Study Guide

Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole

Ignatius J. Reilly

Ignatius J. Reilly is the giant, belching heart of A Confederacy of Dunces. The novel starts with his green hunting cap stuffed onto "the top of the fleshy balloon of his head" (1.1); it ends with a close up of his "wet moustache" (14.135); and in between, we see much of the world through his blue and yellow eyes "laced with finest tracing of pinkish veins" (3.87), and feel it bubbling away in the bowels of his valve (more on that over in the "Symbols" section). He is the genius against which the dunces have confederated, or, arguably, the single confederated dunce all by himself. The novel rolls and screams and eats and schemes in his enormous wake.

The Center of Ignatiusness

And yet, while Ignatius is at the center of the novel, what's at the center of him? What makes him roll and scream and eat and scheme and, finally, fall in front of a bus after being attacked by a cockatoo? What brings him to the movie theater to shriek at the screen, and sits him in front of the television set to shriek at the screen (screen shrieking's a favorite pastime of his), and leads him to denounce Professor Talc as a "deluded fool […] an 'anyone for tennis?' golf-playing, cocktail-quaffing pseudo-pedant" (5.306)? What, in short, makes Ignatius such a stinker?

Ignatius himself would probably say "Boethius" (again, allow us to suggest you don't skip the "Symbols" section in this guide). He would argue that he is motivated by the stoic medieval philosophy, and by the recognition "that striving is ultimately meaningless" (11.401). Ignatius knows that "with the breakdown of the Medieval system, Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendency" (2.1). In other words, the modern world is utterly rotten; Ignatius stands for a better, purer, less corrupt time, before all was decadent and corrupt.

But, in fact, there's nothing stoic about Ignatius and his constant complaining, and he loves the modern decadent world with all his heart and valve. He complains about Doris Day films, but he'd much rather watch those than an Ingmar Bergman film about good and evil and the salvation of the soul (ahem, "Symbols" section).

There wasn't any Dr. Nutt cola back in the Middle Ages—and what would Ignatius do without Dr. Nutt? There also weren't any hot dogs, and what would Ignatius do without hot dogs? Ignatius gets incredibly cranky if he can't wear his favorite hat; he'd hardly suffer calmly with Boethius while giant spikes were rammed into his head.

For the Love of Ignatius

Ignatius, then, is not motivated by pure Medieval disdain for the modern world. So what does make him tick?

Well, the thing that most consistently seems to motivate Ignatius is his ex-sort-of- girlfriend, the beat radical sex-advocate Myrna Minkoff. It's because he wants to impress Myrna that he tries to organize the uprising of black workers at Levy Pants, figuring that the progressive Myrna will be bitter with envy if Ignatius organizes a real Civil Rights demonstration.

Similarly, it's because he wants to impress Myrna that he tries to get Dorian involved in organizing a political party based on homosexuality, a venture that (back in the 1960s) he feels sure will shock even the ultra-liberal Myrna.

And finally, it's to spite Myrna, in large part at least, that Ignatius tries to find the Boethius-reading woman in the pornographic picture. "How anguished [Myrna] would be," Ignatius imagines gloatingly, "when Ignatius described his tender pleasures" (11.338) with the other woman. It's almost as if describing sex to Myrna would be more fun than the sex itself.

Much of Ignatius's bumping, disastrous progress through the novel, then, is because he is pursuing, or being pursued by, thoughts of Myrna. Ignatius hasn't escaped into Medieval indifference; on the contrary, he's enmeshed in that most modern of entanglements: the romance. "'Ultimately,'" as Ignatius says, "'it was all Myrna Minkoff's fault. You know how she makes trouble'" (6.143). Ignatius isn't much for personal responsibility, in case you hadn't noticed.

A Love Story?

So is A Confederacy of Dunces a love story? Myrna does sweep in at the end to rescue Ignatius, her damsel in distress, and they ride off into the sunset (or, you know, New York) together. The book even ends with him kissing her pigtail. But we are not sure that what we have here is really love, precisely, in any usual sense.

Ignatius obviously feels very competitive with Myrna, and wants to one-up her, but it's not clear that this translates into romantic feelings. At the end, when he sees Myrna on his doorstep, his impulse is to attack her, until he realizes that she's a means of escape:

Ignatius was about to burst through the shutters, splintering slats and latches, and wrap that one hemplike pigtail around her throat until she turned blue. But reason won. He was not looking at Myrna; he was looking at an escape route. (14.62)

Not exactly flowers and hearts, now is it? The fact is, Ignatius pretty much never seems to think about romance with anyone, except "for a wild and very fleeting moment" when he "pondered an affair" (11.338) with the naked woman in the pornographic picture. And that seems to have been as much about making Myrna "gnaw at her espresso cup rim in envy," and about his passion for Boethius, as about an actual interest in sex, or even affection.

Masturbation seems to be Ignatius's quintessential sexual outlet. In sex, as in every other aspect of his existence, his emotions are focused firmly on himself and his valve, more or less in that order.

Ego, Ego

The relationship with Myrna, then, seems less like love, and more like intellectual ego. Ignatius wants to be the smartest, most important, person in the room, or the city, or the world. Myrna is the one person he knows who, in her own way, is as intellectually arrogant, as pushy, and as egocentric as he is. What's at the center of Ignatius, then, is just Ignatius after all. He is fascinated with Myrna because she challenges him to take up even more space—to climb to even greater heights (or widths) of Ignatiusness. It's his all-time favorite project.

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