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A Confederacy of Dunces

Term Definition
A Confederacy of Dunces

In A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole develops an eccentric character named Ignatius, who, in a famous foreword by the writer Walker Percy, has been described as a "fat Don Quixote". The novel consists of a picaresque account of this eccentric man's adventures over time. The manuscript of the work was brought to Percy by the deceased author's mother; and Percy, pleasantly surprised by the quality of the work, advocated for its publication.   

A Confederacy of Dunces - A brief summary

A Confederacy of Dunces is a satirical novel by Irish American/Creole writer John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969). Written in 1963 but only published in 1980—11 years after the author's suicide—the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has posthumously earned Toole canonical renown among 20th century writers from the American south.

Set in the author's hometown of New Orleans, the novel centers on the ruminations and misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a thirtysomething man of many contradictions: educated yet slovenly; pious yet prurient; old-fashioned yet anti-luddite. He lives with his widowed, alcoholic mother Irene, with whom he shares a love/hate relationship. Despite his worldly self-image, he's a travel-averse individual who has braved only one, abortive journey outside his city of birth. Ironically, his social life largely consists of mail correspondence with his college friend and religious/philosophical opposite Myrna Minkoff, a secular-Jewish beatnik who now lives in New York City.

Major themes and motifs of the story

Written at the tail end of the Jim Crow era, A Confederacy of Dunces offers insights into the hardships faced by African Americans in the Deep South during the early 1960s. For example, a young black character, Burma Jones, is arrested on trumped-up charges of cashew theft. After his release, he's forced to accept any employment he can find or else face re-arrest for vagrancy. Consequently, he ends up working for a substandard wage at a job he doesn't dare leave for fear of further imprisonment. The segregation that ran so deep throughout the region is further depicted in Toole's novel by a pants factory with an all-black staff, which causes Ignatius to bemoan the paltry advances afforded to blacks—"from picking cotton to tailoring it"—since the abolition of slavery.

Another theme of Toole's novel is the dichotomy between choice and fate. Ignatius believes that his own fate is determined by the goddess Fortuna, who he claims controls his destiny—both happy and sad—along a wheel of fortune. Despite this, his actions end up altering the lives of various people in his path. Jones, for instance, is finally allowed to find real employment following a confrontation between Ignatius and the cockatoo; a move that also elevates the long-berated Patrolman Mancuso. On an opposite note, Ignatius brings several villains to justice, including kiddy-smut peddlers Lana and George.

Additional Information on A Confederacy of Dunces

Noted for its depictions of the dialects and geographical details of New Orleans, A Confederacy of Dunces is often cited as one of the most realistic fiction works set in the city. Parts of the novel draw upon the author's real-life experiences, such as the pants factory and food-stand stints, both of which were shared by Toole and his chief protagonist. Unlike Ignatius, however, Toole was a well-dressed man who enjoyed travelling.

Despite its acclaim, A Confederacy of Dunces would have never seen the light of day had it not been for Toole's mother, Thelma, who found a carbon copy of the manuscript after her son's suicide. Tragically, the author's decision to take his life was in part provoked by his rejection from the literary world during the 1960s. Determined to make good on her son's legacy, she hawked his novel to several different publishers, all indifferent, before landing it on the desk of LSU Press, which published the work in 1980. Toole was one of many popular literary authors at the time.

Soon after winning the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Hollywood scrambled for movie rights. Harold Ramis planned an adaptation with John Belushi in the role of Ignatius, but these plans were thwarted by the comedic actor's death. Various other filmic plans have been floated to no avail, but the novel has been brought to life on the stage.

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