A Confederacy of Dunces: Chapter 1
Text: Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. New York: Wings Books, 1980; 1996.
Summary of Chapter One
It is New Orleans in the late 1960s. Under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store on Canal Street, Ignatius Reilly waits for his mother in his signature green hunting cap. He is scornful of the people buying material goods at the cost of their souls. Ignatius is a very big person, very careful of himself, worried about getting colds and worried about his digestion. Though looking somewhat like an elephant, he has a “rich inner life” (p. 2). Ignatius is angry that his mother is late in picking him up, though she is at the doctor’s. In his disgust at the surroundings, he “detached his being from the physical reality of Canal Street” (p. 3). Meanwhile, a policeman comes up to him and asks for identification. Ignatius says he has none, since he does not drive. He tells the policeman rudely to leave him alone in very formal and erudite language. He loudly denounces the sin in New Orleans. Why doesn’t the policeman attend to the criminals? The policeman grabs him and Ignatius hits him with the sheet music he bought for his lute. A circle of onlookers surrounds them.
Mrs. Reilly is in the store at the bakery counter and complains about her arthritis to the clerk. She buys pastries for Ignatius and mentions her thirty-year-old son still lives at home with her and is unmarried, since he could not keep his girlfriend. In front of the store, Ignatius is shouting and causing a scene. An old man in the crowd tells the policeman to leave Ignatius alone. He is a good boy waiting for his mother. The old man accuses the policeman of being a “communiss” (p. 6). Mrs. Reilly comes up to the policeman and tells him to leave her son alone. The policeman asks how old Ignatius is and if he has a job. Mrs. Reilly says he does not have a job; he has to help her at home. Ignatius insists he is an author, writing a “lengthy indictment against our century” (p. 7). The old man keeps saying the policeman is a communist, so he arrests the old man instead of Ignatius, as Mrs. Reilly whisks her boy away. She asks him why the police are after him. Ignatius guesses the policeman has a quota. He tells her they have to stop running down the street or he will collapse with a hemorrhage. Mrs. Reilly knows Ignatius will throw a tantrum if forced to do something he does not want to do, so she takes him into a nearby bar called The Night of Joy.
Ignatius orders a chicory coffee with boiled milk, which they obviously do not have, so his mother has a beer while he has his favorite soft drink, Dr. Nut. The bartender is not happy about the Reillys as customers and asks Ignatius to take off his hunting cap. He refuses and begins to tell his mother the story about the Greyhound Scenicruiser incident, which she has heard many times. She pretends to be interested in his tale of the one time he tried to leave New Orleans on the bus but found that outside the city limits was “the heart of darkness” (p. 12). The bus ride made him sick, and when he got to Baton Rouge where he was supposed to apply for a teaching job, he took a taxi back home. The chairman of the Medieval Culture Department was “a totally soulless man” (p. 13) so he could not stay there. He goes into detail describing the comic scene of the chairman stealing his lumber jacket and the campus security chasing him off campus. Mrs. Reilly gets drunk as she keeps Ignatius talking.
At the police station, a young black man is waiting with Claude Robichaux, the old man who was arrested. The black man called Jones, comments, “They throw everbody in jail” (p. 16). Robichaux says he called the policeman, Patrolman Mancuso, a communist, and Jones is impressed. He claims he himself is being framed for robbery at Woolworth’s. Robichaux describes Ignatius and his mother to Jones. They are the reason he is arrested, for he was defending Ignatius. Robichaux pleads with the sergeant not to throw him in jail because it will cause a scandal in his family. He is a good Catholic grandfather. The sergeant gets mad at Mancuso for arresting the wrong person.
At the Night of Joy bar Ignatius complains about having to watch the corruption any longer. A gay man spills his drink and buys Mrs. Reilly’s hat from her, saying he sells used clothing. Darlene, a pretty bar maid, tries to get them to buy more drinks and makes Ignatius tell his Greyhound Bus story again. Mrs. Reilly tells Darlene that Ignatius has a Master’s degree but that he treats his mother badly. She used all her money to educate him and now he will not get a job to help her out. She begins to cry in her beer. The owner of the bar, Lana Lee, asks them to leave.
Ignatius and his mother get into her car, a 1946 Plymouth. She keeps smashing into things and finally destroys part of a building. Patrolman Mancuso is walking down the street in ballet tights and sweater, disguised so he can bring in suspicious characters. The sergeant made him do this as a punishment for arresting the old man. Mancuso once again sees the fat man in the green hunting cap in a car wreck before him.
Commentary on Chapter One
Toole introduces many of his comic characters in the first chapter in various scenes that appear unrelated. In subsequent chapters, he follows each set of characters and develops their separate storylines, Ignatius being the thread that weaves them all together. The characters represent different levels of New Orleans society in the late 1960s. Toole has been especially praised for rendering the characteristic New Orleans dialect called Yat in Mrs. Reilly and her neighbors, and in Jones’s black slang. Ignatius is an outrageous character, very well educated, but disgusted with the twentieth century. He is a medievalist and writes a continuous commentary on the nineteen sixties from the point of view of what he considers to be the ideal time of the Middle Ages. He is a momma’s boy, used to being pampered, dominating her with his temper and educated diatribes. His mother is a drunk, fed up with her son’s laziness and refusal to work.
Toole’s portrayal of Negro or black life in New Orleans was written in the 1960s during the civil rights movement and is considered farsighted. He makes Jones into a satiric commentator on white injustice using the sarcastic verbal style made famous by such black comedians as Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.
Ignatius is a walking contradiction. He is a gross character but has refined taste. He thinks like a medievalist about the soul and the bad effect of material possessions but is lazy and likes his comforts. He plays a lute, yet “American Bandstand” is his favorite TV show, and he is addicted to soft drinks, snacks, hot dogs, and other disgusting commercial items. Ignatius’s former girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff, is mentioned briefly and will be developed in later chapters. Another important fact is brought up by Ignatius when his mother needs a massage for her arthritis; he admits he does not like to touch other people. This might explain why he does not have a girlfriend.
The Night of Joy bar has its own set of low life characters, including wannabe showgirl, Darlene, and owner, Lana Lee, who is up to some criminal activity. The gay man (Dorian) who buys Mrs. Reilly’s hat, foreshadows a whole gay scene at the end of the book. Critics have remarked on the carnivalesque Mardi Gras feel to the narrative, with its many costumed and strange characters parading in and out of the action, like poor Mancuso, always in some humiliating undercover disguise to catch suspicious perverts for his quota of arrests. In the center of all the comic characters is Ignatius, the chief dunce of the confederacy of dunces. The others are simple dunces, but he believes he knows everything because he is educated and superior.
In a headnote to the book, Toole includes quotes from A. J. Liebling on the nature of New Orleans, claiming it is a Mediterranean town, like Genoa or Marseilles. It is part of “a Hellenistic world that never touched the North Atlantic.” Toole thus introduces the idea that this is the cosmopolitan south, distinct from the Puritan north. Not only is the gaiety of New Orleans Mediterranean in its flavor, but also its variety of people and gusto for life. Above all, Toole introduces humanitarian tolerance, associated with humanism and Hellenism, through his ribald humor.