Study Guide

Irene Reilly (Mrs. Reilly) in A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole

Irene Reilly (Mrs. Reilly)

She's Got Things Hard

Mrs. Irene Reilly, Ignatius's mother, often says that she has things hard. "'You treat me like garbage'" (1.278), she tells Ignatius, and he kind of does. He bullies her and yells at her. When she makes friends, he yells at her for that; and when Claude seems ready to marry her and solve her financial problems, all Ignatius can do is whine and give her grief.

For that matter, Ignatius himself admits that he's horrible to her. When she accuses him for the hundredth time, he doesn't say he treats her well. Instead he claims, "'It's not your fate to be well treated […]. You're an overt masochist. Nice treatment will confuse and destroy you'" (13.197). Looked at this way, it's almost like he's doing her a solid, right? Okay, not so much. But moving on.

The fact that Mrs. Reilly is put upon can distract you from the fact that she brings many of her troubles on herself. Ignatius exaggerates her drinking… but she does actually drink quite a bit. At the moment when she tells Ignatius that he treats her like garbage, she's completely sloshed, and it's her drinking which causes the major crisis of the novel, when she gets in her car after downing way more than she should have at the Night of Joy and runs into a building. So it's her fault that Ignatius has to go to work.

It's also Mrs. Reilly who has Mancuso trail Ignatius because she's paranoid and has decided he's involved in Communism—a decision on her part that eventually results in the humiliating front page newspaper coverage of Ignatius's trip to the Night of Joy. She might be mortified, but she's largely got herself to thank for this.

Not The World's Best

And finally, after Ignatius's efforts at various jobs results in a predictable and predicted disaster, she tries to solve the problem by getting her son committed to an insane asylum. And while Ignatius is certainly a huge, enormous, bloated pain, there isn't actually any reason to believe that he's crazy.

So… yes, it is true, Mrs. Reilly is not the world's best mother, even if Ignatius seems like just about the world's worst son. Still, she does her best, wandering vaguely through her life, alternately worrying about Ignatius and feeling sorry for herself. "'I want to be treated nice by somebody before I die'" (13.197), she declares, and who can blame her?

Hopefully Claude will marry her and the two can settle quietly into a life of bowling and drinking and perhaps occasionally denouncing Communists. At the least, she won't have to drag Ignatius around behind her like an enormous recalcitrant belching elephant. Because no matter her sins, that weight isn't something we would wish on anyone.

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