A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces Themes

Modern Slavery

While legalized slavery was a thing of the past in the United States, African Americans in Toole's time and in the novel remained second class citizens, particularly in the South. The novel suggests that there has persisted a modern economic slavery. This theme is first introduced in the police precinct, where Burma Jones, a young black man, has been arrested for stealing cashew nuts. There does not seem to be any evidence linking Jones to the crime, and he states that he does not even like cashews. When he is released from jail, Jones must find employment or face the possibility of being taken back to prison on vagrancy charges (a common fate for African Americans in the American South during the Jim Crow era). As a result, he is left vulnerable to economic exploitation and is forced to take a job for well below the minimum wage. No matter how much abuse he suffers at the hand of his boss, he cannot escape his employment for fear of arrest.

Similarly, the Levy Pants factory, staffed entirely by African Americans, symbolizes the modern plantation. Upon entering the factory, Ignatius describes it as "mechanized Negro slavery; it represents the progress which the Negro has made from picking cotton to tailoring it."

The American Work Ethic

Traditional American values emphasize hard work and self-reliance, while Ignatius Reilly exemplifies a disposition against such an ethic. He is incredibly lazy and expects his mother to be at his beck and call. If not for the debt created by the car accident and Mrs. Reilly's insistence that he find a job, Ignatius would spend all his days lying in bed, recording his version of history on Big Chief tablets--or plopped in front of the television or movie screen. His contempt for a life of work contrasts sharply with the value that American society (particularly the American middle class, as well as others in the novel) has placed on it.

Ignatius's disposition also manifests itself as an assault on the American Dream of financial advancement and material comfort. These are precisely the goals of many characters in the novel. Mrs. Reilly is constantly obsessed with her debt and finding a way to pay it off. Further, she only consents to being set up with Claude Robichaux when she learns that he is financially comfortable and may provide a solution to her financial woes. Ignatius, by contrast, rejects all things commercial and places no value on climbing the economic ladder. When Jones tells him that he wants to find new employment and earn a living wage, Ignatius responds, "You people have all been brainwashed. I imagine that you'd like to become a success or something equally vile." The fact that Mr. Levy, the one character with true wealth and material comfort, leads a miserable existence, suggests that perhaps Ignatius has a valid reason for challenging the American work ethic if it is no longer grounded in the search for a greater good.


The concept of fate--that characters are powerless to control the circumstances of their lives, but instead are guided by some "external locus of control"--plays an important role throughout the story. Ignatius views his constant suffering (and occasional good fortune) as resulting not from any action for which he bears responsibility, but rather from the whim of a blind goddess, Fortuna, who decides whether to send Ignatius's wheel of fortune downward or upward.

Though he does not see himself as in control of his own fortune, Ignatius acts as an instrument of fate (and to some degree makes intentional actions) with regard to many of the other characters in the book. At the end of the novel, when the more deserving characters finally catch a break, their reversal of fortune is brought on by Ignatius. For example, his confrontation with the cockatoo (with the chaos that ensues) leads to Patrolman Mancuso finally receiving the respect and promotion he has worked so hard for, and it allows Jones to escape the plantation-like conditions of the Night of Joy and find real employment. Similarly, it is Ignatius's lie about who wrote the letter to Mr. Abelman that finally enables Miss Trixie to get her retirement and Mr. Levy to get leverage over his cruel wife. By the same token, it is Ignatius who brings about the inevitable downfall of the morally corrupt. Liz, Betty, and Frieda (who presented a physical danger to anyone in their path), as well as Lana and George (who were disseminating pornography to children), all end up in prison, thanks to Ignatius.