Study Guide

A Confederacy of Dunces Family

By John Kennedy Toole

Family

Miss Lee said, "I never liked mothers. Not even my own."

"My mother was a whore," the man with the racing form said, not looking up from his paper.

"Mothers are full of s***," Miss Lee observed and took off her leather coat. (1.304-306)

As with her hatred of books, it's hard to know exactly what to make of Lana Lee's hatred of mothers. We like that it isn't that she hated her mother in particular, and therefore hates all mothers in general, but rather than she hates mothers in general, and so hates hers as well. Perhaps Lana is expressing the opinion of the book to some degree. Mrs. Reilly is likable overall, but mothers as mothers in Confederacy mostly are there to sow guilt and bickering.

"You can't go bowling," Ignatius bellowed. "This is the most absurd thing you have ever done." (3.230)

An example of bickering, but of course. The hyperbole is especially nice; after all, we've already seen Mrs. Reilly do more absurd things than bowling (she sold her hat, she ran into a building…). Though maybe bowling really is some sort of quintessence of absurdity. It's hard to imagine Mrs. Reilly rolling a ball down a lane, and even harder to imagine Ignatius doing so. In his pirate costume. With a parrot on his head.

"A beautiful and meaningful love affair would transform you Ignatius. I know it would. Great Oedipus bonds are encircling your brain and destroying you." (7.298)

This is Myrna telling Ignatius that he has an Oedipal sexual desire for his mother. Ignatius's refusal to leave home, his reliance on his mother for basically everything, and his utter lack of sexual desire in anyone (except perhaps fleetingly for Lana-behind-Boethius) is suggestive for anyone who has heard of Freud. The novel isn't exactly advancing this Oedipal theory seriously; it's more playing with it to get a giggle.

"I try with him. I say, 'Be careful, son. Watch you don't slip down and crack your skull open or fracture a arm.'" Mrs. Reilly sucked at the ice cubes a bit. "Ignatius learned safety at my knee. He's always been grateful for that." (8.216)

Mrs. Reilly and Ignatius don't have much in common, but as she says, the neurotic worrying about safety does in fact seem to be one trait that Mrs. Reilly passed on. Of course, this obsession with personal comfort is something that Ignatius would repudiate if he were a loyal follower of Boethius (more in the "Symbols" section about this). But sometimes blood is thicker than books.

"They'd make him listen. They'd beat him in the head, they'd lock him up in a straitjacket, they'd pump some water on him," Santa said a little too eagerly.

"You gotta think about yourself, Irene," Mr. Robichaux said. "That son of yours is gonna put you in your grave." (11.70-71)

If there's any Oedipal struggle in the book, it's not Ignatius's effort to break away from his mother—it's his mother's efforts to break away from him. Santa and Claude are eager to help her out. Instead of the son killing the father to sleep with the mother, Santa appears to want the mother to kill the son to sleep with (or at least marry) the (step) father. Also, Santa probably just likes the idea of someone, particularly Ignatius, being tortured. Too bad she couldn't have seen Boethius getting spikes hammered into his head.

"May I ask where the money comes from to support this decadent whimsy of yours?"

"From my dear family out there in the wheat," Dorian sighed. "They send me large checks every month. In return I simply guarantee them that I'll stay out of Nebraska. I left there under something of a cloud you see." (12.81-82)

A Confederacy of Dunces was written in the 1960s, and attitudes toward gay people were much less tolerant at that time. To some extent, Toole portrays Dorian and his friends in stereotypical ways; they're melodramatic and effeminate and sexualized. Toole also shows some sympathy for them, though. This passage seems to do a little of both.

The novel is certainly making fun of Greene's campiness. But it also agrees with Dorian that Nebraska is fairly awful, and it's mocking his parents for their parochial horror at their son's probably quite standard indiscretions.

"In other words, you were having me trailed," Ignatius screamed. "My own mother!" (13.23)

Mrs. Reilly was having Ignatius trailed because (spurred on by Claude) she was worried that he was attending a Communist meeting. In Confederacy, even Cold War spying exists in the context of family bickering.

Now Mr. Levy knew that his wife's strange logic made it necessary for him to be ruined. She wanted to see Abelman victorious; she would see in the victory some peculiar justification. (13.138)

Mrs. Levy is hoping here that her family is ruined and that she, personally, will be cast into a life of poverty, just because it would give her so much satisfaction to see all her worst predictions about Mr. Levy come true. In a book filled with mean-spirited people, Mrs. Levy is perhaps the single purest avatar of spite. It's a thing of beauty.

"I'm sorry I run into that building, Ignatius. I love you." (14.46)

Aw… a sincere statement of mother love. It's in the context of Mrs. Reilly having finally decided to ship her son off to the psychiatric ward, of course. But still, it's sweet.

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