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A Confederacy of Dunces

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A Confederacy of Dunces
AuthorJohn Kennedy Toole
GenreBlack comedy, tragicomedy
PublisherLouisiana State University Press
Publication placeUnited States
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback), audiobook, e-book
Pages405 (paperback)[1]
AwardPulitzer Prize (1981)
LC ClassPS3570.O54 C66 1980

A Confederacy of Dunces is a picaresque novel by American novelist John Kennedy Toole which reached publication in 1980, eleven years after Toole's death.[2] Published through the efforts of writer Walker Percy (who also contributed a foreword) and Toole's mother, Thelma, the book became first a cult classic, then a mainstream success; it earned Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, and is now considered a canonical work of modern literature of the Southern United States.[3]

The book's title refers to an epigram from Jonathan Swift's essay Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

Dunces is a picaresque novel featuring the misadventures of protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly, a lazy, overweight, misanthropic, self-styled scholar who lives at home with his mother. He is an educated but slothful 30-year-old man living with his mother in the Uptown neighborhood of early-1960s New Orleans who, in his quest for employment, has various adventures with colorful French Quarter characters. Toole wrote the novel in 1963 during his last few months in Puerto Rico. It is hailed for its accurate depictions of New Orleans dialects. Toole based Reilly in part on his college professor friend Bob Byrne. Byrne's slovenly, eccentric behavior was anything but professorial, and Reilly mirrored him in these respects. The character was also based on Toole himself, and several personal experiences served as inspiration for passages in the novel. While at Tulane, Toole filled in for a friend at a job as a hot tamale cart vendor, and worked at a family owned and operated clothing factory. Both of these experiences were later adopted into his fiction.


Ignatius Jacques Reilly is an overweight and unemployed thirty-year-old with a degree in Medieval History who lives with his mother, Irene Reilly. He utterly loathes the world around him, which he feels has lost the values of geometry and theology. One afternoon, Reilly's mother drives him "downtown in the old Plymouth, and while she was at the doctor's seeing about her arthritis, Ignatius had bought some sheet music at Werlein's for his trumpet and a new string for his lute." While Reilly waits for his mother, Officer Angelo Mancuso approaches Reilly and demands that the latter produce identification. Affronted and outraged by Mancuso's unwarranted zeal and officious manner, Reilly protests his innocence to the crowd while denouncing the city's vices and the graft of the local police. An elderly man, Claude Robichaux, takes Reilly's side, denouncing Officer Mancuso and the police as communists. In the resulting uproar, Reilly and his embarrassed mother escape, taking refuge in a bar in case Officer Mancuso is still in hot pursuit.

In the bar, Mrs. Reilly then drinks too much. As a result, she crashes her car. The fallout for the accident totals $1020, a sizable amount of money in early 1960s New Orleans. Ignatius is forced to work for the first time in many years in order to help his mother pay for the accident.

What follows is a series of adventures that introduce an assorted cast of characters and their interactions with each other due to, or with, Ignatius as he moves from low wage job to job. Throughout the novel, Ignatius obsesses over his wardrobe, verbally abuses his mother, and frequents movie theaters only to yell and condemn the actors and actresses on screen. The novel explores the psyche of a man who is debilitated every time he is stressed out due to a rare stomach condition and an adversarial relationship possibly disguised as flirtation with the politically liberal advocate Myrna Minkoff, his only friend from college.

Major characters[edit]

Ignatius J. Reilly[edit]

Ignatius Jacques Reilly is something of a modern Don Quixote—eccentric, idealistic, and creative, sometimes to the point of delusion.[2] In his foreword to the book, Walker Percy describes Ignatius as a "slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one". He disdains modernity, particularly pop culture. The disdain becomes his obsession: he goes to movies in order to mock their perversity and express his outrage with the contemporary world's lack of "theology and geometry". He prefers the scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages, and the Early Medieval philosopher Boethius in particular.[4] However, he also enjoys many modern comforts and conveniences and is given to claiming that the rednecks of rural Louisiana hate all modern technology, which they associate with unwanted change. The workings of his pyloric valve play an important role in his life, reacting strongly to incidents in a fashion that he likens to Cassandra in terms of prophetic significance.[5]

Ignatius is of the mindset that he does not belong in the world and that his numerous failings are the work of some higher power. He continually refers to the goddess Fortuna as having spun him downwards on her wheel of fortune. Ignatius loves to eat, and his masturbatory fantasies lead in strange directions. His mockery of obscene images is portrayed as a defensive posture to hide their titillating effect on him. Although considering himself to have an expansive and learned worldview, Ignatius has an aversion to ever leaving the town of his birth, and frequently bores friends and strangers with the story of his sole, abortive journey out of New Orleans, a trip to Baton Rouge on a Greyhound Scenicruiser bus, which Ignatius recounts as a traumatic ordeal of extreme horror.

Myrna Minkoff[edit]

Myrna Minkoff, referred to by Ignatius as "that minx," is a Jewish beatnik from New York City, whom Ignatius met while she was in college in New Orleans.[2] Though their political, social, religious, and personal orientations could hardly be more different, Myrna and Ignatius fascinate one another. The novel repeatedly refers to Myrna and Ignatius having engaged in tag-team attacks on the teachings of their college professors. For most of the novel, she is seen only in the regular correspondence which the two sustain since her return to New York, a correspondence heavily weighted with sexual analysis on the part of Myrna and contempt for her apparent sacrilegious activity by Ignatius. Officially, they both deplore everything the other stands for. Though neither of them will admit it, their correspondence indicates that, separated though they are by half a continent, many of their actions are meant to impress one another.

Irene Reilly[edit]

Mrs. Irene Reilly is the mother of Ignatius. She has been widowed for 21 years. At first, she allows Ignatius his space and drives him where he needs to go, but over the course of the novel she learns to stand up for herself. She also has a drinking problem, most frequently indulging in muscatel, although Ignatius exaggerates that she is a raving, abusive drunk.[2]

She falls for Claude Robichaux, a fairly well-off man with a railroad pension and rental properties. At the end of the novel, she decides she will marry Claude. But first, she agrees with Santa Battaglia (who has not only recently become Mrs. Reilly's new best friend, but also harbors an intense dislike for Ignatius) that Ignatius is insane and arranges to have him sent to a mental hospital.


  • Santa Battaglia, a "grammaw" who is friends with Mrs. Reilly and has a marked disdain for Ignatius
  • Claude Robichaux, an old man constantly on the lookout for any "communiss" who might infiltrate the United States; he takes an interest in protecting Irene
  • Angelo Mancuso, an inept police officer, the nephew of Santa Battaglia, who, after an abortive attempt to arrest Ignatius as a "suspicious character," features prominently in the novel as Ignatius's self-perceived nemesis
  • Lana Lee, a pornographic model who runs the "Night of Joy", a downscale French Quarter strip club
  • George, Lana's distributor, who sells photographs of her to high-school children
  • Darlene, a goodhearted but none-too-bright girl, who aspires to be a "Night of Joy" stripper, with a pet cockatoo
  • Burma Jones, a black janitor for the "Night of Joy" who holds on to his below-minimum wage job only to avoid being arrested for vagrancy
  • Mr. Clyde, the frustrated owner of Paradise Vendors, a hot dog vendor business, who inadvisedly employs Ignatius as a vendor
  • Gus Levy, the reluctant, mostly absentee owner of Levy Pants, an inherited family business in the Bywater neighborhood where Ignatius briefly works
  • Mrs. Levy, Gus's wife, who attempts to psychoanalyze her husband and Miss Trixie despite being completely unqualified to do so
  • Miss Trixie, an aged clerk at Levy Pants who suffers from dementia and compulsive hoarding
  • Mr. Gonzalez, the meek office manager at Levy Pants
  • Dorian Greene, a flamboyant French Quarter homosexual who puts on elaborate parties
  • Frieda Club, Betty Bumper, and Liz Steele, a trio of aggressive lesbians who run afoul of Ignatius
  • Dr. Talc, a mediocre professor at Tulane who had the misfortune of teaching Myrna and Ignatius
  • Miss Annie, the disgruntled neighbor of the Reillys who professes an addiction to headache medicine

Ignatius at the movies[edit]

Toole provides comical descriptions of two of the films Ignatius watches without naming them; they can be recognized as Billy Rose's Jumbo and That Touch of Mink, both Doris Day features released in 1962.[6] In another passage, Ignatius declines to see another film, a "widely praised Swedish drama about a man who was losing his soul". This is most likely Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, released in early 1963. In another passage, Irene Reilly recalls the night Ignatius was conceived: after she and her husband viewed Red Dust, released in October 1932.[7]

Confederacy and New Orleans[edit]

Canal Street, New Orleans in the late 1950s; the D. H. Holmes store at right
A "Lucky Dogs" cart from the era of the novel

The book is famous for its rich depiction of New Orleans and the city's dialects, including Yat.[8][9] Many locals and writers think that it is the best and most accurate depiction of the city in a work of fiction.[10]

A bronze statue of Ignatius J. Reilly can be found under the clock on the down-river side of the 800 block of Canal Street, New Orleans, the former site of the D. H. Holmes Department Store, now the Hyatt French Quarter Hotel. The statue mimics the opening scene: Ignatius waits for his mother under the D.H. Holmes clock, clutching a Werlein's shopping bag, dressed in a hunting cap, flannel shirt, baggy pants and scarf, 'studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste.' The statue is modeled on New Orleans actor John "Spud" McConnell, who portrayed Ignatius in a stage version of the novel.

Various local businesses are mentioned in addition to D. H. Holmes, including Werlein's Music Store and local cinemas such as the Prytania Theater. Some readers from elsewhere assume Ignatius's favorite soft drink, Dr. Nut, to be fictitious, but it was an actual local soft drink brand of the era. The "Paradise Hot Dogs" vending carts are an easily recognized satire of those actually branded "Lucky Dogs".


The structure of A Confederacy of Dunces reflects the structure of Ignatius's favorite book, Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy.[11] Like Boethius' book, A Confederacy of Dunces is divided into chapters that are further divided into a varying number of subchapters. Key parts of some chapters are outside of the main narrative. In Consolation, sections of narrative prose alternate with metrical verse. In Confederacy, such narrative interludes vary more widely in form and include light verse, journal entries by Ignatius, and also letters between himself and Myrna. A copy of The Consolation of Philosophy within the narrative itself also becomes an explicit plot device in several ways.

The difficult path to publication[edit]

As outlined in the introduction to a later revised edition, the book would never have been published if Toole's mother had not found a smeared carbon copy of the manuscript left in the house following Toole's 1969 death at 31. She was persistent and tried several different publishers, to no avail.

Thelma repeatedly called Walker Percy, an author and college instructor at Loyola University New Orleans, to demand for him to read it. He initially resisted; however, as he recounts in the book's foreword:

...the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading. In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.[12]

The book was published by LSU Press in 1980. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. In 2005, Blackstone Audio released an unabridged audiobook of the novel, read by Barrett Whitener.

While Tulane University in New Orleans retains a collection of Toole's papers, and some early drafts have been found, the location of the original manuscript is unknown.[13]


In March 1984, LSU staged a musical adaptation of the book, with book and lyrics by Frank Galati and music by Edward Zelnis; actor Scott Harlan played Ignatius.[14]

Kerry Shale read the book for BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime in 1982, and later adapted the book into a one-man show which he performed at the Adelaide Festival in 1990,[15] at the Gate Theatre in London, and for BBC Radio.[16]

There have been repeated attempts to turn the book into a film. In 1982, Harold Ramis was to write and direct an adaptation, starring John Belushi as Ignatius and Richard Pryor as Burma Jones, but Belushi's death prevented this. Later, John Candy and Chris Farley were touted for the lead, but both of them, like Belushi, also died at an early age, leading many to ascribe a curse to the role of Ignatius.[17]

Director John Waters was interested in directing an adaptation that would have starred Divine, who also died at an early age, as Ignatius.[18]

British performer and writer Stephen Fry was at one point commissioned to adapt Toole's book for the screen.[19] He was sent to New Orleans by Paramount Studios in 1997 to get background for a screenplay adaptation.[20]

John Goodman, a longtime resident of New Orleans, was slated to play Ignatius at one point.[21]

A version adapted by Steven Soderbergh and Scott Kramer, and slated to be directed by David Gordon Green, was scheduled for release in 2005. The film was to star Will Ferrell as Ignatius and Lily Tomlin as Irene. A staged reading of the script took place at the 8th Nantucket Film Festival, with Ferrell as Ignatius, Anne Meara as Irene, Paul Rudd as Officer Mancuso, Kristen Johnston as Lana Lee, Mos Def as Burma Jones, Rosie Perez as Darlene, Olympia Dukakis as Santa Battaglia and Miss Trixie, Natasha Lyonne as Myrna, Alan Cumming as Dorian Greene, John Shea as Gonzales, Jesse Eisenberg as George, John Conlon as Claude Robichaux, Jace Alexander as Bartender Ben, Celia Weston as Miss Annie, Miss Inez & Mrs. Levy, and Dan Hedaya as Mr. Levy.[22]

Various reasons are cited as to why the Soderbergh version has yet to be filmed. They include disorganization and lack of interest at Paramount Pictures, Helen Hill the head of the Louisiana State Film Commission being murdered, and the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.[17] When asked why the film was never made, Will Ferrell has said it is a "mystery".[23]

In 2012, there was a version in negotiation with director James Bobin and potentially starring Zach Galifianakis.[24]

In a 2013 interview, Steven Soderbergh remarked "I think it's cursed. I'm not prone to superstition, but that project has got bad mojo on it."[25]

In November 2015, Huntington Theatre Company introduced a stage version of A Confederacy of Dunces written by Jeffrey Hatcher in their Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre location in Boston, starring Nick Offerman as Ignatius J. Reilly. It set a record as the company's highest-grossing production.[26]

Critical reception[edit]

On November 5, 2019, the BBC News included A Confederacy of Dunces on its list of the 100 most inspiring novels.[27] Confederacy of Dunces is included on a list of 'most funny' or 'best comedic novel'.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Toole 1980.
  2. ^ a b c d Podgorski, Daniel (August 23, 2016). "Peopling Picaresque: On the Well-drawn Characters of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces". The Gemsbok. Archived from the original on November 30, 2016. Retrieved November 29, 2016.
  3. ^ Giemza, Bryan (Spring 2004). "Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole". Southern Cultures (review). 10 (1). Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey: 97–9. doi:10.1353/scu.2004.0007. ISSN 1534-1488. S2CID 145576623. Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2020-01-30.
  4. ^ Miller, Karl (1999-03-05). "An American tragedy. A lifetime of rejection broke John Kennedy Toole. But his aged mother believed in his talent, found a publisher for his novel and rescued his memory from oblivion". www.newstatesman.com. Archived from the original on 2018-06-12. Retrieved 2018-06-09.
  5. ^ Lowe, John (December 2008). Louisiana culture from the colonial era to Katrina. LSU Press. p. 164. ISBN 978-0-8071-3337-8. Retrieved 15 March 2011.
  6. ^ Patteson, Richard F (1982), "Ignatius Goes to the Movies: The Films in Toole's 'A Confederacy of Dunces'", NMAL: Notes on Modern American Literature, 6 (2), item 14.
  7. ^ Toole 1980, p. 136.
  8. ^ Nagle, Stephen J; Sanders, Sara L (2003). English in the southern United States. Cambridge University Press. p. 181.
  9. ^ Heilman, Heather; DeMocker, Michael (November 26, 2001). "Ignatius Comes of Age". Tulanian. Tulane University. Archived from the original on 2010-06-06. Retrieved 2010-02-05.
  10. ^ Miller, Elizabeth 'Liz'. "An Interview with Poppy Z. Brite". Bookslut. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-01.
  11. ^ Toole, John Kennedy; Percy, Walker (1980). A confederacy of dunces. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. pp. 288. ISBN 0807106577. OCLC 5336849.
  12. ^ Percy, Walker (1980), Preface in Toole 1980.
  13. ^ MacLauchlin, Cory (March 26, 2012). "The Lost Manuscript to 'A Confederacy of Dunces'" (online magazine). The Millions. Archived from the original on April 28, 2012. Retrieved 2012-04-18.
  14. ^ "Confederacy Of Dunces Play May Wind Up On Broadway" (PDF). Digitallibrary.tulane.edu. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  15. ^ Toole, John Kennedy; Shale, Kerry (15 January 1990). "A confederacy of dunces: [theatre program], 1990 Adelaide Festival" – via Trove.
  16. ^ "Actor". Kerryshale.com. 16 April 2015. Archived from the original on 4 April 2018. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  17. ^ a b Hyman, Peter (December 14, 2006). "The development hell of 'A Confederacy of Dunces'". Slate. Archived from the original on 22 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-29.
  18. ^ Allman, Kevin. "John Waters". Gambit New Orleans News and Entertainment. Best of New Orleans. Archived from the original (interview) on 2010-06-12. Retrieved 2011-08-01.
  19. ^ Fry, Stephen (2005-09-06). "The great stink of 2005". Huffington Post. Archived from the original on 2009-09-15. Retrieved 2011-08-01.
  20. ^ Fry, Stephen (2008), Stephen Fry in America, Harper Collins, p. 138.
  21. ^ Fretts, Bruce (19 May 2000). "A Confederacy of Dunces celebrates its 20th anniversary". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on 23 August 2015. Retrieved 25 July 2015.
  22. ^ Head, Steve (2003-06-25). "Photos: Staged Reading of A Confederacy of Dunces". IGN. Archived from the original on September 11, 2005. Retrieved 2022-01-19.
  23. ^ Stephenson, Hunter (February 29, 2008). "Will Ferrell Talks Land of the Lost, Old School 2, Elf 2 and A Confederacy of Dunces". Slashfilm. Archived from the original on 2009-01-24. Retrieved January 19, 2022.
  24. ^ Brodesser-Akner, Claude (2012-05-22), "Exclusive: 'Dunces' Finds Its Ignatius in Galifianakis", Vulture, archived from the original on 2012-06-14, retrieved 2012-06-09.
  25. ^ "Soderbergh in Vulture". Vulture.com. Archived from the original on July 3, 2013. Retrieved January 30, 2013.
  26. ^ Shanahan, Mark (23 December 2015). "'Confederacy of Dunces' sets Huntington Theatre record". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on 24 October 2016. Retrieved 21 June 2017.
  27. ^ "100 'most inspiring' novels revealed by BBC Arts". BBC News. 2019-11-05. Archived from the original on 2019-11-08. Retrieved 2019-11-10. The reveal kickstarts the BBC's year-long celebration of literature.
  28. ^ "Book Reconsideration: "A Confederacy of Dunces" - Still an American Comic Masterpiece?". 29 June 2020.


Further reading[edit]

  • Clark, William Bedford (1987), "All Toole's children: A reading of 'A Confederacy of Dunces'", Essays in Literature, 14: 269–80.
  • Dunne, Sara L (2005), "Moviegoing in the Modern Novel: Holden, Binx, Ignatius", Studies in Popular Culture, 28 (1): 37–47.
  • Kline, Michael (1999), "Narrating the Grotesque: The Rhetoric of Humor in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces", Southern Quarterly, 37 (3–4): 283–91.
  • Leighton, H Vernon (2007–2012), John Kennedy Toole Research, Winona, three scholarly articles (including one free full text) and other materials.
  • Lowe, John (2008), "The Carnival Voices of 'A Confederacy of Dunces'", Louisiana Culture from the Colonial Era to Katrina, Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State UP, pp. 159–90.
  • MacLauchlin, Cory (2012), Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces (biography), Da Capo Press, ISBN 978-0-306-82040-3 (literary analysis, chapter 15).
  • Marsh, Leslie (2013), "Critical notice of Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces" (review), Journal of Mind and Behavior, ISSN 0271-0137
  • Marsh, Leslie (2020), Theology and Geometry: Essays on John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (book), Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 978-1-4985-8547-7
  • McNeil, David (1984), "A Confederacy of Dunces as Reverse Satire: The American Subgenre", Mississippi Quarterly, 38: 33–47.
  • Palumbo, Carmine D (1995), "John Kennedy Toole and His Confederacy of Dunces", Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, 10: 59–77.
  • Patteson, Richard F; Sauret, Thomas (1983), "The Consolation of Illusion: John Kennedy Toole's 'A Confederacy of Dunces'", Texas Review, 4 (1–2): 77–87.
  • Pugh, Tison (2006), "'It's Prolly Fulla Dirty Stories': Masturbatory Allegory and Queer Medievalism in John Kennedy Toole's 'A Confederacy of Dunces'", Studies in Medievalism, 15: 77–100.
  • Rudnicki, Robert (2009), "Euphues and the Anatomy of Influence: John Lyly, Harold Bloom, James Olney, and the Construction of John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius", Mississippi Quarterly, 62 (1–2): 281–302.
  • Simmons, Jonathan (1989), "Ignatius Reilly and the Concept of the Grotesque in John Kennedy Toole's 'A Confederacy of Dunces'", Mississippi Quarterly, 43 (1): 33–43.
  • Simon, Richard K (1994), "John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy: Fiction and Repetition in A Confederacy of Dunces", Texas Studies in Literature & Language, 36 (1): 99–116, JSTOR 40755032.
  • Zaenker, Karl A (1987), "Hrotsvit and the Moderns: Her Impact on John Kennedy Toole and Peter Hacks", in Wilson, Katharina M (ed.), Hrotsvit of Gandersheim: Rara Avis in Saxonia?, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Marc, pp. 275–85.

External links[edit]