Connecting A Confederacy of Dunces to its reference

by Mr. Sheehy

I began John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces recently and while I haven’t cracked it this week, I plan to finish it. It has fallen somewhat victim to my habit of reading handfuls of books at a time. I’d put Confederacy down when Alan Jacobs’s Breaking Bread With the Dead released, and I’ve been slow to finish Breaking Bread because I’m also working through Zack Eswine’s The Imperfect Pastor. I could finish any of these, I realize, but at school I’m also reading William Zinsser’s Writing About Your Life, which I haven’t finished because I keep pausing to look at Ward Farnsworth’s Farnsworth’s Classical English Style.

So while I have not made it far in A Confederacy of Dunces, I have made it far enough to realize that, though the central character Ignatius J. Riley is a wonderfully eccentric dunce (“Ignatius hasta help me at home,” Mrs. Reilly said. . . . “I dust a bit,” Ignatius told the policeman.), the dunces are definitely plural. So that aspect of the title was obvious, I figured. But what of the confederacy?

Was it a playful knock on the South? The book is set in New Orleans, but within the story, such an idea makes no sense (so far). Was it a way to tease the growing number of fools around which the story turns? That has been my best guess.

But today in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, I came across a quote that Farnsworth cites as an example of the rhetorical announcement–writing becoming conscious of itself and prepping the reader for a statement to come. The example is from Jonathan Swift’s Thoughts on Various Subjects:

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.

So I was seeing in Toole’s title an allusion whose source I knew nothing about. But now, armed with Swift’s rhetorically fine phrase, I find Toole’s title delightful.

Ignatius J. Riley, a reader of the book knows by page three, is the true genius who has appeared in the world. That is, according to Riley he is the true genius, laboring to write the world’s great historical magnum opus one scattered and random page at a time. And this confederacy deployed against him–a confederacy that lists his own mother in its ranks–is definitely, Ignatius knows, made up of dunces.

Riley’s being the grandest dunce of them all only raises the delicious quality of the book’s irony.

So while my random and distracted reading habits may have kept me from finishing any number of books in good time, they have also helped me connect a fine allusion to its source. The result has increased my enjoyment of A Confederacy of Dunces even when it sits untouched beside my bed.

Note: I later went to my bedside and thought I should look into A Confederacy of Dunces again. Sure enough, before the foreword was the Jonathan Swift quote. But it was more fun to discover it in another book entirely. 🙂