Literature / A Confederacy of Dunces

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When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.

Published in 1980, 11 years after the suicide of author John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces is often hailed as one of the funniest novels ever written.

Set in New Orleans in the mid-1960s, the plot follows the misadventures and disasters of Ignatius J. Reilly, an over-educated, offensive and puritanical (not to mention grotesquely fat) slob as he is sent out by his mother to find work to pay for damages caused by a car crash. In his quest Reilly provides the catalyst for a range of sub-plots involving hot-dog vendors, university protests, factory owners, pornographers, and sociopathic lesbians as he wages war on modern culture across the city. His ghastly personal habits and completely marginal ability to notice the existence of other people stun the gentle reader.

Tropes:

  • Accidental Misnaming: Miss Trixie keeps referring to Ignatius as "Gloria," confusing him with an employee who was let go the same day he was hired.
  • All Gays Are Promiscuous: Dorian and his friends certainly meet the description.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Or so Mrs. Levy believes. She took a correspondence course in psychology (which she failed) and constantly tries to apply her "knowledge" to her husband and Miss Trixie. Of course, there's a real Freudian moment when it's revealed that, with the right makeup and a wig, Miss Trixie looks almost exactly like Mrs. Levy's mother.
  • Alliterative Name: Myrna Minkoff, Lana Lee, and Betty Bumper.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: The Levys. Levy is a common Jewish surname, and he owns a garment factory, which is a common occupation among Jews.
  • Bad Job, Worse Uniform: Ignatius's time at Paradise Vendors. It begins with him just having to wear a cruddy white smock (and refusing to wear the belt and paper cap that go with it). Later, his boss decides to send him out dressed as a pirate. The full pirate outfit won't fit Ignatius, so he ends up wearing just the accessories (scarf, earring, and plastic sword) with the white smock.
  • Bad Boss: Lana Lee. She makes Jones work for peanuts and threatens to take him into the police when he complains. She also makes Darlene work on commission and beats her up "offscreen" when she botches a line.
  • Basement-Dweller: Ignatius is the 1960s equivalent of this trope: lives with his mother (whom he is entirely dependent upon) at the age of thirty, lazy, childish, irresponsible, mean-spirited, possessed of particularly unpleasant facial hair, unemployed (until his mother forces him to get a job), and a chronic masturbator.
  • Bestiality Is Depraved: Hinted at as a component of Ignatius's repressed, damaged sexuality. Consider his heightened interest when he finds out Harlett O'Hara will be performing with a "pet," or the fact that his masturbatory fantasy is a happy memory of his late dog.
  • Big "OMG!": Ignatius tends to bellow "Oh, my God!" whenever anything offends his sensibilities. The phrase appears an average of about once every five pages.
  • Bile Fascination: Invoked. Ignatius deliberately watches TV programs and films just to complain about how degenerate they are.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Reilly, who yearns for a time before the Enlightenment, preferably with a monarchy.
  • Break the Haughty:
    • Happens to Reilly progressively over the course of the book, though most of it is his own fault.
    • Also Mrs. Levy, whose Henpecked Husband fights back in a glorious way when Ignatius (rather improbably) provides him with the means to shatter her pretensions.
  • Brick Joke: Most of the jokes/plot points beyond the first few chapters are started long before they actually come into play. The more you can remember from earlier in the book, the funnier it is.
  • Black Comedy Prison Rape: The implied fate of Lana Lee in the prison cell with Frieda, Betty and Liz.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Ignatius, who despite having a college degree, lazes around, and during the story, works jobs he is massively overqualified for. Irene bitterly notes that he is wasting his potential.
  • Burger Fool: Ignatius's job with Paradise Vendors is the period equivalent to this: selling bad food while dressed in a ridiculous costume, as everyone around him remarks that hot dog vendors are just the lowest of the low.
  • Butch Lesbian: The local gay community includes several of these.
  • Camp Gay: Dorian Greene is the prime example, though everyone at his party (except Ignatius) is flamboyantly homosexual.
  • Celibate Hero: Reilly has a love-hate relationship with Myrna and fantasizes sexually about her, but can't bring himself to have sex with her in spite of her willingness. The ending suggests that this might change.
  • Character Development:
    • Irene definitely changes for the better over the course of the story when she makes friends with Mancuso's family and starts building a life for herself outside taking care of Ignatius, eventually growing enough backbone to stand up to his bluster. Ignatius himself pointedly does not change much and never honestly admits to his many faults, but this is perfectly consistent with his arrogant nature. The confession he makes to Myrna is a hasty ploy to stay out of the loony bin, but his barely-disguised fondness for her leaves some hope that he might get better.
    • Mr. Levy grows more comfortable with standing up to his nagging wife and with taking greater interest in running Levy Pants instead of leaving it to languish.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Ignatius' copy of The Consolations of Philosophy.
    • Darlene's "dance" routine.
    • Ignatius' letter from Levy Pants.
  • The Chew Toy: Patrolman Mancuso, oh so very much.
  • The City: New Orleans, particularly the French Quarter.
  • Comedic Sociopathy: Just try to read the chapter where Ignatius blithely eats all the hot dogs in the Paradise Vendors cart without cracking up. It's impossible. This is made doubly funny by his attempt to "adopt" a stray cat by stuffing it in the vending cart alongside the hot dogs.
  • Condescending Compassion: Ignatius expresses sympathy for the plight of racial and sexual minorities in New Orleans, but does so in the most insultingly backhanded ways imaginable.
  • Consummate Liar: Ignatius is shockingly good at lying in order to further his own ends. Too bad he tends to screw up the execution.
  • Cool Old Lady:
    • Santa Battaglia is the period equivalent, insisting on remaining active, having fun, and setting up her younger friends with each other despite being a "grammaw" with "grandchirren". She's also aware of the kind of person Ignatius is, and tells off Irene for taking care of him.
    • Offscreen, Mrs. Levy's mother. "On the beach in San Juan every winter. A tan, a bikini. Dancing, swimming, laughing. Boyfriends."
  • Covert Pervert: Ignatius' moralistic facade hides his bizarre masturbatory fantasies.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: One of Ignatius' more common responses to frustration and disappointment.
  • Delinquent: George, a high-school-age kid who plays hooky, gives himself ludicrous fake tattoos, and sells pornography to his peers.
  • Deus ex Machina: Myrna showing up to whisk Ignatius away doesn't come completely out nowhere, but the timing is so perfect that Fortuna herself had to have ordained it.
  • The Ditz: Darlene.
  • Dirty Communists: Mr. Robichaux loves to accuse people he doesn't like of being "communiss."
  • Drink Order: Oh, so many:
    • Mrs. Reilly likes a Muscatel (i.e. Moscato) for when she drinks (i.e. often); she keeps them in the oven, to Ignatius' consternation.
    • Santa Battaglia, meanwhile, likes Early Times bourbon whiskey and always seems to have some on hand. When she hosts parties, she always makes sure that there's some Early Times on hand—to be served in water glasses filled to the brim, thank you.
    • At the Night of Joy, Ignatius, pretentious ass that he is, orders a fancy New Orleans chicory coffee. The barkeep tells him they only have instant; Ignatius is outraged. He eventually settles on a brandy. More usually, Ignatius will have a Dr. Nut (an almond-flavored soft drink produced in New Orleans at the time).
    • Dorian Greene drinks frozen daiquiris and similar such drinks.
  • Dye Hard: Invoked. Apparently, Mrs. Levy has been dying her hair platinum-blonde for so long that she forgot that she was a natural brunette.
  • Dysfunction Junction: There is absolutely no one in this book that is quite right in the head, and pretty much everyone has issues to work out. In the end, many of them do (or are at least well on their way to getting better).
  • Epic Fail: Ignatius' "Crusade for Moorish Dignity", an attempt to organize the workers at Levy Pants. After they march up to the office, they get a bit tired of Ignatius' exhortations to violence, and the whole thing peters out. The end result is Ignatius getting fired, being the only person Mr. Levy has ever fired.
    • His attempted political rally at Dorian Greene's party. Nobody cares what he has to say, he kills everybody's good vibes, and in the end he has to flee before he gets his ass kicked by some lesbians.
  • Extreme Doormat: Mr. Gonzalez is insanely tolerant of Ignatius and Miss Trixie's antics. Irene is this to Ignatius, and spends much of her plot arc growing out of it.
  • Fatal Flaw: Much of Ignatius' troubles would be resolved if he understood that his own actions actually had consequences and accepted his need to improve himself.
  • Fat Bastard: Ignatius. The fattest character in the book, and its self-centered Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist.
  • Fetish Retardant: In-universe example. Darlene's striptease isn't appreciated too much by Burma Jones and Lana Lee.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • Ms. Annie, of all people, explains that most of Ignatius' bizarre habits and beliefs can be traced back to the death of his dog, Rex, as well as (what he felt was) the inappropriate response to his loss from his pastor and his mother.
    • The narration at one point mentions an embarrassing incident from Ignatius's adolescence when a science experiment gone wrong when he was in high school frightened him so much that he wet himself and had to walk around school in soiled trousers for the rest of the day. It's one of the only things in the novel that lends him a trace of humanity.
    • Gus Levy himself has one in regards to his (mis)management of Levy Pants: his father who would insultingly reject any of his business advice. Thus Gus develop a disinterest in his company.
  • Funetik Aksent: Jones and other black characters are especially inclined to speak this way, but a few phonetic spellings — most notably, "communiss" — turn up in almost everybody's dialogue.
  • Gasshole: Ignatius and his "temperamental valve".
  • Gayborhood: The French Quarter isn't yet one of these at the time the book is set, but the fact that the Quarter attracts "characters" did actually help form a gay community there. Dorian Greene's party arguably shows a sort of intermediate stage in its development.
  • Gray and Grey Morality: No one is really a bad guy, but very few people seem to be actively working towards any good either. It makes it difficult to say who the heroes or the villains are in this story, but it works quite well.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Woman, actually. Miss Trixie hasn't been allowed to retire due to the insistence of Mrs. Levy; as a result, she becomes increasingly hostile and senile towards everyone except Ignatius.
  • Happy Ending: For the most part.
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Mrs. Reilly, Ignatius' mother, is accused of this by Ignatius and Ms. Annie. It is unclear how true their accusations are, but she seemed to have no qualms about getting plastered at the Night of Joy, early on in the book.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • Ignatius keeps warning people to stop "molesting" him.
    • Lana calls Burma Jones "jailbait".
  • Henpecked Husband: Mr. Levy.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Ignatius, repeatedly, though he seems to think he just has bad luck.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Everyone seems to catch the stupid when Ignatius comes around with his insane ideas, at least long enough for him to convince them to do what he wants them to do.
  • The Horseshoe Effect: Parodied when Myrna sends Ignatius a letter describing a folk singer who gave her a pamphlet detailing a conspiracy theory that the Pope was planning to amass a nuclear armoury. She assumed that the folk singer was a leftist anti-religious civil rights activist, and only later realized that the pamphlet was actually published by the far-right (and notoriously anti-Catholic) Ku Klux Klan.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    • Reilly is obsessed with the chastity of every woman around him, especially those he sees in movies. He sees no contradiction with his obvious sexual fantasizing or obsession with Myrna.
    • Reilly's speech to Mancuso at the beginning of the book is hilariously hypocritical, as he fits into at least two or three of the categories of people he rails against.
    • Reilly rails against modern Western civilization — while reading silver-age Batman comics and watching Yogi Bear.
  • Jerkass:
    • Reilly is the ultimate example, though most others in the book qualify at points.
    • Lana Lee is also pretty nasty too.
  • Jive Turkey: Burma Jones. Pages and pages of the book are taken up with his own, hysterical, highly Nawrleen-accented speech. "Whoa! You don't gotta be like that. Hoo-wee!"
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Ignatius does suffer some ignominies during the course of the book, but despite all of his cruel and mean-spirited behaviour he ends the book not really any worse than how he started.
    • Also inverted: the one thing that goes worst for Ignatius is the single disaster that (mostly) wasn't his fault.
  • Large Ham: Ignatius, figuratively and literally.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • Lana Lee and George get their just deserts in the end. Though due to Values Dissonance, the crime they go down for, distributing pornography to high school kids, is much less villainous than their other actions from a modern perspective.
    • Ignatius suffers this as well, on a fairly regular basis... not that he understands the misfortune that befalls him is pretty much all his own fault.
  • Lazy Bum: When Ignatius finally does get a job, he seems to do just about everything other than the work for which he is being paid. At Levy Pants, he files most of the paperwork he comes across straight into the wastebasket, and at Paradise Vendors, he eats most of his own inventory and even chastises potential customers for bothering him. Only when he wants to earn money to see "Harlett O'Hara" does he actually do any work.
  • Listing The Forms Of Degenerates: Ignatius to Patrolman Mancuso in the opening scene:
    Ignatius: This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft. If you have a moment, I shall endeavor to discuss the crime problem with you, but don't make the mistake of bothering me.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title is taken from a Jonathan Swift quote.
  • Lord Error-Prone: Reilly has many of these attributes, but without any of the influence and power.
  • Loser Protagonist: Ignatius.
  • The Makeover: Mrs. Levy forces one on Miss Trixie, fitting her out with new clothes, dentures, makeup, a black wig, and a habit of parroting the phrase "I am a very attractive woman." Trixie discards most of these at the first opportunity.
  • Malaproper: Darlene keeps screwing up the single line she is supposed to deliver as the Southern stripper character "Harlett O'Hara." Thankfully, no one seems to notice.
  • Man Child: Ignatius spends much of his time watching cartoons, and is very high-strung.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Ignatius, surprisingly, seems to be very good at getting people to do what he wants them to do... at least, in the short run.
  • Meaningful Rename: Dorian Greene gave himself the name as a Shout-Out to The Picture of Dorian Gray. It suggests his pleasure-seeking, homosexual lifestyle.
  • Misaimed Fandom: In-universe example — Ignatius' constant references to "Fortuna" demonstrate he didn't understand what Boethius' work was actually about.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Jones tells Patrolman Mancuso about Lana Lee's illegal porn business.
  • Never My Fault: Ignatius is the king of this. His mother calls him out when he blames his problems on Myrna, who isn't even in town.
  • New Orleans: Said to be the best portrayal of the city and its accents.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: As far as we know, the stray cat Ignatius stuffed in the hot dog cart got away fine.
  • Odd Friendship: Ignatius and Miss Trixie, though Ignatius is mostly just using her.
  • Only Sane Employee: Mr. Gonzalez, who has to deal with the stubborn Ignatius, the senile Miss Trixie, and the aloof Mr. Levy, whose only motivation for keeping Levy Pants alive becomes giving Mr. Gonzalez a job.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • Mr. Levy. He's about the only character to feel compassion for Ignatius without being taken in by his fabrications.
    • Also, Patrolman Mancuso. Even then, he's a complete idiot in every other department.
    • Burma Jones would also qualify.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Mr. Levy has pretty much has zero interest in running his factory, since his father callously shot down every one of his ideas. He regains interest in the company after Ignatius nearly gets him sued by one of his clients.
  • Psycho Lesbian: Frieda, Betty and Liz, incredibly violent and stereotypical butch lesbians whose main pastime seems to be brawling. They are last seen preparing to rape Lana Lee.
  • Pushover Parents: Irene at first. But eventually she grows a spine and becomes increasingly frustrated with Ignatius' failures and excuses, and decides to have him shipped off to the mental ward.
  • Purely Aesthetic Glasses: Myrna wore glasses "to prove her dedication and intensity to purpose".
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Ignatius' mother gives him a good one towards the end.
    Mrs. Reilly: You learnt everything, Ignatius, except how to be a human being.
  • Scatterbrained Senior: Miss Trixie. She loses the thread in the middle of conversations, consistently calls Ignatius by the name of his (female) predecessor, and once shows up at the office still in her nightclothes.
  • Self-Serving Memory: Ignatius seems to have a very different account of events than what actually happened, though it's unclear if it's an example of this trope, plain old Blatant Lies, or a combination of both.
  • Senior Sleep Cycle: Miss Trixie tends to doze off at odd moments.
  • Serial Escalation:
    • You will not believe the ways in which the plot threads interact with each other, or how they all manage to tie up so well in the end.
    • Also, despite being by far the heaviest person in the book in the beginning, Ignatius manages to gain even more weight as the story progresses especially after he gets his job at Paradise Vendors.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Reilly's preferred method of speech.
  • Shout-Out: Numerous, but the most obvious one that isn't a direct reference is Dorian Greene, who was named for the title character in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
  • The '60s: The time in which the book was written, as well as when it takes place.
  • Soap Box Sadie: Myrna is noisily dedicated to a number of leftish causes, sexual liberation in particular.
  • Southern Belle: Darlene's character, "Harlett O'Hara," in the retooled version of her bird act.
  • Spicy Latina: Deconstructed with a waitress who works at Lana Lee's bar. She speaks in a combination of colorful Spanish phrases and You No Take Candle English. Toole initially describes her as vaguely flirtatious and wearing high-heeled sandals, so we get the sense that she's a sexpot. However, beauty is only skin-deep: she's loud, pushy, and has really bad breath.
  • Strawman Political:
    • Ignatius and Myrna hold political and philosophical positions that are both almost too absurd to be believed. Ignatius believes that Western civilization took a wrong turn at the Renaissance, favors the return of feudal monarchy, and believes the Catholic Church to be insufficiently strict at a time (the book probably takes place in 1963, during Vatican II) when most Catholics felt quite the opposite; Myrna is a combination of a Straw Feminist and a free-love hippie whose favorite activity—besides sleeping with random men—is organizing protests and rallies of various sorts (usually about how sex can solve everything). Naturally, they're perfect for each other.
    • Also, the old man from the beginning of the book who tries to stand up for Ignatius and whom Mrs. Reilly ends up running off to marry. He has a bizarre obsession with the "communiss." Some of the bystanders who see him get arrested feel sorry for him, though, especially since he has some beloved Catholic "grandchirren."
  • Sword Fight: Ignatius with a plastic sword vs. Clyde with his giant two-pronged fork. For no reason at all. (Well, maybe one particular reason....)
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Ignatius is a devotee of Dr. Nut, a soft drink company that was popular mid-century in the New Orleans area.
  • Trash of the Titans: Miss Trixie is strongly implied to be a hoarder. Not only is her apartment stuffed with junk, with only a narrow path of clear floor, but she also carries big bags of miscellaneous items to and from work and squirrels away the office phone books in her desk, where nobody else is allowed to touch them.
  • Unreliable Narrator: While everyone embellishes the truth a bit, any story told by Ignatius is guaranteed to be at least 50% untrue. His grandiose language and mannerism helps him to over-dramatize his problems.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Ignatius, obviously.
  • Unusual Euphemism: It is implied by Ignatius' outrage while reading Myrna's letters that, any time she describes a man as being "very real", there is a better than average chance that she has slept with him. Considering her position on sexuality, this isn't surprising.
  • Unwanted Assistance: Miss Trixie is not shy about telling Mrs. Levy off when Mrs. Levy takes her on as a cause and smothers her with unwanted care.
  • Verbal Tic: Jones's dialogue is peppered with exclamations of "Woah!" and "Ooo-wee!"
  • Villain Protagonist: Ignatius is so horrible and inconsiderate to just about everyone he meets that he definitely qualifies as an Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist, if not this trope as well.
  • Watering Down: One of the many ways Lana Lee tries to make a profit on her "investment".
  • White Man's Burden: How Ignatius feels about the black factory workers at Levy Pants. Of course, being Ignatius, he expresses his concern in the most condescending manner possible when he starts his "Crusade for Moorish Dignity".
  • Wig, Dress, Accent: Mancuso is forced to parade around "undercover" in a series of costumes as punishment for what happens in the first scene of the book with Ignatius.
  • Work Off the Debt: How Ignatius gets hired at Paradise Vendors. He has no other way to pay for all the hot dogs to which he's helped himself.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Ignatius' valve keeps coming up, despite the fact that no one (probably including him) knows what valve he's talking about or whether it's actually possible to feel this valve open or close.
  • You Need to Get Laid: What Myrna thinks Ignatius' problem is. She thinks it's the whole world's problem, actually, but in Ignatius' case she might be right (stopped clocks, you know).

Alternative Title(s): A Confederacy Of Dunces

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/AConfederacyOfDunces