Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces
Ignatius J. Reilly is the arrogant, cumbersome hero of this story. In his thirties, over-educated but without a job, he lives with his mother.
Ignatius J. Reilly is the arrogant, cumbersome hero of A Confederacy of Dunces. In his thirties, over-educated but without a job, he lives with his mother. And must find a job. Such quest becomes an urban adventure, throughout which he meets a series of extravagant characters, the “dunces” who, according to Jonathan Swift’s quote, will always join forces against a true genius. Well, that genius is, undeniably, Ignatius J. Reilly, one of the most unforgettable characters in literature.
The novel has a peculiar editorial story. The manuscript was found by the author’s mother after his suicide. She then gave it to Walker Percy, who helped publish it. The year after, in 1981, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and became a cultural phenomenon.
Set in New Orleans in the Sixties, it reflects the city’s social fabric, by presenting characters like the hilarious Burma Jones and reproducing the dialect of people from the street.
In New Orleans, in his house, at work, in those years, Ignatius is an outsider:
“Employers sense in me a denial of their values. They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century that I loathe”.
Even when he ends up being exploited, his challenge is not about surviving in such times. It is about holding out against a society supposedly based on traditional values, such as hard work, which are nevertheless flawed and contradictory (the Levi Pants factory is in fact a modern plantation, where African Americans work below the minimum wage).
This struggle finds a place in his Journal, or, as Ignatius defines it “a sociological effort on which I’ve been working. It is my most commercial effort”. Here are his Boethian considerations upon fate, or Fortuna, a goddess who spins the wheel upwards or downwards, and by whom Ignatius declines every responsibility for whatever happens.
Here is his distorted but irresistible perspective on events, which fuels the humour of the book, with his refined language, which is strongly opposed to everyone else’s.
When, in the end, after Ignatius’s incident, every character gives us his personal opinion on the matter, the “confederacy of dunces” takes shape. It’s a chorus of voices against Ignatius, but voices which originate from him. As planets, they revolve around the gigantic Ignatius J. Reilly.
Author: John Kennedy Toole
Edition: Penguin Classics