Two nights ago, I turned the last page on a novel I had picked up months before, A Confederacy of Dunces. I bought John Kennedy Toole’s book after I read the first chapter in Waterstones Piccadilly, and since then I had been reading the novel off and on. Ever since I finished reading, the book has been stuck in my mind and a multitude of critical possibilities have been transposing in my head. Here’s what I thought about A Confederacy of Dunces.
As you can see, the book has a bit of a weird front cover, but it displays the story fairly well. The main character’s name is Ignatius J. Reilly, and he’s a really funny fellow, though he doesn’t realize it. He’s ignorant of how he appears and ignorant of how his appearance affects others’ perceptions of him. He’s got a big brown mustache, an obnoxious green hat with two flaps on the sides, and an enormous, bulky body. Keep in mind, this book is a clever case of satire. The author uses humor and wit to debase certain characters or actions, to poke fun at them, to criticize their ignorance, and Ignatius, the baffling protagonist, is the most ignorant of all. Satirical books can be self-aware of their satirical nature, and this is seen mostly when outside characters condemn the behaviors of the characters being satirized.
A Confederacy of Dunces takes an interesting perspective on satire, as it places an extraordinary character — in this case, Ignatius — in countless extraordinary situations. The extraordinary frames the entire novel, even though the setting is mild. The main character is a medieval man stuck in a modern world. His favorite book is The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman philosopher Boethius. He speaks with a high-level of vocabulary, but his hold on the modern world is tiny. He regularly visits the local movie theater in New Orleans and bemoans the actors and actresses’s abilities and the fictional events in the films aloud. Essentially, Ignatius is that guy, but he’s also charming in a very human way. His character, despite seeming so one-dimensional, occupies a great deal of space both literally and figuratively in the bustling world of New Orleans, and his actions in the novel’s exposition have boundless effects on the relatively normal people around him.
But what about the book’s title? First of all, the phrase “a confederacy of dunces” originates from Jonathan Swift’s writings four centuries prior to this novel’s publication. Swift is known as one of the premier satirists of his time, and he also wrote Gulliver’s Travels, another satirical novel. The title explains Ignatius’s mindset.