A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) John Kennedy Toole

This is the first novel by John Kennedy Toole, which was published posthumously, the other being ‘Neon Bible.’ The title originates from the epigraph by Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” (Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting). The novel has a streak of auto-biography running through its core. Published 11 years after Toole’s suicide, due to the ongoing efforts of his mother. The novel became a cult classic and is now widely regarded as a canonical piece of Southern American Literature. That is to say the Deep South of USA and not South America. The novel is set in New Orleans and the style of the writing is highly reflective of this, the sentences are often written in the traditional Deep South dialect.

The novel is picaresque in that it depicts the adventures of the roguish anti-hero Ignatius J. Reilly. Picaresque novels usually depict a character of a low social-class who lives by his wits in a morally corrupt society. This style of novel has its genesis in Sixteenth Century Spain and there can certainly be a comparison drawn between Ignatius and Don Quixote.

Ignatius can be described as creative, lazy and eccentric. He has a searing wit and an acid tongue. 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.”

The novel is an insight into the times, with McCarthyism at its very height, paranoia and suspicion of socialist sympathisers are prevalent, Ignatius’s mother even suspects him of being a Communist due to his outlandish actions throughout.

Ignatius hates the world he lives in and constantly feels alienated from it. He is a staunch critic of popular culture, in essence we can read Toole’s voice here giving damning indictment of his own times. Ignatius thinks of himself as an unappreciated genius, born into the wrong time and would have been much happier in medieval times and prefers their views on life, the Early Medieval philosopher Boethius in particular. Ignatius dedicated special importance to the workings of his pyloric valve and often laments Fortuna for spinning him on a downward spiral of bad luck which he endures throughout the novel.

Ignatius’s story is tied in an often over-laps into that of the other characters in the book. Set in the increasing debauched New Orleans of the 1960’s many of the characters are bums and trickster who would not look at of place in the works of William Burroughs or Chester Himes work. The main difference is those two authors are primarily associated with New York where this is a steadfast Southern piece of work.

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One Response to “A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) John Kennedy Toole”

  1. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955) Sloan Wilson | la Résistance Says:

    […] la Résistance a place for the imaginative writing of Lucas Morton Skip to content HomeAbout ← A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) John Kennedy Toole […]

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