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John Kennedy Toole´s A Confederacy of Dunces is considered a comic

masterpiece. Even though there is a general consensus about this point, the

ascription of this novel to a determined genre or literary school is not so clear-

cut. The objective of this essay is to explore if there is any kind of literary

kinship between Ignatius Reilly´s tour-de-force and the Southern Gothic genre.


John Kennedy Toole — A Confederacy of Dunces — Southern Gothic —

American Literature — The Grotesque


1 - Introduction

I - Rationale…………………………………………………………………………Page 4

II - Objectives………………………………………………………………………Page 5

III - Methodology and Resources…………………………………………………..Page 6

2 - A Confederacy of Dunces, a peculiar book

I - Synthesis……………………………………………………………………Page. 8

II - The large road to publication…………………………………………………Page. 9

III - Some previous critical work on the subject…………………………………Page10

3 - Southern Gothic, a problematic genre

I – Origins, development and Main Features……………………………………Page 13

4 - A Confederacy of Dunces as Southern Gothic

I – Setting……………………………………………………………………………….Page 17

II – The Grotesque…………………………………………………………………..Page 20

III – Social critique………………………………………………………………………Page24

IV – Dark Humour…………………………………………………………………….Page 28

5 - Conclusions

I - The end of the road....…………………………………………………….Page 36

6 - Bibliography

Works cited…………………………………………………………………………Page 38

1 - Introduction

I - Rationale

Would it be a mistake to claim that the main reason behind the selection of A

Confederacy of Dunces as subject for this essay are the countless hours of

laughter that John Kennedy Toole´s book provoked on me?

Perhaps that would be the case if amusement was the only reason, but aside

from its trenchant hilarity, Toole´s work comprises multiple layers of meaning

that make it suitable for in-depth analysis. How can A Confederacy of Dunces

be described?

It can be argued that it is a collection of comical episodes featuring an

inadequate character that fails to adapt to its surroundings. It can be also

contended that is a caustic parody of American society or a lively portrait of

bizarre characters hovering over a decadent New Orleans. Moreover, Toole´s

novel can be also considered as a “lengthy indictment against twentieth

century” (Toole, pos. 149).

These manifold definitions display the complexity of the subject. Following this

multifaceted nature, among the various paths we could trace when examining A

Confederacy of Dunces, one of the most baffling it is its ascription to genre. The

novel has been analysed under the light of Swift, Chaucer, Boethius, Cervantes,

Rabelais, Shakespeare’s Falstaff, John Lyly, Thoreau and Twain. Furthermore,

it has been labelled as a satire, a picaresque, a medieval quest, an allegory and

a grotesque.

All these definitions are valid and highly enlightening but generate a new path of

analysis. Would it be also possible to establish connections between A

Confederacy of Dunces and literary trends of its own age?

John Kennedy Toole composed A Confederacy of Dunces during the early

sixties, a period of agitation and turmoil in America. It was the decade that

witnessed the outburst of the Beatnik generation and the emergence of

postmodern writers. It was also the time of consolidation of a somewhat

neglected style traditionally rooted on the American South: The Southern


In their narrative, Southern Gothics authors include (among other traits)

transgressive thoughts and desires, dark humour, freakish characters and a

sense of alienation which evidence a questioning of the society. Would it be

perhaps a genre1 that can suit Ignatius Reilly´s adventures?

In the Introduction to The Palgrave Handbook of the Southern Gothic, editors

Susan Castillo and Charles L. Crow appeal to the image of a crossroad in their

attempt to depict the current state of the studies in the field (Pos. 316). There is

still much debate over the boundaries of a genre that it is indeed problematic.

Under the Southern Gothic label it is possible to find novels that use modernist

techniques like inner monologue, as in the case of William Faulkner´s The

Sound and the Fury, vampire stories such as Anne Rice´s Interview with the

Vampire and even theatre plays like A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee


The Southern Gothic it is refered indistinctly as a genre or as a subgenre. This literary mode
emerged from the American Gothic, which again evolved from the English Gothic literary
tradition. To clarify, in this essay we will refer to it as a genre.

Taking into consideration its uniqueness, and the fact that remains as the sole

production of an author (or at least the only writing he was willing to publish 2)

deceased at an early age, A Confederacy of Dunces can also take up his place

at a crossroad of its own. Thus, its liminal position with regards to genre and

style make it a compelling subject for detailed scrutiny.

II - Objectives

The aim of this essay then is to explore if (and how) John Kennedy Toole´s

appraised novel can be included within the Southern Gothic canon. The scope

of this paper does not leave aside the concern with genre. The first stage will

involve an examination of the Southern Gothic origins and development. The

second analysis will aim at identify Southern Gothic features inside A

Confederacy of Dunces and estimate if their presence makes the novel a

suitable candidate to be included within this genre.

Southern Gothic has become more and more influential and popular. According

to Castillo and Crow (pos. 316), there has been an explosion of scholarship on

the subject over the two last decades.

It is equally important to note that Southern Gothic has been neglected in the

syllabus of the Grade of English Studies of the UNED and especially in the

American literature subjects. Nevertheless, this is not a questioning on how the

course is designed, but an opportunity to expand this challenging field.

There is not evidence that Toole ever wanted to publish The Neon Bible, a short novel that he
wrote for a literary contest when he was sixteen years old. Moreover, after his death, Toole´s
mother, Thelma, try to reassure that this work never came to light. After a legal suit presented
by distant relatives it was finally published in 1989.

The topic might as well be relevant as a chance to approach writers (perhaps

with the exception of Faulker), which are still widely unknown among Spanish


III - Methodology and resources

In spite of its heterogeneous nature, the Southern Gothic phenomenon presents

some core features. Some of them will probe to be helpful for the task and

others wont. Thus, as a baseline, the delimitation of the traits that can support

the main idea of this essay will be carried out. Among the features examined to

get a grasp on the genre we can enumerate its settings, its deprecation of

society and its appeal to the Grotesque, a characteristic that, as will be

examined later, is intertwined with the genre´s inclination towards bizarre


In order to delimitate the Southern Gothic, a collection of critical essays about

the genre, like The Palgrave Handbook of the Southern Gothic (Street and

Crow, 2016) might be useful. In this line, the compilation Reflections in a

critical eye: essays on Carson McCullers (Whitt, 2008), will also help us

understand the convergence of the Gothic and the Grotesque. Likewise, on this

account, the essay “Some aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”, by

Flannery O´Connor will be essential.

In addition, there were websites that contributed in this research like the Oxford

Research Encyclopaedia of Literature ( The

webpage devoted to Carson McCullers ( was also

useful in order to gather some information about this writer. It has a

comprehensive list of Bibliography and critical resources.

Regarding the second stage. The first step would be a close reading of A

Confederacy of Dunces, followed by a search of critical work focused on its

influences. In order to do so, the main tools used were the bibliographic

databases to which the Central Library of the U.N.E.D. grants access through


Also, the biography of John Kennedy Toole, Butterfly in the Typewriter: The

Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy

of Dunces by Cory MacLauchlin could provide an interesting insight into the

author´s life.

Several critical papers, selected mainly from American literary publications,

were also gathered to perform the analysis. The complete list it is on the

bibliographic references.

2 - A Confederacy of Dunces, a Peculiar Book

I - Synthesis

The narration is located in New Orleans during the sixties. It mainly follows

Ignatius Reilly, a lazy jobless scholar in his thirties who is willingly secluded

from the world. He despises modern society and, in line with his Medievalist

Studies, praises that age´s worldview and primarily, Boethius, a Roman

philosopher whose work Consolation of Philosophy became one of the most

influential works during the middle Ages.

Supported economically by his mother, Irene, with whom he lives, Ignatius

leads a quiet life. He enjoys going to the movies and drinking Dr Nut. At the

beginning of the story he is composing a paper which he considers will became

the ultimate indictment against modern life, until a minor car accident generates

a substantial debt for the family.

This financial strait will force him to search for a job, but since he is neither

comfortable nor prepared to face society, every single one of his ventures will

end in disaster.

First, Ignatius will find a position as a clerk in the decadent garment factory Levy

Pants. After a few days of unproductive work he is fired, not for his poor

performance but for his attempt to lead the black employees at the production

lines into a revolt against patronage. In his next job, as hot-dog vendor he is

bounded to push a hot-dog wagon by the streets of the French Quarter. As a

vendor he probes to be equally inefficient and, of top of that, he eats more than

he sells. His third enterprise it is just as much as nonsensical: He plots to

infiltrate the Army and the Government with homosexual men in order to

achieve world peace. To scheme this plan he manages to get invited to a gay

party at the French Quarter but after a quarrel with some of the guests he is


At the same time, Irene Reilly, Ignatius´ mother, and whom he constantly

desecrates, carries out a subplot that will eventually converge with Ignatius’

progress. As the story unfolds, Irene’s lady friend, Santa Battaglia, tries to

convince her of confine her son to a mental Institution. After an embarrassing

incident at the Night of Joy, a low class cabaret, Irene decides to institutionalize

him. But his mother´s suspicious behaviour makes Ignatius foresee her plans.

When it seems that there is no way out from confinement, the appearance in

extremis of Ignatius´ lady friend Myrna Mirkof, whom up to that point was living

in New York, provides Reilly an escape route from New Orleans. The novel

ends with Ignatius and Myrna heading towards New York City.

Even thought Ignatius is the point of attention, the narration also take heed of

other odds characters which crosses paths with Reilly: Patrolman Mancuso, a

goofy undercover cop who wears ridiculous disguises while trying to catch

suspicious figures in order to ingratiate with his superior; Lana Lee, the

dictatorial owner of the nightclub “Night of Joy” and model for pornographic

pictures; Burma Jones, a black character bounded to accept a low paid job as a

porter in that cabaret to prevent been arrested for vagrancy; Dorian Greene, a

picturesque member of the New Orleans gay community; the aforementioned

Myrna Mirkoff, an anti-establishment student which is Ignatius’ solely

acquaintance in the outer world, and several other personages which render an

impressive collage of the city.

II - A large road to publication

Toole finished the novel in 1964 and send it to senior editor Robert Gottlieb,

who had Tomas Pynchon and Joseph Heller as clients. They sustained a

lengthy exchange of letters regarding the novel, but they never reach an

agreement, “The book does not have a reason”, Gottlieb observed on a letter to

Toole (McLauchlin, pos. 3038). The rejection had a deep impact on Toole, a

brilliant student and, according to many sources, an inspirational professor.

Extremely disappointed, he put the novel (and his writing efforts) aside and

continued working as English lecturer for the next five years. But on March 26th

of 1969, he decided he had had enough. He stopped his car outside Biloxi,

Mississippi and committed suicide. He got suffocated by connecting a garden

hose from the running exhaust pipe to the window. He was 31 years old. As a

result of familiar and financial problems, in his final years he became depressed

and even faced some mental issues.

In the car he left a suicide note for his family. The only person who had access

to it was his mother, Thelma, who never gave a detailed account of its contents.

But after the mourning and confident in John´s talent, Thelma keep trying to

publish the novel. She was rejected over and over until in 1976 she managed to

reach novelist Walker Percy.

Percy himself in the foreword to the novel renders the rest of the story. In his

own words, when he first read it, he though that “it was not possible that it was

so good” (Percy, pos 8). But Percy´s approval was not enough to publish the

work. Three more years were needed to get a small 2.500 copy printing

supported by Louisiana State University Press. The book was finally released in

1980 and both public and critics immediately appraised it as a comic

masterpiece. One year later, Tooled was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer

Prize. Fortuna had spun towards success, but unfortunately he was not there to


III - Previous critical work on the subject

Scholars have been often inclined to read A Confederation of Dunces in relation

to both Medieval and Renaissance literature. This is by no means illogical:

There is no need to go beyond the book´s cover to be pointed in that direction.

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that

the dunces are all in confederacy against him”, is the quote that inspired the

novel´s title. The quote belongs to Jonathan Swift´s Thoughts on various

Subjects, Moral and Diverting. Swift was one of the greatest satirist of the


Walker Percy´s foreword maintains this approach. This well-known southern

writer actively supported Thelma Toole´s efforts to publish the novel and can be

termed as the “critic zero”. In the preface (Percy, pos. 8-35), although he claims

that Ignatius Reilly lacks “progenitor in any literature I know of”, he brings forth

Toole´s debt with Cervantes, Thomas Aquinas and Shakespeare. Moreover, he

describes the novel as a “gargantuan tumultuous human tragicomedy”.

The links with Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes and, especially, Swift were

also noted by Jonathan Simmons. By means of the comparison with Swift´s

Tale of a Tub, Simmons (p. 37) discusses how Ignatius Reilly embodies the

concept of Grotesque.

In a similar vein, David McNeil (p. 33) analyses the novel´s debt to satire,

tracing back its influences to Mark Twain´s A Connecticut Yankee in King

Arthur´s Court, American Colonial literature, Swift and the English Renaissance.

Robert Rudnicki focuses on the construction of Ignatius character, and

especially, in his affected speech style. Rudnicki (p. 282) stresses the sway of

English Renaissance playwright John Lyly over Ignatius´ flamboyant

discourses. Nevertheless, Rudnicki also acknowledges the links between Toole

and Flannery O´Connor (p. 281), considered a capital figure in the Southern

Gothic tradition. This connection will be further discussed later.

Elizabeth Bell keeps the Middle Ages in sight. She concentrates on the several

ties between A Confederacy of Dunces and medieval types such as the

picaresque, the parody, the pilgrimage, the quest and above all, the allegory.

According to Bell (p. 15), Toole has drawn from the artistic fabric of that age to

comment on the contemporary world.

Coincidentally, this distrust about the modern age was analysed by Peter

McCluskey (p. 8) in relation with Henry Thoreau´s Walden. According to this

scholar, the forced insertion of Ignatius into the workforce parallels and, at the

same time, inverts the chronicles of the voluntary withdrawal from the society

written by Thoreau.

Taking into consideration the body of work analysed up to here, scholarship on

this novel walk through the same paths over and over again. If we focus on the

critical work scrutinized so far, it seems to be very few trails connecting A

Confederacy of Dunces with the Southern Gothic. But as unlikely as it may

sound, there are some.

We mention the work´s debt with Walker Percy, the renowned author who

supported Thelma Toole´s efforts to publish the novel. According to some

critics, this is not the only link between the two writers. In “Kennedy Toole and

Walker Percy: Fiction and Repetition in A Confederacy of Dunces”, Richard

Keller Simon (p. 100) analyses the multiple relations between Binx Bolling, the

main character in Percy´s 1962 novel The Moviegoer, and Ignatius Reilly. The

connection was first noticed by Robert Regan (qtd in Simon, p. 100), shortly

after the first publication of the novel, on his article “The return of the

moviegoer: Toole´s Confederacy of Dunces”.

Even though, Percy was largely considered as a Catholic Writer some of his

work was analysed in relation with the Gothic tradition. Chiefly Lancelot, a novel

that, according to Charles Crow (p.158) employs many themes of this genre

such as the declining family, the forlorn Mansion, a genealogical secret and


The impact of Flannery O´Connor, considered as one of the more outstanding

representatives of the so-called Second Wave of Southern Gothic, on Toole it is

also well documented. According to Rudnicki (p. 281), the author of Wise Blood

“became one of Toole´s heroes during his short life”. There is still another

central feature, also pointed out by Rudnicki, in which these two writers

converge: The grotesque.

In “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”, O´Connor herself

deals by and large with the subject. Her definition of grotesque, and especially

what has been termed as Southern Grotesque, seems more than adequate to

harbour claims regarding the belonging of A Confederacy of Dunces as part of

the Southern Gothic. According to O´Connor, both Southern Gothic characters

and its creators, “are typical Don Quixotes, tilting at what is not there”(O,Connor

, par. 11). This observation, linking Ignatius Reilly and Alonso Quijano´s stands

against the world, seems valid enough to start a discussion on the matter.

3 - The Southern Gothic, a problematic genre

I - A succinct account of its origins and development

As Castillo and Crow acknowledge, the task of defining the Southern Gothic is

certainly “not for the faint of heart”(pos. 316). Moreover, when we face this

genre and its complexities, the image of a crossroad does not seem to fit as

much as one of a labyrinth. And it is easy to get lost. Issues of otherness,

gender and race are mixed with forlorn states, haunted houses and

supernatural beings. Dark humour is blended with aimless violence. Heroes

with Monsters.

To start discussing this genre is necessary to look back to the 18th century.

Southern Gothic evolved from American Gothic which in turn emerged from the

British Gothic, initiated in 1764 by Horace Walpole´s Castle of Utranto.

The English Gothic tradition “challenged Enlightenment principles by giving

voice to irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses,

thereby conjuring an angst-ridden world of violence, sex, terror, and death”

(Ærvold Bjerre, p. 2). To question its age, the Gothic dwelt on the past. Gothic

settings are usually medieval castles and dark landscapes. Moreover, to

challenge reason it appealed to the supernatural and to the unknown.

The Gothic became extremely popular between the 18th and in the 19th

century. Novels like Mary Shelley´s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker´s Dracula and

Ann Radcliffe´s The Mysteries of Udolpho arise from this literary strain.

In 1798, Charles Brockden Brown´s Wieland established the basis for the genre

´s development in America. The American Gothic presents some distinct

features that spring from the particularities of the American newborn society. In

addition to its lack of confidence in the power of reason and progress, Gothic

authors question the American Dream narrative. Nineteenth century gothic

writers like Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe

explored subjects predominantly American like race, the frontier and the Puritan


By all accounts, Poe is considered the forefather of the Southern Gothic. In his

writings he performs a “powerful gothic critique of nineteenth century society, its

values, contradictions and myths” (Wright in Street and Crow, pos. 484).

Moreover, in some of his work he renders his concern with issues that will

become pervasive in the fore coming Southern Gothic like familial decay and

racial fanatism (Wright in Street and Crow, pos. 484).

Some of Poe stories like The Fall of the House Usher are not placed in any

recognizable southern setting but in placeless nightmarish aristocratic

landscapes that were likely to be found in the American South. In this fashion,

he was the first to establish the link between region and genre.

In the twentieth century, William Faulkner became the most outstanding

representative of the Southern Gothic. This author tackled typically Southern

themes like the memory of slavery past and class differences. In addition,

through the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha he clearly sets his narrative in

the South. Faulkner deals with uneasy subjects like necrophilia (A Rose for

Emily), rape (Sanctuary), suicide (The Sound and the Fury) and incest

(Absalom, Absalom). The treatment of these controversial issues, not only by

Faulkner but also by other writers inscribed in this trend, lead scholars to belittle

this mode of writing. In fact, the term Southern Gothic was coined in 1935 by

novelist Ellen Glasgow. On an article entitled “Heroes and Monsters”, she

criticizes the genre´s “disturbing aimless violence” (Glasgow, p. 3). Other

academics referred to this literary mode as “peopled by monsters and sub men”

(qtd. in Ærvold Bjerre, p. 7), while termed some of its most prolific authors as

“merchants of death”(qtd. in Ærvold Bjerre, p. 7).

In the second half of the 20th century, and in spite of the academics

deprecation, the genre maintained his vitality among southern writers. Authors

like Carson McCullers, Flannery O´Connor, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams

and Truman Capote are considered to be part of the Southern Gothic tradition,

in occasions even against their will, like in the case of Welty´s famous remark,

“don´t call me that!”(qtd. in Donaldson, p. 567).

The Grotesque, one of the most recognizable (and at the same time maligned)

features of the Gothic, can be identified in the works of several of its renowned

writers. This convergence leaded critics to refer eir productions as Southern

Grotesque. The Grotesque relies heavily in freaks and physically deformed and

marginal figures that are placed outside the so-called “normality”. Handiccaped

characters like the cripple Hulga Hopewell in Flannery O´Connor´s Good

Country People or the mute John Singer in Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a

Lonely Hunter and transvestites such as Randolph in Truman Capote´s Other

Voices, Other Rooms pervade this mode of writing.

To our purpose we will follow Charles Crow clarification about the juxtaposition

of Gothic and Grotesque, considering that the latter “is a quality that overlaps

with the Gothic, but neither is necessary or sufficient for the other” (Crow, p.


The Southern Gothic also includes supernatural horror that, in most cases,

make visible the past sins of the region, especially slavery. Vampires, zombies

and ghosts inhabitate this imagined space. In Interview with the Vampire, Ann

Rice uses a Louisiana plantation during the 18th century as background for the

stories of the undead Louis and Lestat, thus connecting the vampires with the

slavery system (Gelder in Castillo and Street, pos. 9374). Similarly, in Barry

Hannah´s Yonder Stands Your Orphan, zombies walk among regular people

signalling “a reemergent memory of slavery”(Ellis, p. 50).

The concern with gender and sexuality is also recognizable on Southern Gothic

authors. Browsing among its productions is not unlikely to find characters that

does not adequate to the generic role expected of them. The androgynous Mick

Kelly in Carson McCullers´ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or the eccentric Emily

Grierson in Faulkner´s A Rose for Emily, they both subvert the social fabric of

the region in the first half of the 20th century. Dorothy Allison´s Bastards Out of

Carolina transports this particular topic to the edge of the new millennium by

establishing as a central theme the “imprisonment and vulnerability of women

within structures purportedly designed for or devoted to their safety, especially

the family home”(Bailey, p. 95).

In the last years, and in parallel with a renewed interest of the academics, the

genre has become more and more popular. Contemporary Southern Gothic

authors like Cormac McCarthy, Tom Franklin and Colson Whitehead are among

the more acclaimed writers of its generation.

The Southern Gothic has even jumped to a different language with considerable

success: Films and series draw heavily on its contents. Movies like No Country

for Old Men (2005), The Road (2006) (both of them based on McCarthy`s

novels) and TV series like True Blood, True Detective and The Walking Dead

present unsettling atmospheres and bloodthirsty characters situated in

recognizable Southern Locations.

4 - At the crossroad, A Confederacy of Dunces as

Southern Gothic

“For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books. I

recommend Batman especially”(Toole, pos. 4311), Ignatius counsels dilettante

Dorian Green during their exchange in the French Quarter. The allusion to the

most gothic of superheroes is by no means irrelevant to our purposes. The pun

(comic books both as serial magazines and funny novels) is making the

Southern Gothic and the comical converge, thus supporting the thesis of this

essay. But, it is possible to consider this particular humoristic novel as part of

the Southern Gothic?

Perhaps the main reason behind the shortage of studies connecting A

Confederacy of Dunces and the Southern Gothic is that the former lacks the

gloomy atmosphere generally associated with the Gothic. There are no

pointless murder, unleashed violence or howling ghosts in Ignatius Reilly´s New

Orleans. Conversely, there are Southern Gothics themes like confinement, an

indulgent glimpse towards the past and a distrust of the modern age. There is

also an outstanding parade of freaks and queer characters. And last but not

least, is New Orleans, the quintessential Southern Gothic city.

I - Setting

Toole´s choice of New Orleans as a setting for his novel had to do in large part

with his extensive knowledge of the city and his people. Whether or not he

considered himself a gothic or a grotesque writer is not the concern of this

paper, but his choice for place (along with his Southern idiosyncrasy) support

the claim that he was highly influenced by this tradition.

“Within the South, it is difficult to imagine a city with more potential as a gothic

site than New Orleans”, reflects Sherry Truffin in her essay New Orleans as

Gothic Capital. She identifies the city as a place of excess, masquerade and

trickery. She also stresses the presence of issues like the chronic transgression

of sexual and social taboos and the replacement of moral with aesthetic values.

(Truffin in Street and Crow, pos. 4593)

Ignatius would have agreed at a great extent with Truffin description of the city.

Early in the novel he scorns its excesses and disreputable moral, “This city is

famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics,

sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades,

litterbugs, and lesbians,” he argues when approached as a “suspicious

character”(Toole, pos. 84).

The selection of a low class cabaret as site for the story´s denouement

reinforces the sense of transgression in the novel. In the narrative, disheartened

because of his failure at raising an army of gay men, Ignatius hurries towards

the Nigh of Joy, where he expects to see Southern Belle, Miss Harlett O´Hara,

but he became instead the victim of a Latin B-girl, a cockatoo and a streetcar in

that order.

The omnipresent humour does not prevent the narration to be permeated by

Southern Gothic traits. Even if Toole´s renders a satiric vision of the city, he still

draws from typical locations of the genre. As a matter of fact, forlorn mansions

and decaying plantations have a counterpart in the novel.

The decadence of Constantinople Street mirrors Ignatius’ derelict house. “It was

a neighbourhood that had degenerated from Victorian to nothing in particular, a

block that had moved into the twentieth century carelessly and uncaringly – and

with very limited funds” (Toole, pos. 640). The outside of the Reilly´s household

is presented as a barren place. “There were no shrubs. There was no grass.

And no birds sang” (Toole, pos. 640). In addition, the presence of a dead tree

and a Celtic cross, signalling a dog´s burial place transforms the yard into a


The deterioration is equally exhibited indoors and, in addition, a darkness

descends all over the ambience, “Like every room in the house, it was dark; the

greasy wallpaper and Brown wooden mouldings would have transformed any

light into gloom, and from the alley very little light filtered anyway”(Toole, pos.


With regards to Levy Pants, another important location in the novel, two major

points are worth mentioning. On top of its characterization as a declining, old

fashion building, the Factory also exhibits a threatening image that, at some

point, might even remember a Concentration Camp.

It was two structures fused into one macabre unit. The two smokestacks

that rose from the factory´s tin roof leaned apart at an angle that formed

an outsized rabbit-eared television antenna that received no hopeful

electronic signal from the outside world but instead discharged

occasional smoke of a very sickly shade. Levy Pants huddled, a silent

and smoky plea for urban renewal. (Toole, pos. 1399)

In addition to the menacing outside, the production line composed of Negro

workers mostly (and aside from ironic remarks) resembles Ignatius of slavery


The scene which met my eyes was at once compelling and repelling. The original

sweatshop has been preserved for posterity at Levy Pants. It is a scene which

combines the worst of Uncle Tom´s Cabin and Fritz Lang´s Metropolis. It is mechanized

Negro slavery; it represents the progress which the Negro has made from picking

cotton to tailoring it (Toole, pos. 2017).

The comic elements are ubiquitous and Truffin is aware of it, in fact she terms A

Confederacy of Dunces both as a picaresque and a satiric tragicomedy.

Nevertheless she acknowledges the novel´s gothic sensibility. (Truffin in Street

and Crow, pos. 4687). Furthermore, she recognises in Ignatius “a character

fated to alienation, madness and confinement” (Truffin in Street and Crow, pos.

4782). Her depiction of Ignatius concurs with another of the Gothic qualities that

she identifies in New Orleans: Its geographical isolation and its position

surrounded by swamps along with an oppressive weather.

Ignatius voluntary seclusion has to do with his reluctance for the outdoors. He

does not want to leave his room and neither his city. In fact, he constantly

recalls his trip to Baton Rouge as “a pilgrimage through the swamps” and later

he describes that journey as an “abysmal sojourn into the swamps to the inner

station of the ultimate horror”. Aside from its obvious hyperbolic purpose, the

quote strengthens the gothic mood of both the location and the character.

The last big joke, ironically, is that to avoid institutional confinement, Ignatius

must flee from his secure place. In fact, he does not seem contrived to head

towards a crepuscular and industrial New York City and hurries Myrna; “The

scent of soot and carbon in your hair excites me with suggestions of glamorous

Gotham. We must leave immediately. I must go flower in Manhattan” (Toole,

pos. 6425).

II - The Grotesque

To explore the Grotesque in the Southern Gothic is, at a great extent, to focus

on its bizarre antiheroes. According to Spiegel (page. 428), “the grotesque

refers to a type of character that occurs so repeatedly in contemporary

Southern novels that readers have come to accept — indeed, expect — his

appearance as a kind of convention of the form". Characters with physical

deformities like the hunchback Lymon in Carson McCullers´ The Ballad of the

Sad Café, Criminals like The Misfit, the murderous villain in Flannery O´Connor

´s A Good Man is Hard to Find or effeminate teenagers such as Joel Knox in

Truman Capote´s Other Voices, Other Rooms support Spiegel´s analysis and

provide a good example of the genre´s inclination towards odd figures.

A Confederacy of Dunces presents itself as a catalogue of suspicious

characters as well. In that manifold crowd, Ignatius Reilly stands out, an

Antihero as well as a Monster.

In the narration, Ignatius is presented almost as half-human, with abnormal

“blue and yellow eyes”. Words like “elephantine”, “mammoth” and “huge paws”

are used to describe his striking physical appearance. The protagonist´s

constant references to his mysterious anatomy, and specifically his pyloric valve

which seems to have prophetic powers, boost the idea of Ignatius´ monstrous

nature, a condition traditionally related with the Gothic. (Truffin in Street and

Crow, pos. 4782).

Interestingly, another memorable grotesque character of the Southern Gothic

shares some of Ignatius’ traits. In Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely

Hunter we are introduced to mute Spiros Antonapoulos, an “obese and dreamy

Greek” with “huge buttocks”.

Although the Greek lacks Ignatius´ wit and eloquence, they are both depicted as

extremely overweighed and dishevelled. Antonapoulos wears a “shirt stuffed

sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging loose behind” and a “shapeless

grey sweater”. (McCullers, page. 7). The description resembles Ignatius sloppy

outfit. As an instance, during his first appearance in the novel, in front of D.H.

Holmes department store, he wears “voluminous tweed trousers” and a “plaid

fennel shirt” (Toole, pos. 57).

Moreover, they are both rendered as ravenous. “Except drinking and a certain

solitary secret pleasure, Antonapoulos loved to eat more than anything else in

the world” (McCullers, pag.8). Ignatius is likewise constantly depicted as

greedy, “Ignatius loves his cakes”, Irene Reilly confesses at the store counter.

Also, his love for Dr. Nut and hotdogs are continuously referred to throughout

the story. There is even a similarity in those two characters gestures after they

have finished eating, and while the Greek “slowly lick over each one of his teeth

with his tongue”, Ignatius will “send his flabby pink tongue over his moustache

to hunt for crumbs”.

In addition to this, they both display an inability to cope with the so-called

normality of everyday life and little care for polite manners, a behaviour that will

not be tolerated by society. And while Ignatius narrowly escapes institutional

confinement, the Greek will be sent to an insane Asylum.

Finally, the previous mention to Antonapoulos “certain solitary secret pleasure”

has also a counterpart in Ignatius tastes for masturbation, “He had almost

developed it into an art form, practicing the hobby with the skill and fervour of an

artist and a philosopher, a scholar and a gentleman” (Toole, pos. 552).

However, Ignatius sexual preferences are as bizarre as it get, after he is

presented as prone to give himself pleasure while having fantasies with his

dead dog.

Ignatius manipulated and concentrated. At last a vision appeared, the familiar figure of

a large and devoted collie that had been his pet when he was in high school. “Woof!

Arf!” Rex looked so lifelike. One ear dropped. He panted. The apparition jumped over a

fence and chassed a stick that somehow landed in the middle of Ignatius´s quilt. As the

tan and White fur grew closer, Ignatius´ eyes dilated, crossed, and closed, and he lay

wanly back among his four pillows, hoping that he had some Kleenex in his room

(Toole, pos. 552).

While Ignatius onanism requires isolation, this particular preference for

loneliness relates him with another Southern Gothic grotesque figure like

Hulga/Joy Hopewell, the protagonist of Flannery O´Connor´s Good Country

People. Hulga, a character with a wooden leg, is a graduate woman on her

thirties that still lives with her mother. Hulga resembles Ignatius not only upon

her penchant for solitude but also because of her gigantic size and appalling

appearance. She is described as “large hulking Joy” (O´Connor, page 220) and

“bloated, rude, and squint-eyed” (O’Connor, page 226). She also shares

Ignatius’ attitude of deprecation for her mother and the rest of the town, “Had

not been for this condition, she would be far from these red hills and good

country people. She would be in a university lecturing to people who knew what

she was talking about” (O´Connor, page 226).

Remarkably, for the people around them, Ignatius and Hulga´s abnormality has

to do with their scholar backgrounds. “She could not help but feel that it would

have been better if the child had not taken the Ph. D.” Hulga´s mother broods

over her daughter´s studies.

Ignatius education triggers a similar conclusion from Lana´s minion, George.

“You could tell by the way that he talked, though, that he had gone to school a

long time. That was probably what was wrong with him”(Toole, pos. 4783).

The mention to O´Connor is highly relevant since she wrote a substantial body

of critical work addressing this particular subject. In "Some Aspects of the

Grotesque in Southern Fiction" she makes a case for the genre and provide

some insights worth mentioning in relation with Toole´s novel.

In that essay, she connects the Grotesque with the Southern Gothic by

asserting that at some point the former merges with the uncanny and the

mysterious, one of the Gothic´s main features. In this vein, and referring to a

prototypical grotesque writer she contends that,

His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of

mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at

a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various

determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don't

understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than in

probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace

and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is

they act upon or not. To the modern mind, this kind of character, and his creator, are

typical Don Quixotes, tilting at what is not there. (O´Connor, web)

The absurdity of Ignatius behaviour is, from this point of view, completely

reasonable. Ignatius is a character who acts on a trust beyond himself. He may

not have chivalric romances but the medieval philosophy of Boethius and

Hroswitha instead. He might not attack windmills but will try to destroy

capitalism by raising an army of gay men. Ignatius fixation with the past links

him with a lunatic Don Quixote (a connection first made by Percy in the novel´s

prologue) and, at the same time, signals the character´s Gothic sensibility.

Nevertheless, as essential as Ignatius Reilly is to the story, he is not the only

grotesque figure wandering around the novel´s pages. The association between

the grotesque and the carnivalesque (first introduced by Bakhtin) seems

relevant in this context. Disguises and bizarre outfits spread through the

narration, from Ignatius´ pirate disguise during his time as hot-dog vendor up to

Darlene´s Southern Belle nightdress, Timmy´s sailor outfit and even Dorian

Greene lady´s hat.

However, the main carnivalesque character is slow-witted police officer, Angelo

Mancuso, who forced by his superior, deploys an impressive inventory of

ludicrous costumes in order to arrest suspicious characters, namely:

A - “Patrolman Mancuso was walking slowly down Chartres Street in ballet

tights and a yellow sweater, a costume which the sergeant said would enable

him to bring genuine, bona fide suspicious characters” (Toole, pos. 488).

B - “A police motorcycle in the block was an event, especially if its driver wore

shorts and a red beard” (Toole, pos. 653).

C - “George looked at the monocle and the beard at his elbow” (Toole, pos


D - “Lana Lee looked at the silk suit, the hat, the weak insecure eyes. She could

spot a safe one, a soft touch all right. A rich doctor? A Lawyer She might be

able to turn this little fiasco into a profit” (Toole, pos. 5583).

Precisely Lana Lee embodies grotesque femininity (Lansky, page 62), a

concept referring to the lack of the signs and practices of conventional

femininity. Although the term was coined in relation with Miss Amelia Evans, the

androgynous protagonist of Carson McCullers´ The Ballad of the Sad Café, it

might be useful to explore how Toole introduces abnormal gender

performances to contravene social order in A Confederacy of Dunces.

Lee, the owner of The Night of Joy, a dark and gloomy cabaret, is described as

a “statuesque woman” with a body “covered with a black leather overcoat that

glistened with mist”. While the term statuesque deprives her of her femininity

and even of her humanity, it also hints to a symbol of both the Grotesque and

the Gothic: The gargoyle. The black leather outfit and the mist that surrounds

her apparition suggests she is another figure, heavily linked with the Gothic:

The seductive and dangerous vamp.

In addition, her dominant attitude and his dictatorial manners makes her a

masculine figure that resembles a plantation manager, a resemblance that

Burma Jones brings out early in the novel, “For twenty dollar a week, you ain

running a plantation in here” (Toole, pos. 1208).

Likewise, Mr. Watson, a confident of Jones counsels him, “That Lee woman ain

´t treatin you right, Jones, one thing I don like to see a colored man make fun of

hisself for bein colored. That what she be doin with you fix up like a plantation

darky” (Toole, pos. 4040).

Moreover, she is also depicted, through Ignatius hyperbolic lens, as a Nazi,

“Ignatius said ‘Is the Nazi proprietess of this cesspool around here every night?’

‘Who? Miss Lee? No’ Jones smiled at himself” (Toole, pos. 5000).

The fact that she is model for pornographic pictures does not make her a victim

of patriarchy but instead, been herself in charge of selling the goods at the best

offer, the one who takes the advantage of this illicit activity. In this fashion she

performs the figure of the outlaw, another recurrent type in the Southern Gothic.

III - Social Critique

If the European Gothic drew on the uncanny to challenge Enlightenment ideals,

Southern Gothic engage with the Grotesque and the uncanny in order to

question mainstream ideology and the dominant status quo of a repressive

South. By using queer characters and bizarre situations, Southern Gothic

authors address, and at the same time subvert, the region´s official narratives of

undeviant gender and sexual roles and established social hierarchies.

Southern Gothic brings to light the extent to which the vision of the idyllic South rests on

massive repressions of the region’s historical realities: slavery, racism, and patriarchy.

In this way, Southern Gothic texts mark a Freudian return of the repressed: the region’s

historical realities take concrete forms in the shape of ghosts or grotesque figures that

highlight all that has been unsaid in the official version of southern history. (Thomas

Ærvold Bjerre, page. 4)

Even though is true that Ignatius Reilly’s critique is not directed specifically

towards the region injustices and inequalities but to the entire history of

mankind since the fifteen century, he is nevertheless questioning dominant

ideologies and institutions like the Church and University.

In his paper, a vindication of Middle Ages entitled Journal of a Working Boy, he

overtly condemns Renaissance and Enlightment, “Merchants and charlatans

gained control of Europe calling their insidious gospel ‘The Enlightenment’”

(Toole, pos. 511). Later, when he organizes his political rally with Dorian

Greene, he counsels some readings “to understand the crises of our age”

among he refers the necessity to, “skip the Renaissance and the

Enlightenment”, which is according to Ignatius, “mostly dangerous propaganda”

(Toole, pos. 4295).

Thus, in addition to his Gothic fixation with the past, Ignatius reveals a critical

eye for the present. Moreover, he not only scorns modernity but also commits

with social change. As preposterous and selfish-driven (their only goal is to

scandalize Myrna Minkoff) as they are, his initiatives are directed towards

righteous ends, namely, get better work conditions for the workers of Levy

Pants by organising “The Crusade for Moorish Dignity” and achieve world

peace by infiltrating the Army and the Government with gay men.

In his Journal of a Working Boy he also repudiate modern day Capitalism.

“What had once been dedicated to the soul was now dedicated to the sale”, he

writes. Pages later, as an echo of this statement, Lana Lee perform a parody of

a mass celebration in her cabaret. Her god is profit.

Lana started making sound, like the imprecations of a priestess, over the bills that the

boy had given her. Smoke like incense rose from the cigarette in the ashtray at her

elbow, curbing upwards with her prayers, up above the host which she was elevating in

order to study the date of his minting, the single silver dollar that lay among her

offerings. Her bracelet tinkled, calling communicants to the altar, but the only one in the

Temple had been excommunicate from the Faith because of his parentage and

continued mopping (Toole, pos. 1261).

Granted that Ignatius constant discredit of the modern age has comical

purposes, it is also evident that the author, by using humour, is challenging the


However, in stark contrast with Ignatius´ pompous declamations against the ills

of our age, the author inserts other, perhaps more subtle, critiques by exposing

the harmful circumstances of the more deprived layers of society.

As an instance, Toole appeals to Mrs Trixie impossibility to get her retirement.

On the surface, Mrs Trixie suffering is presented as an annoying (and

hysterical) whim of Mrs Levy, but underneath it might hint to how scant the

pensions for the elderly are and their necessity to keep working once their time

to retire is due. Toole was familiar with this particular situation, since his parents

depended on a scarce allowance to subsist. In fact, their income was so

insubstantial that in several occasions he had to help them financially

(McLaughlin, pos. 2179).

Burma Jones, another member of a minority group, is also pertinent on this

account. This Afro-American figure, described by Percy, as “a superb comic

character of immense wit and resourcefulness” acts, in a way, as privileged

witness of the story´s development. His trenchant comments and his vernacular

speech infuse the narration with a unique comical dynamism. Nevertheless,

Jones also plays the part of the victim since he is practically forced to get a low-

paid job under penurious work conditions. In his case, he is driven towards

exploitation by forces both inside and outside the law, the police force and Lana

Lee. “This was really a deal, like a present left on the doorsteps. A colored guy

who would get arrested for vagrancy if he didn´t work. She would have a captive

porter whom she could work for almost nothing, It was beautiful” (Toole, pos.


The black porter also notices the bargain he becomes for Lee, “ ‘Yeah’ Jones

answered, ‘She ain exactly hire me. She kinda buying me off the auction

block’”(Toole, pos 609).

But Ignatius is not the only anti-establishment figure on the story, Myrna

Minkoff, Ignatius’ acquaintance from graduate school, is constantly committed

with social change. And, although Ignatius maintains a vigorous postal

exchange with her, he despises her more up-to-date questioning of American


Her logic was a combination of half-truths and clichés, her worldview a compound of

misconceptions deriving from a history of our nations as written from the perspective of

a subway tunnel. She dug into her large black valise and assaulted me (almost literally)

with greasy copies of Men and Masses and Now! And Broken Barricades and Surge

and Revulsion and various manifestos and pamphlets pertaining to organizations of

which he was a most active member: Students for Liberty, Youth for Sex, The Black

Muslims, Friends of Latvia, Children for Miscegenation, The White Citizens´ Councils.

Myrna was, you see, terrible engaged in her society. I, on the other hand, older and

wiser, was terrible dis-engaged. (Toole, pos. 2130)

The allusion to the history of the nation as written from the “perspective of a

subway tunnel”, is clearly directed to hint her engagement with the unofficial

version of the story by referring to the Underground Railroad, the secret network

of white men, that during the early to mid-19th century, helped African slaves to

escape from captivity in the South to the free states in the North.

The figure of Dorian Greene, whose name is a brilliant homage to gay Irish

writer Oscar Wilde (and to the central figure of his novel The Picture of Dorian

Gray, which, by the way, has an unequivocal gothic flair), is also central in the

author´s idea of questioning the established gender roles, an issue profusely

explored by the Southern Gothic school.

In the examination of, once again, Carson McCullers´s fiction, Rachel Adams,

addresses this particular topic. She contends that, “Freaks and queers suffer

because they cannot be assimilated into the dominant social order, yet their

presence highlights the excesses, contradictions, and incoherences at the very

heart of that order”(page. 552). Greene does not seems to be suffering in

account of his sexual inclinations, but in accordance with Adams´ statement, his

presence, along with his troupe of gay friends, endows the narration with an

iconoclastic flavour. It is important to bear in mind that, in the early sixties

homosexuals were not as tolerated as they are in present day. In fact, the Gay

Liberation Movement only emerged towards the end of that decade. Another

point to understand how provocative was the topic is that just in 1973, the

American Psychiatric Association removed "homosexuality" from the

diagnostics manual of mental illness.

If we take into account that Toole´s first novel The Neon Bible (written when he

was sixteen) also dealt with this controversial topic, is not unlikely to estimate

that he was from his early years interested in the realities of those strange

characters that decided to live outside the mainstream social norms or failed to

adapt to the status quo. Toole wrote The Neon Bible in 1953 and submitted to a

literary contest that he lost. The story renders the story of David, a boy growing

up in a small Mississippi community during the late 1930´s to early 1950´s.

Even when homosexuality is not the main subject of the story, through the main

character lens we witness life in small-town American South, a life contrived by

religious conservatism and social hypocrisy. Remarkably, when both of the

character´s parents fail to become a strong figure for him, he ends up idealizing

one of his school teachers: Mr Farney, a character that the author suggests is


Although David never mentions that Farney is gay, he is such a clichéd queer—

interested in poetry, music, design, and fashion—that only the most obtuse reader

would not recognize it. One of the first descriptions of Farney is that “[h]e walked more

like a woman who swayed her hips. You could always tell Mr. Farney by his walk” (98).

The next is: “He could recite anything in the line of a poem or something from a famous

book, and no one else in town even read poems or many books. Sometimes he wrote

poems himself” (99). The stereotype continues in another description: “Mr. Farney . . .

liked violets more than anything else because he told us they were shy and delicate”.

(Hardin, page. 61)

In this fashion, Toole´s early efforts with the The Neon Bible foreshadows his

concern with social critique by, “exposing hypocrisy in a few of the many forms

it commonly takes: religious bigotry, intellectual narrowness, social intolerance,

egocentrism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, sexual deceit, physical aggression,

and family dysfunction” (Rudnicki, page. 292).

IV – Dark Humour

Several comic devices, some of them already addressed as satire and parody,

infuse the narration with an all-pervading dark humour. Closely related with

social criticism, this subversive kind of humour is another feature that links

Toole´s novel with Southern Gothic literature.

Rudnicki contends that dark humour, along with the aforementioned Grotesque,

are, “paths that have been applied with success to A Confederacy of Dunces “

by scholars like Michael Kline and Jonathan Simmons (page. 281). Rudnicki

similarly stresses the sway of O´Connor´s unsettling humour in Toole.

For the scholar, Toole´s evolution from The Neon Bible to A Confederacy of

Dunces has to do, at a large extent with his discovery of humour, “Trading the

tragic vision for the comic universe, the backwater town for the Bacchanalian

city, the innocent narrator for the experience one, Toole perhaps learned that

Satire and outright burlesque were better suited to his literary talents and

goals”. In this fashion, the more mature Toole of A Confederacy of Dunces

realized that “bigotry, hypocrisy, and zealotry are best-illustrated through the

eyes of bigots, hypocrites and zealots”(Rudnicky, page 293).

Thus, dark humour, with his irreverent, sometimes offensive, style is one of the

best ways Toole found to attack fundamental Institutions of society like

University, Church and Family.

With the description of Dr. Talc, Ignatius and Myrna’s British History professor

at Tulane, Toole mocks University life. As the name suggests, while this

character enjoys a reputation of eloquence, underneath this facade he is utterly

unprepared to teach, “As a lecturer Dr. Talc was renowned for the facile and

sarcastic wit and easily digested generalizations that made him popular among

the girl students and helped to conceal his lack of knowledge about almost

everything in general and British history in particular” (Toole, pos 2193).

The fact that he had five years of unreturned essays accumulated in his drawer

implies his laziness. Moreover, his lack of moral it is also hinted by rendering his

disreputable intentions with his students, “Talc´s voice was important, pedantic.

Should he invite this charming creature to have a drink with him?” (Toole, pos.


Students are also part of Ignatius´ scorn. His position as lecturer in that very

University ended, like every one of his ventures, in disaster,

“There was even a small demonstration outside the window of my office. It was rather

dramatic. For being such simple, ignorant children, they managed quite well. At the

height of the demonstration I dumped all of the old papers – ungraduated of course –

out of the window and right onto the students´ heads. The college was too small to

accept this act of defiance against the abyss of contemporary academia” (Toole, pos.


The anecdote concludes with a harsh twist, a signature of dark humour, “I also

told the students that, for the sake of humanity´s future, I hope that they were all

sterile” (Toole, pos. 910)

There are several slanders against the religious establishment as well.

In addition to the aforementioned Lana Lee´s mock celebration of a Mass to

consecrate money inside her Cabaret, it is possible to find a recurrent vilification

of the clergy, “I do not support the current Pope. He does not at all fill my

concept of a good, authoritarian Pope” (Toole, pos. 895), explains Ignatius to

his mother. Later, when he reprimands her by the car accident, he will round up

his idea, ”If he is my type of priest, the penance will no doubt be rather strict.

However, I have learned to expect little from today´s clergyman” (Toole, pos.

924). Interestingly, and in line with his medieval outlook, Ignatius condemns the

Church not for being too strict but for the opposite.

The disadvantages of excessive devotion is also explained by Irene Reilly with

an evil and unadverted pun:

“You ought look on the bright side”, Patrolman Mancuso said.

“I guess so”, Mrs Reilly said, “Some people got it harder than me, I guess. Like my poor

cuosin, wonderful woman. Went to mass every day of her life. She got knocked down

by a streetcar over on Magazine Street one morning while she was on her way to

Fisherman´s Mass. It was still dark out”. (Toole, pos. 762)

Finally, the morbid origins of Ignatius´ quarrel with the Church add up to the

pervasive gallows humour. Here again, a very thin line separates the comic and

the tragic.

“Ignatius is got the dog laid out in his momma´s front parlor with some flowers stuck in

its paw. That´s when him and his momma first started all that fighting. To tell you the

truth, I think that´s when she started drinking. So Ignatius goes over to the priest and ax

him to come say something over the dog. Ignatius was planning on some kinda funeral.

You know? The priest say no, of course, and I think that´s when Ignatius left the

Church. So big Ignatius puts on his own funeral. A big fat high school boy oughta know

better. You see that cross?” Mr. Levy looked hopelessly at the rotting Celtic cross in the

front yard”.(Toole, pos. 6019)

While this excerpt sheds new light to understand Ignatius and Irene dispute, it

signals another issue profusely explored thought the author´s cynical eye:

Family relations. Irene is constantly depreciated by his son, as an instance, in

account of her lack of education and her vernacular speech,

“ ‘Ignatius graduated smart’

‘Graduated Smart’, Ignatius repeated with some pique. ‘Please define your terms.

Exactly what do you mean by graduated smart

- Don´t talk to your momma like that – Darlene said.

- Oh, he treat me bad sometimes – Mrs. Reilly said loudly and began to cry” (Toole,

pos. 407).

Ignatius also makes sardonic remarks regarding her taste for liquor, a habit, the

author implies, helps Irene cope with her pitiful circumstances. The image of a

dysfunctional family is completed by Ignatius´ attacks to her mother´s poor

judgement and, in addition, by his disregard for the memory of his dead father,

“- I made up my mind. You gonna go out and get you a job –

- I see – Ignatius said calmly. “Knowing that you are congenitally incapable of arriving at

a decisions of this importance, I imagine that that mongoloid law officer put this idea

into your head-

- Me and Mr. Mancuso talked like I used to talk to your poppa. You poppa used to tell

me what to do. I wish he was alive today –

- Mancuso and my father are alike only in that they both give the impression of being

rather inconsequential humans”. (Toole, pos. 845)

It has been argued that Toole used several details of his own life to compose A

Confederacy of Dunces. The mention to Ignatius´ father as insignificant mirrors

Toole´s own father who, according to their biographers, developed a neurosis,

which eventually fester into a full-blown mental illness, that relegated him to the

back room of the Reilly´s home (MacLauchlin, pos. 546).

In this manner, Toole was placing himself and his family as target. There was

no safe ground to avoid been satirized.

Like Carson McCullers and Flannery O´Connor, Toole resorts to dark humour to

render human experience. In A Confederacy of Dunces, is possible to find

evidence of this connection, mainly O´Connor´s, whose stories are permeated

with a caustic, at times, irrational kind of humour. According to Eric Savoy, “O

´Connor fictions are packed with moments that are oddly unsettling in their

hilarity” (Savoy in Street and Crow, pos. 3388). His analysis of O´Connor fiction

is highly relevant to our means:

There is always something vertiginous in O´Connor comic scenes: they turn on an

image or a detail that is grossly incongruent and out of place, and yet that “thing” is, at

the same time, ironically and inevitably in its place. The comic is unsettling not only

because it finds itself poised between laughter and unease, but also because it points

to the eternal capacity for error. (Savoy, pos. 3388)

The description might fit like a glove in the opening scene of Toole´s novel:

Huge sloppy blue-and-yellow-eyed Ignatius stands out from the crowd outside

D.H. Holmes. No wonder he attracted the “two sad covetous eyes” of the police

officer Mancuso. Ignatius is out of place, not only in that scene but also in the

whole story, and that is perhaps one of the main sources of laughter in the

novel. But at the same time, he belongs to New Orleans. It is almost impossible

to imagine him somewhere else other than, of course, New York.

Moreover, the novel is full of these incongruent images like the ones addressed

by Savoy. Images that both amuse and disturb: Mancuso, in disguise, bounded

to the lavatories of the bus station, a decrepit Mrs. Trixie “working” in the office

of Levy Pants, Timmy disguised as sailor shackled and chained to the wall,

Darlene performing her ludicrous erotic act with the cockatoo and so on.

But, in Savoy´s analysis there is still another feature of O´Connor that can be

applied to Toole´s production, “O´Connor traces her characters´ movements

through a series of comic misadventures – generated by their wilful blindness –

toward a traumatic accident that is as contingent as it is inevitable” (Savoy in

Street and Crow, pos. 3414).

A Confederacy of Dunces is abundant in this “wilful blindness”, since many of

the characters fail to recognize how their actions will be counter-productive for


As an instance, Lana Lee´s eagerness to make profit at all cost will blind and,

eventually, backfire on her: First by hiring Jones, who will sabotage her;

Second, giving Darlene permission (even against their own instincts) to perform

her wicked show with the cockatoo and, in the end, trying to seduce undercover

officer Mancuso.

Another example is Mr. Gonzalez, the Office Manager at Levy Pants. He

appraises Ignatius work attitude, in spite of the many signs of his poor

performance. His unawareness of Ignatius’ intentions will end up in a workers´

demonstration against Levy Pants. The irony is brilliant and devastating at once:

The impossible had happened: life at Levy Pants had become even better. The reason was Mr.

Reilly. What fairy godmother had dropped Mr. Ignatius J. Reilly on the worn and rotting steps of

Levy Pants?

He was four workers in one. In Mr. Reilly competent hands, the filing seems to disappear.

(Toole, pos. 1831)

And while the manager is exultant in account of Ignatius efficiency, he does not

realize that he is making the files “disappear” because he is tossing them to the

garbage can.

Gus Levy can be part of that catalogue of sightlessness as well. His deliberate

negligence concerning everything related with his factory, nearly resulted in a

harmful legal suit against the company. Ignatius threatening reply to a minor

claim of a buyer for a wrong order of trousers will became a source of great

distress for Mr. Levy.

The letter, composed and mailed by Ignatius without supervision, is one of

many hilarious moments of the novel but is worth mentioning in order to

introduce another of the features that links Toole´s novel with the Southern

Gothic universe: Violence. For our purposes we will focus on the last paragraph,

We do not wish to be bothered in the future by such tedious complaints. Please confine

your correspondence to orders only. We are a busy and dynamic organization whose

mission needless effrontery and harassment can only hinder. If you molest us again, sir,

you may feel the sting of the lash across your pitiful shoulders.

Yours in anger,

Gus Levy, Pres. (Toole, pos. 1523)

It might seem a mistake to claim that A Confederacy of Dunces is packed with

violence. It is true that violent actions, like those performed by The Misfit in A

Good Man is Hard to Find, Popeye in Sanctuary or Stanley in A Streetcar

named Desire do not take place in the story. However, while there is no Real

Violence, there is, though, a lot of Repressed Violence. The last sentence in the

above paragraph, “You may feel the sting of the lash across your pitiful

shoulders”, is only a sample in Ignatius´ long list of violent intentions, namely:

A - By referring to Patrolman Mancuso: “In my private apocalypse he will be

impaled upon his own nightstick” (Toole, pos. 865).

B- To Myrna Mynkoff: “This liberal doxy must be impaled upon the member of a

particularly large stallion”(Toole, pos. 3634).

C - When he was leading the Crusade for the Moorish Dignity: “Attack! Attack!

Ignatius cried again, even more furiously.” And “Someone must attack

Gonzalez” he surveyed the warrior´s battalion, “The man with the brick, come

over here at once and knock him a bit about the head”

D - When he was watching Television: “The children on that program should all

be gassed” (Toole, pos. 714).

E - In his missive to Dr. Talc: “Your total ignorance of that which you profess to

teach merits the death penalty” (Toole, pos. 2192).

F - When he refuses to sell a hot-dog to George, the pornographic pictures

delivery boy: “Now get away from me before I run over you with this cart”

(Toole, pos. 2740).

Whilst these outbursts can be understood as part of Ignatius´ medieval mind

set, arisen from his more strict and authoritarian worldview, they are signs of his

impotency to cope with life. From that point of view he becomes a pathetic

figure, which generates laughter and at the same time disturbs.

This seemingly paradoxical effect was likewise explored from aforementioned

Southern Gothic Writers like O´Connor and McCullers. O´Connor argued that

the grotesque production “is going to be wild, that it is almost of necessity going

to be violent and comic, because of the discrepancies that it seeks to combine”.

These conjunctions of dissimilar characteristics trace us back to Carson

McCullers, who, coincidentally, was concerned with the theoretical behind the

fictional. In her 1940 essay, “The Russian Realists and Southern Literature”,

she stresses a similar creative tension, “The technique is briefly this: a bold and

outwardly callous juxtaposition of the tragic with the humorous; the immense

with the trivial, the sacred with the bawdy, the whole soul of a man with a

materialistic detail” (Qtd. in Gleeson-White, page. 109).

Thus, in this manner, the kind of humour displayed in the novel reinforces the

circuit of influences between Southern Gothic and A Confederacy of Dunces.

5 - Conclusions

In the beginning of this essay, we resorted to the image of a crossroad to

illustrate how A Confederacy of Dunces defied classification. After the analysis,

would it be right to support the idea that John Kennedy Toole´s novel belongs to

the Southern Gothic genre?

Yes, because the several connections made visible between the Southern

Gothic and A Confederacy of Dunces might help us consider at least a

sustained presence of the essential traits of that genre in the novel.

Yes, since after the examination of multiple critical work analysing Southern

Gothic works in terms of race, gender and setting to name a few, that analysis

can be, without hesitation, applied to Toole´s writing.

Yes, since when contrasted with two of the most outstanding Southern Gothic

writers like O´Connor and McCullers, the literary kinship with Toole seems


Yes, because the novel draws on many of the conventions of the literary

Grotesque, a characteristic deeply intertwined with the Southern Gothic.

Still, in spite of this evidence, it would be a mistake to define A Confederacy of

Dunces solely as Southern Gothic. As stated in the prefatory chapter, the novel

can also be catalogued as picaresque, an allegory and a satire. After an

exhaustive exploration of its contents, the only certainty is that its network of

allusions and influences is endless. And to apply a tag on A Confederacy of

Dunces would be to narrow the several examination paths still to be found. At

this point, the expression coined by Richard Simon to describe the work as

“A playful and devious tour of literary history that puts into question the

traditional distinctions we make between life and literature, and enlarges our

understanding of the relationships between texts.”(Simon, page. 99) seems

more than appropriate.

Nevertheless, and returning to the relation between the work and the genre, we

can only hypothesize which were John Kennedy Toole´s intentions with A

Confederacy of Dunces.

Did he feel part of the Southern Gothic School? His visit to the home of

Flannery O´Connor shortly after his demise might suggest he feel somewhat

connected with her.

Or perhaps he draw from Southern Gothic in order to subvert the genre by

heighten its extravagance with a bigger-than-life character like Ignatius Reilly.

No matter which the answers to these questions might be, one fact is

unquestionable; the path between A Confederacy of Dunces and Southern

Gothic lies there. And while, John Kennedy Toole has long decided which way

to go and Ignatius lingers at the crossroad, for the rest of us: students, readers

and scholars, there is a new line of analysis waiting to be explored.

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