Book notes | A Confederacy of Dunces

The book's title refers to an epigram from “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting,” an essay 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.”

The central character in the book is the celebrated Ignatius J. Reilly—an educated, slothful, boastful, bullying, selfish, narcissistic, articulate, medievalist scholar.

For some Fourth Friday Book Club October 2021 meeting attendees, the telling of Ignatius was hilarious, a uniquely laugh-out-loud experience. For others, it was a different reading. Whatever the book's virtues, one could be blindsided by the central character, fully capable of offensive behavior and language in reference to Negroes, Liberals, Upper West Side New York women, and child actors (they ought to be gassed).

A Confederacy of Dunces manages comedy, farce, satire, a core of vulgarity, and misogynism. And, as if that were not enough, Ignatius is portrayed as smelly in body, smelly in filthy bedclothes, and with a unique smelliness associated with flatulence.

Rich and profound
Ignatius is at his most articulate as a serious scholar of the medieval period, albeit misguided in his many pronouncements of the period. The central premise is that human society peaked around the 14th century. Ignatius is in revolt of the post 14th-entury era. In pursuit of that revolt, he is a virtuoso in screwball language, screwball antics, and screwball episodes. The language is rich; the forays into social, historical, political, and economic premises are profound.  

The Confederacy of Dunces is light on plot. In fact, the book was initially rejected by every book editor of good reputation. (The fatal criticism could be that the book was not about anything!) This was in the 60s, when Philip Roth, John Updike, and William Styron were successfully writing a lot that was appropriate to the motifs of the period. 

Finally published in 1980, nearly 11 years after Toole's suicide at the age of 31, A Confederacy of Dunces was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. Acclaimed as a literary masterpiece, for those with contemporary 2021 sensibilities the book is a canonical work of modern literature, best understood as a period piece.  

—Dorothy Marden, Fourth Friday Book Club

Publication date: 
November 17, 2021
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