The 1980 Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces is not just a litmus test for finding friends (if you don’t like this book, then we will never be bosom buddies). It’s also a cautionary tale of a seriously bad reader.
John Kennedy Toole’s novel is so funny that most people just enjoy the ride, not thinking too deeply about the experience of the story. In January 2021, when Tom Bissell reconsidered the book in our time, he demonstrated that it is not merely what you read that matters but how you read. While Bissell was clever enough to celebrate the novel’s fortieth anniversary, he missed the point of the book. Although he lamented the vices of the book’s protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, Bissell still views him as a “hero.”
In truth, Reilly is no more a hero than Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. The two are notoriously bad readers of good literature who exercise their freedom to the detriment of other people’s. Their stories are not meant to be exemplary. Instead, they warn us against our penchant for misreading good books.
Ignatius J. Reilly
Reilly thinks of himself as a modern philosopher, a theologian but without that distracting reverence for an Almighty Deity. He’s offensive, revolting, and cyclically destructive. Walker Percy, the novelist who made outsider heroes famous, introduces Reilly in a foreword to the novel: “Here at any rate is Ignatius J. Reilly, without progenitor in any literature I know of—slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one—who is in violent revolt against the modern age.” Although he asserts that Reilly is “without progenitor,” the character reminds Percy of so many predecessors. That’s fitting, since Reilly draws inordinately and incoherently on the texts that he’s read, creating himself in the mold of his fragmented literary inheritance, which includes Consolation of Philosophy, Don Quixote, Gargantua, Henry IV, Gulliver’s Travels, Joseph Andrews, Tristram Shandy, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Gone with the Wind.
Such a list of great books may lead us to believe that here we have a hero formed by the tradition. In reality, Reilly has been malformed by his reading. If you ever wondered how people who received a great books education could become bad, here’s your example. Reilly does not read from a position of piety or humility. Instead, he resembles the Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in his ability to sift through texts and choose what he wants from them. As the Wife of Bath says at the beginning of her prologue, “Experience, though no written authority in this world, is good enough for me.” She denounces the authority of the text for her own interpretation, twisting Scripture passages to fit her desires. Thus, Solomon, with his many wives, becomes the ideal, rather than the pre-lapsarian couple Adam and Eve, and the Samaritan woman at the well needs no forgiveness from the Wife of Bath. Reilly takes the same stance, blatantly misusing what he reads.
Following the first chapter, where Toole introduces the majority of his characters, chapter two begins with Reilly lying in bed in a flannel nightshirt, surrounded by dozens of tablets of yellowed pages, “contemplating the unfortunate turn that events had taken since the Reformation.” Like Alonso Quixano, who becomes the self-fashioned Don Quixote, Reilly appears to the reader shut off from the rest of the world, poring over literature so much that it overtakes his mind. Cervantes writes of Quixano: “He filled himself with the imagination of all that he read in the books. . . . And so assured was he of the truth of all that mass of fantastic invention of which he read that for him there was no other history in the world so certain.” Not unlike the quarrels and battles of Quixano’s knights-errant, Reilly’s reading places a particular lens over reality, through which he sees the indulgences and consumerism of American culture.
The Wheel of Fortune
After denouncing his society, Reilly reflects on his recent encounter with the law. Patrolman Mancuso had attempted to arrest him while he waited outside the department store for his mother. Reilly interprets this moment as a signal of ill fortune approaching: “there appeared winds of change which spelled evil days ahead. An ill wind blows no one good. . . . Fortuna’s wheel had turned on humanity.” Throughout the book, Reilly repeatedly references the goddess Fortuna, “a central concept in [Boethius’s] De Consolatione Philosophiae.” Reilly worries that the attempt to arrest him indicates a turning downward of Fortune’s wheel, and he begins to pray: “Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel.” Unfortunately, Reilly misreads the wheel of fortune episode, interpreting it apart from the rest of the text and dismissing the conclusions of Boethius. As a result, Reilly’s response to Consolation of Philosophy leads not to contemplation and virtue but to poor choices and ignoble actions.
Despite Reilly’s protests that he cares little for worldly definitions of success, he visualizes himself—at the start of the novel—atop the wheel. The top of the wheel is the place where one possesses all earthly goods: fame, money, reputation, power, and so forth. In medieval depictions, on the top of the wheel sits a happy king. However, Toole introduces Reilly to readers as living at home with his mother, gorging on jelly donuts, unable to pay bills, jobless, and criticized by everyone with whom he interacts. Much of the comedic effect stems from this dramatic dissonance between Reilly’s self-perception and reality. More significantly, the misapplication of Boethius’s text reveals Reilly’s inability to read rightly.
As Reilly laments his fate, scribbling poetic letters to leave to posterity and masturbating over the memory of his dead dog Rex, he envisions himself as “strapped” to Fortune’s wheel, which propels him inevitably downwards. This, too, is a misreading of Boethius’s philosophy. Reilly assumes a determined fate, whereas Boethius and Lady Philosophy argue about the relationship between free will and fortune. When Lady Philosophy descends, she diagnoses Boethius as sick because he has “forgotten [his] true nature” as something “more” than a “rational and mortal animal.” In contrast to this vision of a determined world where “ups and downs of fortune happen haphazardly,” Lady Philosophy argues that Fortune is not in control; the Triune God is.
Any attentive reading of Consolation of Philosophy recognizes that Lady Philosophy rejects Fortuna and leads Boethius away from her seduction. She regards Fortuna as a “monster” who is unjust and deceptive. When the wheel is described, the transcendent guide mocks Fortuna with negative adjectives:
With domineering hand she moves the turning wheel . . .
Her ruthless will has just deposed once fearful kings . . .
But steely hearted laughs at groans her deeds have wrung. . . . [emphasis added]
Now that Boethius finds himself thrown down by Fortune, he should see her random, changing nature. However, Reilly does not view Fortuna in adversarial terms, but calls her “divinity.” By praising her as such, Reilly muddles the purpose of Consolation.
Transformation Comes Through Dialogue
What should strike readers is the dialogic nature of Consolation of Philosophy, which contrasts with Reilly’s monologic response to reading, writing, and living. Like a female Socrates, Lady Philosophy asks Boethius questions and challenges his assumptions. She provides a second voice in conversation with Boethius. In this way, she exposes his erroneous ways of thinking and leads to his transformation.
At the start of Consolation, Boethius believes in Fortuna and her wheel. However, Lady Philosophy diagnoses him: “you are suffering because of your misguided belief, and you can’t blame events for that.” If only there were a Lady Philosophy to instruct Reilly, who blames Fortuna for everything.
The day after his near-arrest, Reilly reclines in a movie theater and thinks:
When Fortuna spins you downward, go out to a movie and get more out of life. Ignatius was about to say this to himself; then he remembered that he went to the movies almost every night, no matter which way Fortuna was spinning.
This pause by Reilly is one of the few moments in the book when he stops himself from thinking poorly. Still, Reilly does not change his behavior. He does not ponder the idea long enough to recognize how it should affect his life choices. After reading the entire novel, however, we comprehend that Fortuna does not “save” or “crush” Reilly. He has been responsible for his own falls.
As readers, we should discern, via negativa, how not to read Boethius—or our own fortunes. The trick of A Confederacy of Dunces is that it draws you into the story with its comedy without ever requiring you to assess the disjointedness of Reilly’s way of reading the world. Without ever stepping back and intellectualizing the problem, you learn how not to read by experiencing Reilly’s inept ways of reading and living (all while hopefully laughing aloud).
To Read Well
We learn that to read well, we should read conversationally. We should engage the book in our hands as we would converse with someone at a coffee shop; we listen to his or her ideas with attention, then we respond. We cannot receive any gifts of wisdom or beauty from a text if we approach it with closed hearts and minds, if we assume the author has nothing to teach us, if we refuse to ask questions of what we read. Questions stem from a place of humility and generosity, where the listener respects the potential of the interlocutor to add to the conversation. If, instead, we filter out from the book any ideas that do not match our own, we will misread the work.
When I look back on my reading experience of the novel—having read it a few times over the years—I liken it most to the Hebrew book Ecclesiastes. The biblical book is meant to be a compilation of wisdom. The author calls himself Qohelet, Assembler or Philosopher, depending on your translation, just as Reilly fashions himself. Yet, in Ecclesiastes, many of the philosophies refute one another, and as the author tries in vain to live according to each of them, he discovers that all seem “Meaningless, utterly meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:1, NIV). A more literal translation would be: “Gaseous, utterly gaseous.”
Like the windy emissions of Reilly, who belches grotesquely throughout the novel, such philosophical statements are nothing more than exhaled gas. To live piecemeal according to whatever piece of wisdom suits your fancy at the moment is meaningless. Reilly fails to see this, dissecting and reassembling what he reads, pridefully adhering to a closed system of his own creation. Such a way of reading leads him to poor choices and a comically semi-tragic conclusion.
From A Confederacy of Dunces, we learn that how we read matters just as much as what we read. There must be a coherent narrative, as the writer of Ecclesiastes eventually concludes. Only an eternal, authoritative grand story can be worth living for.
This piece has been adapted from the chapter “The Literary Foolishness of Ignatius Reilly” originally published in Theology and Geometry: Essays on John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, edited by Leslie Marsh (Lexington Books 2020).