point to a misunderstanding of the differences between Roman Catholic parishes and political parishes, otherwise known as counties elsewhere. The first chapter mentions the sun setting over the Mississippi River at the foot of Canal Street. As this direction is to the south-east, this is clearly impossible in our world. Possibly this is a joke by Toole related to the fact that the area across the river is known as the "West Bank," despite the fact that because of the twists of the river it is actually to the south or east from parts of central New Orleans. Such details are not likely to be noticed by people who are not familiar with New Orleans.

John Kennedy Toole's only other novel is The Neon Bible.

The structure of the book mirrors the structure of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (Ignatius's favorite book; a copy of it is a central plot device) in several ways. The book is divided into chapters, each of which is divided into a varying number of subchapters. Key parts of some chapters are outside of the main narrative; in Consolation these take the form of a prosimeter, while in Confederacy they take the form of journal entries by Ignatius or letters between himself and Myrna.

Film adaptation

Given the book's cult status, there have been repeated attempts to turn the book into a film, although these efforts appear to be as "cursed" as were the efforts to publish the book in the first place. At various times, John Belushi, John Candy, and even Chris Farley were touted for the lead. A version scheduled for release in 2005 staring Will Ferrell as Ignatius and Lily Tomlin as his mother halted production in 2004.

Preceded by:
The Executioner's Song
by Norman Mailer
(1980 winner)
Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction Succeeded by:
Rabbit Is Rich
by John Updike
(1982 winner)
es:La conjura de los necios
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