Study Guide

A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces Introduction

It's hard to get A Confederacy of Dunces in a nutshell. In part, this is because the novel is picaresque, meaning it's a bunch of episodic adventures sprawling across the (mostly) seedier side of New Orleans. In short, this one's a rambler.

The biggest reason the novel is hard to fit in a nutshell, though, is because so much of it deals with Ignatius J. Reilly—and Ignatius is a very big fellow indeed. When he "shifts from one hip to another in his lumbering elephantine fashion […] waves of flesh" (1.2) roll and belch, causing nutshells to weep and fracture from sheer frustration.

Ignatius's refusal to be contained in a nutshell is not just a matter of girth, though, and his stubbornness matches his bulk. The novel consists of people trying to shove him into one nutshell after another (these nutshells often look like jobs), and watching him wriggle enormously out of them. So when he is hired to file, he throws out the files, and when he is hired to be a hot dog vendor, well, he eats the hot dogs.

On the one hand, the fact that Ignatius cannot be contained is a sign of his uniqueness. No one, as he says, understands "the grandeur of my physique; the complexity of my worldview." (9.190) On the other hand, though, Ignatius isn't all that unique. On the contrary, just about everyone in the novel is out of place in their own way, and this book pictures the funky, oddball city of New Orleans as a kind of island of misfit toys. All the nuts are cracked, and most of them—like the Dr. Nut soft drink that Ignatius adores—will give you gas.

The novel itself, like its characters, had a heap of trouble finding a place. Its author, John Kennedy Toole, tried to get the novel published for two years before repeated demands for changes and revisions finally led him to shelve the book. He committed suicide in 1969, but his mother found a smeared carbon copy of the manuscript and worked ceaselessly for years to bring it to the attention of publishers. She finally interested the author Walker Percy in the manuscript, and he helped shepherd it to publication in 1980.

The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, and is now widely considered a classic, but it continues to confound efforts at a movie adaptation. Actors from John Belushi to Divine to John Candy to Chris Farley have been suggested for the role of Ignatius. Every one of them died while the project was still working its way through development hell, though, and then the destruction of New Orleans in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina complicated hopes of filming in the city. Maybe the film is cursed—or maybe Ignatius, who often rails against the depravity of the movies, may just be too large and too weird to fit on the big screen.

What is A Confederacy of Dunces About and Why Should I Care?

You should care about this book because it is about money. And everybody cares about money. With money, you can buy Dr. Nut soda and go to the movies and pay the lawyers off when you run into a building, but without money, you have to sweep floors and the lawyers will eat you. And if you don't care about money… well, what kind of slacker are you?

Ignatius Reilly is a big, fat slacker, and he insists that he does not need or want your stinking money. "I would agitate quite adamantly if I suspected that anyone were attempting to help me upward toward the middle-class" (5.185), he declares, and he fights tooth and nail and outsized stomach against his mother's efforts to force him to get a job.

And yet, the insistence that he is not a rat in a rat race often just seems to make Ignatius race around in an even more rat-like fashion. Not working doesn't free him from material concerns; it just means that he has to scheme and plot and cheat all the time in order to finance his trips to the movie theater so he can bellow in rage at what shallow materialist tripe they're showing up there on the screen. In other words, without a job, his life is in many ways even more determined by money than it would be if he were employed.

Ignatius isn't alone, either; everyone else in the book is also chasing, or more accurately, being chased by their jobs and the money associated with those jobs (albeit without quite so much belching). Burma Jones has to get a job sweeping floors for nothing so the police won't arrest him for vagrancy, while up the economic ladder, Gus Levy feels ill every time he goes near the garment company he owns. And that's just to name a few.

So whether you're rich or poor, aspiring to the middle-class or aspiring to opt out, work and money will kick you in the posterior, heap ridicule upon you, and close all your valves. You are someday going to head out to make—or not make—your fortune, and you are going to be humiliated and beaten down in the process. So it's best to read A Confederacy of Dunces and be prepared.

A Confederacy of Dunces Resources

Websites

A Tour Through Ignatius's New Orleans
A writer has gone through the entire novel, visited every single place mentioned in it, and taken photographs. From a bus station like that in which Officer Mancuso spent his lonely vigil to the Prytania movie theater, everything is here.

Articles and Interviews

The Confederacy of Dunces in Development Hell
The long, painful, unsuccessful history of trying to make a movie version of A Confederacy of Dunces.

The Real-Life Ignatius Reilly
An excerpt from Cory MacLauchlin's biography of John Kennedy Toole Butterfly in the Typewriter, which reveals the true-life, fat, lazy, flatulent lover of Boethius who inspired the creation of Ignatius Reilly.

Searching for the Original Manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces
Cory MacLauchlin, Toole's biographer, describes his effort to find the original manuscript of the novel.

Toole's Life, Book, and Suicide
Cory MacLauchlin describes Toole's failed efforts to publish his book, and his slide into depression and eventually suicide.

Loving Ignatius Reilly
Giancarlo DiTrapano explains how he realized he was gay after reading about Ignatius Reilly masturbating.

Video

One of the Funniest Books Ever Written
In a brief video, author Michael Lewis argues that John Kennedy Toole captured New Orleans street life like no other writer.

A Biography of John Kennedy Toole
The one-hour documentary biography John Kennedy Toole: Omega Point, available for viewing at the film's official website.

Images

The Ignatius Reilly Statue
A bronze statue of Ignatius Reilly stands on Canal Street in New Orleans at the former site of the D.H. Holmes Department Store, where the first scene of A Confederacy of Dunces takes place. Reilly is dressed in his standard get-up of hunting cap, baggy pants and scarf.

The D.H. Holmes Department Store
The store outside which the first scene of the novel takes place. The department store was changed into a hotel in 1995.

A Sexy Image From Red Dust
A still from the film that inspired Mr. Reilly to uncharacteristic amorousness, culminating in Ignatius's conception.