106 pages 3 hours read

John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1980

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Summary and Study Guide


John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces was written in the 1960s but only published years after the author’s death. It depicts the adventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, an academic but lazy man who, at age 30, lives with his mother in New Orleans in the early 1960s. Forced to find a job, he encounters a string of colorful characters endemic to the city of the time.

The novel begins outside the D. H. Holmes department store. While waiting for his mother, Ignatius is almost arrested by a police officer named Mancuso, who takes away an old man named Robichaux instead amid a chaotic scene. On the way home, they stop by the Night of Joy and order drinks. Robichaux meets an African American man named Burma Jones at the police station while the sergeant criticizes Mancuso for making a scene. At the bar, Ignatius and his mother are thrown out by Lana, the owner. On the way home, they crash their car and collapse a balcony.

At home, Ignatius writes his book, pausing only to belch and masturbate. Jones takes a severely underpaying job at the Night of Joy, where Lana is still complaining about Ignatius and his mother. The collapsed balcony is a costly affair and, after some disagreement, Mrs. Reilly tells Ignatius that he must find a job. At the cinema that evening, Ignatius makes so much noise that the manager has to intervene.

Ignatius struggles to find a job and rages at his mother for befriending the policeman, Mancuso. Keen to impress his sergeant, Mancuso has begun investigating the Night of Joy. Mr. Gonzalez, a longtime employee at Levy Pants, hires Ignatius after being impressed by his energy in comparison to the elderly Trixie. While sweeping the bar, Jones witnesses Lana conducting business with an orphan street kid named George. Ignatius begins to write about his ambitions for Levy Pants and then fights with his mother when he learns she plans to go bowling with Mancuso and his aunt, Santa Battaglia. He reads a letter from Myrna Minkoff, his ex-girlfriend.

In lieu of his filing work, Ignatius decorates the office. A visit from Mr. Levy, the owner of Levy Pants, sparks his interest, and when the owner is gone, Ignatius hopes to impress the man by writing a stinging letter to a client. Lana blames Jones for the recent wave of plainclothes policemen at the bar. At home, Mrs. Reilly notices Ignatius’s absence and plans to go bowling with Santa and Mancuso. Mr. Levy recalls his trip to the office while his wife listens. When Ignatius arrives home, he begins a new writing project. When Mrs. Reilly arrives home, he sneaks down and watches her dance in the kitchen with her friends.

At the Night of Joy, Darlene dreams of being a dancer. George collects packages from Lana, who tells him to come later to avoid Jones. Ignatius decorates a cross for the office while a perpetually confused Trixie watches. Mancuso reflects on the three women who attacked him; he has been sent to the bus station restrooms in various costumes as punishment. He must arrest someone soon. Ignatius is unhappy that his mother is going bowling with Santa and Mancuso. Later that night, Ignatius plots a mass uprising among the factory workers at Levy Pants and recalls how he and Myrna met as troublesome university students. Dr. Talc, their professor, is still haunted by the memory of Ignatius and Myrna. He occasional receives mailed threats signed “ZORRO.”

Jones discusses the limited job opportunities available to African Americans in the city. Mr. Watson suggests that he try sabotaging the Night of Joy from the inside. A man sitting nearby reveals Ignatius’s plans to lead a workers’ revolt at the Levy Pants factory. Ignatius arrives at the office early to launch his revolt. He delivers a speech to the workers and leads them to the officers. When he orders them to attack Gonzalez, nothing happens and the revolt fails. Alone in the damp restroom, Mancuso develops a cold. Mrs. Reilly is furious with Ignatius after he gets fired from Levy Pants. Mrs. Levy criticizes her husband’s handling of the revolt and uses their daughters’ affections to blackmail her husband. Mr. Levy relents and allows her to bring Trixie to their home as a compromise.

Ignatius is forced to take a job as a hot dog vendor, though he eats most of the product himself. Jones attempts to sabotage the bar by doing his job poorly. He convinces Lana to allow Darlene to dance in the bar, believing this to be another act of sabotage. Mrs. Reilly complains to Santa about the menial nature of Ignatius’s new job and is told that she has a potential love interest. Ignatius bathes for hours and then reads a letter from Myrna. He responds in a mocking tone.

Mrs. Levy invites Trixie to the Levy home to practice the techniques she learned in a psychology correspondence course. Mancuso has caught nobody in the bus station restroom and his illness worsens. He reads a philosophy book given to him by Ignatius and, when George enters, he tries to arrest the orphan. George escapes and takes the book. Santa hosts a party. She has invited Mrs. Reilly and Mrs. Reilly’s potential suitor, Claude Robichaux. Mancuso apologizes for arresting Robichaux, and they all agree to blame Ignatius.

Ignatius is criticized for poor health standards while pushing the hot dog cart. He goes home, and Mrs. Reilly asks him whether he is a “communiss” (186). He denies the accusation, then reads a letter from Myrna and spends the evening arguing with his mother. Lana watches Darlene rehearse her striptease in which a cockatoo undresses her and decides to rebrand the act with a southern flavor. Jones notices Lana’s hidden packages and marks each one with the bar’s address. Mancuso is given two weeks to catch a criminal or he will be fired. Ignatius’s attempts to sell hot dogs include wearing a pirate costume, including a fake gold earring and a plastic cutlass. He fights with his boss over the lack of earnings and blames his weight increase on his mother. Dr. Talc reminisces again about Ignatius and Myrna while talking to a student; the student steals one of the threatening letters sent by ZORRO.

As Christmas approaches, Trixie is still at the Levy house. Mr. Levy has tried unsuccessfully to sell his company. Jones learns about Ignatius’s failed revolt and wonders whether he can deploy him at the Night of Joy. Ignatius, feeling particularly gaseous, causes trouble at an open-air art show. He meets Dorian Greene, the man who bought his mother’s hat, and the two get into a fight. Once it breaks up, they see Mancuso following a sailor named Timmy. Ignatius imagines a solution to world peace that makes use of Dorian and the homosexual community. Dorian agrees to throw a party at which Ignatius will deliver a speech outlining his plans. George hatches a plan to hide his packages in the bun compartment of Ignatius’s hot dog cart.

Mrs. Reilly worries that her son is a communist, while Robichaux voices his desire to change his living arrangements. At the cinema, they hold hands. Ignatius outlines his plans for world peace and hopes it will confound Myrna. Trixie is taken back to Levy Pants, where Mr. Levy reads a letter from Abelman threatening to sue him for $500,000. He resolves to find Ignatius. George makes a deal with Ignatius to house the packages in the food cart. Ignatius opens one package and discovers the pornographic pictures inside. The naked woman is holding a copy of the book he loaned to Mancuso, and he is smitten. Visiting the address on the package, Ignatius becomes convinced that Darlene is the girl in the photograph and hopes to seduce her. Jones tells him to attend the cockatoo show. Mrs. Reilly discusses Robichaux over the phone with Santa. When Ignatius arrives home, she discovers the pornography in his pocket. Mr. Levy rings the house again, and Ignatius lies to him, telling Mr. Levy that Ignatius is at a state mental hospital.

Ignatius travels to Dorian’s party, still wearing his pirate costume. Mrs. Reilly tries to stop him but fails. Arriving at the party, Ignatius is introduced to the guests who do not respond well to his character. He angers three lesbians, who quickly break into a brawl. In the main room, Ignatius turns off the music and addresses the crowd. They barely listen and turn the music back on. A fight breaks out, and Ignatius is forcibly removed from the party. He decides to attend Darlene’s performance at the Night of Joy. Jones slips Ignatius in, even though he is barred. He sits beside the stage and, when Darlene enters with her cockatoo, the bird attacks Ignatius and tries to remove his earring. Amid chaotic scenes, Ignatius stumbles through the door and is saved from a passing bus by Jones. Mancuso arrives on the scene having tailed Ignatius. He arrests Lana, who fires Darlene and Jones. Mancuso then calls an ambulance for Ignatius.

Ignatius awakes in the hospital. Mrs. Reilly is furious at the embarrassment he has caused. Robichaux has offered to pay the hospital bill, which enrages Ignatius. The newspaper photographs are seen all over the city. Mr. Levy drives to the Reilly home to confront Ignatius about the Abelman letter. He speaks to a neighbor and hears the family’s sad and strange history. Ignatius and his mother arrive home, still arguing. Mr. Levy follows them into the house and asks Ignatius about the letter. Ignatius lies, denying ever writing it, and blames it on Trixie. Mr. Levy travels to Trixie’s house, where the confused woman admits to everything. She is offered early retirement if she signs a document confessing to having written the letter. Mr. Levy renews his interest in Levy Pants, which will begin making Bermuda shorts. He also plans to offer Jones a job in the factory and repudiates his wife’s criticisms. He figures out that Ignatius wrote the letter but is satisfied enough that he leaves it be.

Ignatius listens to his mother complaining on the phone all day. She is complaining about him. Finally, she decides to contact the state mental hospital and have him committed. Santa calls on her behalf. Mrs. Reilly says goodbye to Ignatius and apologizes, triggering his suspicion. Ignatius deduces what has happened and is determined to run away. As he is about to leave, Myrna knocks on the door. Ignatius views her as an escape route and begins to agree with all of her criticisms of him so she will drive him away. They pack Ignatius’s writings into Myrna’s little car and leave the house, passing an ambulance on the way. As Myrna drives out of the city, Ignatius presses her hair to his wet moustache.