A Confederacy of Dunces

Summary and Analysis of Chapter 1

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Ignatius is a gargantuan figure with a bushy black moustache and blue and yellow eyes that look down upon the other people waiting outside of the D.H. Holmes department store. He notes that their clothing is new and expensive enough to be "properly considered offenses against taste and decency"; they demonstrate a lack of "theology and geometry." Ignatius's attire, in contrast, is comfortable and pragmatic. His voluminous tweed trousers allow for free locomotion, while his green hunting cap (which he is rarely without) prevents head colds.

Attempted Arrest

As Ignatius waits outside the department store for his mother, he is spotted by a policeman, Angelo Mancuso. Officer Mancuso suspects this large, oddly-dressed character may be a pervert and attempts to take him into custody. An indignant Ignatius resists, striking the patrolman with the sheet music and lute string he has recently purchased. Soon, a crowd forms around the struggling pair. A kindly old man named Claude Robichaux tries to stick up for Ignatius, caling him a "good boy" who is just "waiting for his momma." Mr. Robichaux then accuses the patrolman of being a communist.

Emerging from the store, Mrs. Reilly sees the commotion and pushes her way through the crowd in an attempt to help her son. Ignatius quickly turns on his protector, claiming that poor Mr. Robichaux started all the trouble. At the urging of Mrs. Reilly and after calling all the police communists, a confused Mr. Robichaux is taken away to jail. Ignatius and his mother waste no time fleeing.

The Night of Joy Bar

Ignatius's large frame makes him need to stop to rest. He and Mrs. Reilly enter the Night of Joy, a strip club and bar on Bourbon Street. They get the worst possible service from the bartender, "treatment given unwanted customers." Undeterred, Mrs. Reilly orders a couple of beers. Ignatius recounts the horrors of his trip on a Greyhound Scenicruiser to Baton Rouge--the only trip Ignatius has ever taken out of New Orleans.

The purpose of the trip to Baton Rouge was a job interview with the chairman of the Medieval Culture Department of a university. Ignatius got sick on the bus ride and vomited several times. In Baton Rouge, after the department chairman mocked his lumber jacket, Ignatius was convinced that he could not possibly take the job, since the chairman was a"totally soulless man." He was so overwhelmed that he ran to the bathroom to relieve himself. Ignatius placed his lumber jacket over the booth, and it was suddenly whisked away. Traumatized, he decided to go home immediately. Refusing to relive the nightmare of the Scenicruiser, however, he took a taxi that cost forty dollars.

The Police Precinct

Meanwhile, Mr. Robichaux has been taken to the police precinct and placed on the bench with other criminals. Next to him is a young black man, Burma Jones, who is wearing space-age sunglasses and smoking a cigarette. It appears that Jones was arrested more for his race than for any deed. While Jones had been standing in Woolsworth, someone had stolen some cashew nuts. A police officer had immediately grabbed and whisked Jones away, despite his protestations that he did not even like cashews.

Mr. Robichaux is called before the police sergeant, who indicates that Officer Mancuso has alleged that the old man resisted arrest and called him a communist. But the sergeant turns on Mancuso when he learns that Mr. Robichaux is a grandfather and that he was merely sticking up for a poor boy who was waiting for his momma. The sergeant states that Mancuso is "the only guy on the force" who would try to arrest a kid with his mother and a grandfather. The sergeant decides to teach Mancuso a lesson.

The Nazi Proprietress

Back at the Night of Joy, Ignatius has now told the Baton Rouge story four times. As he recounts it again, he attracts the attention of a B-Girl, Darlene. At the same time, Mrs. Reilly is making conversation with another bar patron, Dorian Greene, an elegantly dressed young man with a green velvet jacket, who is drinking daiquiris. Greene tells Mrs. Reilly that he trades in used clothing and buys her hat for fifteen dollars.

Suddenly, the door to the bar slams open and the proprietress, Lana Lee, enters. When she sees the Reillys, she is outraged that these "characters" have been allowed to loiter in her establishment. Lee views customers like Ignatius and his mother as the "kiss of death" for her investment. She berates her staff, Darlene in particular, for fraternizing with them, and she promptly throws the two out of her bar.

The Car Accident

Mrs. Reilly and Ignatius return to their 1946 Plymouth and attempt to leave. Mrs. Reilly, however, is having some trouble getting out of her parking spot, which is a situation made worse by Ignatius's comments coming from the backseat--he refuses to sit in the front, having read somewhere that the front is the most dangerous. Mrs. Reilly finally exits the parking space, but the car skids across the wet street and slams into the side of a building, causing an entire balcony to come crashing down onto the car.

Patrolman Mancuso just happens to be in the vicinty of the car when the accident occurs. He is now adorned in ballet tights and a yellow sweater. As punishment for arresting a grandfather and harrassing a boy and his mother, the sergeant has limited Mancuso's duties to "bringing in suspicious characters"--and now requires that he put on a costume and become a new character every day. After hearing the crash, he arrives on the scene and sees a green hunting cap emitting vomit.

Analysis

The reader learns a great deal about Ignatius Reilly in this chapter. First, we see that he is completely self-absorbed, thinking only of his own well being and never considering the interests of others. For example, when confronted with the prospect of jail, he has no qualms turning against a kindly old man who attempted to assist him. Similarly, when Mrs. Reilly asks to leave the bar because she is hungry, Ignatius pays no heed to her desire to eat, but instead he tells her that they cannot leave yet, since he is in the middle of talking to Darlene. By contrast, when they leave the bar and Ignatius decides that he is hungry, he expects his mother to stop right away and buy him a hot dog.

We also are introduced to Ignatius's insecurities in this opening chapter. Through his Baton Rouge story, we learn that Ignatius almost never leaves New Orleans. For him, the city is like a womb, offering warmth and protection from the outside world. His bedroom plays a similar role, later chapters reveal. So deep is his insecurity that his one venture out of the city makes his system completely reject the experience. Though he suffers unfortunate events, nothing that happened could be characterized as a catastrophe, yet Ignatius describes the trip as a nightmare, and he has used it as an excuse for remaining within the warm, safe womb of New Orleans.

Here we also learn two primary aspects of the relationship between Ignatius and Mrs. Reilly. First, Ignatius does not appreciate his mother and treats her very poorly. As noted above, he subordinates her hunger and comfort to his own desire to tell his Baton Rouge story to Darlene. Mrs. Reilly remarks to Darlene, "Oh, he treats me bad sometimes," and she says directly to Ignatius, "You don't appreciate me." Ignatius's mistreatment of his mother ultimately gets the Reillys thrown out of the bar. Dismayed by how poorly he treats Mrs. Reilly, Darlene calls Ignatius a crazy man and pushes him from his stool, sending him crashing into his mother--drawing the ire of Lana Lee. Second, Mrs. Reilly feels disgrace and disappointment about her son. She points out to the bar patrons that Ignatius spent much time getting a fancy education, yet he has failed to make anything of himself. In later chapters, Ignatius displays signs of depression, and the fact that his mother is constantly labeling him a disappointment and failure may be a source of these feelings.

One of the novel's themes--which relates to Mrs. Reilly's disappointment--is her son's critique of middle-class American values. Mrs. Reilly believes in the traditional notion of the "American Dream," which involves financial success and material comfort. Mrs. Reilly represents an extreme version of this dream, being obsessed with money (which is demonstrated in later chapters). Her dream is for Ignatius to hold down a stable job that brings in a respectable income. Ignatius, in contrast, flatly rejects this conception of success and loathes the emphasis on monetary wealth which he seems to identify with the entire American middle class. His view that new and expensive clothes are "offenses against taste and decency" reflects his contempt for consumerism and material comfort. Ignatius's "failure," as his mother terms it, is not due to his inability to work or earn money, but from his rejection of a focus on commerce as a good in itself. Like many in mainstream society, Mrs. Reilly is incapable of accepting her son's unique values. Because he does not measure up to the standard of success established by her slice of society, she labels him a failure and expresses her disappointment.

Race relations are introduced as another theme when Burma Jones, a young black man, is arrested and taken to the police precinct. Jones seems to have been arrested because he was black and at the scene of a crime. When the cashew nuts are stolen, the police simply grab the first black person they see, despite the lack of any evidence that he is the thief and despite the fact that he does not even like cashews. Inside the precinct, Jones tells Claude Robichaux (an elderly, white man) that Robichaux will probably go free, but Jones does not express the same confidence for his own prospects, and he speculates that they might buy a bag of cashews and slip them into his pocket to frame him.