Study Guide

A Confederacy of Dunces Themes

By John Kennedy Toole

  • Education

    A Confederacy of Dunces is determined to be smarter than you. The book has allusions to everything from medieval learning to modern American literature to art films—you can barely turn a page without finding a shout out to some obscure historical figure or other (more over in the "Symbols" section about this).

    But while the book displays a lot of learning, it doesn't seem to respect it much. The professor in the book, Dr. Talc, is an ignoramus and a cad, and Ignatius uses his education for the sole purpose of insulting people; Myrna uses hers for similar purposes. A Confederacy of Dunces wasn't written by a dunce—but it does seem to suggest that even the folks who aren't dunces are in that same confederacy.

    Questions About Education

    1. Is George right to have quit school? Would he have been better off with more education like Ignatius?
    2. Who is more ignorant, Dr. Talc or Darlene? Does the book think the difference matters?
    3. How would Ignatius be different if he were less educated?

    Chew on This

    Education in A Confederacy of Dunces just teaches people to be crueler.

    The only thing Ignatius really loves is education.

  • Family

    A Confederacy of Dunces loves bickering. Give the novel two people who despise each other, and throw them in a scene where they are telling each other how despicable they are, and the novel is quite happy. And since nobody bickers like family bickers, the novel is careful to arrange for at least a couple of endless, ongoing family quarrels—the one between Ignatius and his mother, and the one between Mr. and Mrs. Levy. Both are very funny, though we prefer Mr. and Mrs. Levy, if only because the combatants seem more easily matched.

    Either way, it's clear that in this book, as in many comedic traditions, families are mostly there to make their members (amusingly) miserable.

    Questions About Family

    1. How is Mr. Levy's relationship with Sandra and Susan similar to or different from Mrs. Reilly's relationship with Ignatius?
    2. Might Ignatius and Myrna be seen as a family? Why or why not?
    3. How is Mr. Levy's life influenced by his relationship with his father?

    Chew on This

    Families in A Confederacy of Dunces are mostly machines designed to generate guilt.

    There is sex in A Confederacy of Dunces, and there are families, but the two never meet, except by accident.

  • Inertia

    A Confederacy of Dunces is a lengthy ode to the difficulty of being lazy. So many people in this novel work so hard to get out of working. Ignatius struggles and flops like a bloated, electrocuted flounder in his desperate efforts to avoid work; Mr. Levy creates headaches for himself because he doesn't want to work; Burma Jones spends the whole novel working to get out of his crappy job. Ignatius is always fulminating against the hideous modern demand that everybody work, but in Confederacy the real struggle is not to get ahead, but to finally—finally—get behind.

    Questions About Inertia

    1. What characters work to get ahead in Confederacy? Are they better off than the ones who don't work to get ahead?
    2. How seriously are we supposed to take Ignatius's criticism of the culture of striving for success?
    3. Is Mrs. Reilly lazy? Provide evidence for your answer.

    Chew on This

    The only people who show get-up-and-go in Confederacy are police and criminals.

    Miss Trixie and Ignatius get along because they are both equally inert.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Justice in A Confederacy of Dunces is mostly a way to blackmail or rob people. Lana Lee uses the threat of an arrest for vagrancy to force Burma Jones to sweep her floors for next to nothing; Abelman leaps on the abusive letter Ignatius sends as a way to sue Mr. Levy for all he's worth; and Ignatius threatens to sue just about everyone for everything. The police themselves mostly seem to be in the business of harassing people not so much to keep the city safe as in order to be able to say that they put someone in jail so that they can take pictures of themselves (as Mancuso does at the end of the novel).

    In short, justice is simply a good way to score points. It's basically a weaponized form of bickering.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Do any of the characters in the novel receive justice? Explain your answer.
    2. What do Boethius's actions suggest about justice? Does Ignatius take his lessons to heart?
    3. Is Ignatius motivated by a desire for justice in organizing the factory workers? Is anyone in the novel motivated by a desire for justice?

    Chew on This

    Everybody in the novel is treated unjustly, which is a kind of justice.

    The law in the novel functions as a systemized form of injustice.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Ignatius lies copiously, easily, and continuously. He lies when he threatens everyone with his attorneys. He lies when he tells his mother he's looking for a job when in fact he's going to the movies. He lies about Miss Trixie's age. He lies to Myrna to fool her into thinking he's got a more exalted position in the food industry than he does. He lies by forging a letter in Mr. Levy's name. He lies to get what he wants and to make himself look better and sometimes just because he feels like it.

    He also lies because lies are funny. A big part of the pleasure of A Confederacy of Dunces is listening to Ignatius telling ridiculous whoppers. If Toole cannot arrange a good round of bickering, the next best thing is a nice, fat howler. And if he can get bickering and lying together in the same passage, he is in heaven.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Is there any honest character in the novel? If so, what does their honesty get them?
    2. Is Ignatius a good liar? Does he fool people, or does he mostly get himself in trouble?
    3. Is there some lying in the novel that seems justified? For instance, is Burma Jones wrong for deceiving Lana Lee?

    Chew on This

    Toole, like Ignatius, enjoys spinning tall tales.

    Deceit in the novel isn't necessarily seen as immoral as long as it is funny.

  • Race

    Race relations aren't generally all that funny. Persecution, hatred, injustice, cruelty, systematic oppression—downers all. Or so you'd think.

    A Confederacy of Dunces is set in the 1960s in the South, at a period and in a place where the Civil Rights movement was very visible, but had by no means ended discrimination against black people.

    The novel's attitude toward the changes in race relations is somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, Confederacy pokes fun at Civil Rights activism, lampooning both Myrna's earnest desire to do something and save somebody and Ignatius's incompetent and clearly egotistical attempt to organize a racial demonstration at Levy Pants. On the other hand, the book also at a number of points ridicules the racism of white people, and is clearly on the side of Burma Jones when he takes his revenge on Lana for exploiting him.

    Overall, then, the book uses race as it does most things—as an excuse to make fun of everybody, no matter their ideological allegiances. Though the novel does to some extent use humor to comment on race, it's in general more interested in using race as a backdrop for humor.

    Questions About Race

    1. Is New Orleans a segregated city in Confederacy? Explain your evidence.
    2. Is Jones's treatment at the Night of Joy racist? Explain your answer.
    3. Does the novel support the Civil Rights movement? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    Confederacy uses many stereotypes of homosexuals, but is careful to avoid stereotypes of black people.

    Because the novel does not believe in justice, it has trouble taking the Civil Rights movement seriously.

  • Sex

    There's hardly any actual sex in A Confederacy of Dunces. There are, however, a lot of jokes about sex, and references to sex of various kinds—from Myrna giving erotic pep talks, to Ignatius hoping that gay sex will bring peace to the world, to Lana's pornographic pictures to the occasional description of Ignatius masturbating.

    Often the discussion of sex is as much about sex's absence as it is about its presence: as, for instance, in the decidedly non-erotic description of Ignatius's conception following a movie, or the equally non-erotic (even anti-erotic) debacle of Darlene's strip show. Sex, the novel seems to believe, is funniest when it's least sexy.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Which is more important as a motivation in Confederacy, sex or greed? Explain your answer.
    2. Is Lana in control of her sexuality? Explain your answer.
    3. Is Myrna in control of her sexuality? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    Ignatius is one of the most sexual characters in the novel.

    Ignatius's main sexual interest, like all of his other main interests, is in himself.

  • Wealth

    Wealth. Everyone wants it. We write these very words for wealth, and you… do you not read them in the hope of acing that test and going on to win fame and fortune in the great A Confederacy of Dunces competitive analysis super bowl?

    Folks in this book have a wide range of wealth. At the top there's Mr. Levy, a big business owner and heir to a good deal of money; in the middle there're small business owners like Mr. Clyde and Lana Lee, along with pensioners with some money saved like Claude. And then, heading down toward the bottom of the spectrum, there's the teetering-on-the-edge-of-the-middle-class Reillys, and the virtually destitute Burma Jones.

    Wealth makes a huge difference in how people on different parts of the class ladder live their lives. Mr. Levy has problems, certainly, but his life of jetting to sporting events is a lot more comfortable than Burma Jones's. Still, wherever they are on the class ladder, the characters are united in worrying, and being worried by, money. Even Ignatius, who claims elaborately not to be part of the modern rat race, spends the entire book trying to find some way to get money, or to hide money from his mother.

    Sex may be a marginal interest for many of the characters here, but money is universal.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. How are George and Officer Mancuso alike in their approach to their jobs? 
    2. Who is the worst boss in A Confederacy of Dunces? Explain your reasoning.
    3. Who is the worst employee in A Confederacy of Dunces? Explain your reasoning.

    Chew on This

    Ignatius would be happier if he were rich.

    Ignatius would not be happier if he were rich.