Ignatius J. Reilly … Fine Line Between Genius and Insanity?


Ignatius J. Reilly

“When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.”

     — Jonathan Swift

John Kennedy Toole wrote his first novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces” in the 1960s, but it was not published until 1980, long after his suicide and then only through the determined efforts of his mother.

In a nutshell, “A Confederacy of Dunces” is an episodic story of Ignatius J. Reilly; a lazy, overweight, over-educated, paranoid, flatulent, obnoxious, 30-year-old man who dresses in an eccentric and slovenly manner and who still lives with his mother in a run-down house in a seedy neighborhood of New Orleans in the early 1960s.  A self-proclaimed intellectual, he is both obsessive and delusional in the eyes of those with whom he comes in contact.

     Not exactly the most appealing description is it?

And yet oddly, I found this novel to be one of the most enjoyable I have ever read.  This is particularly strange because all the characters are personally unappealing.  Yet, the tale they inhabit … the story itself … has an appeal that transcends their personal shortcomings.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, the novel has received high praise from every corner and has long since been declared a classic of American/Southern literature.  Still, the book sat on my bookshelf for a decade unopened, unappreciated,  … unread. 

     I’m not entirely sure why. 

I had meant to read it as soon as I got it ten years ago.  Maybe I procrastinated because the reviews on Amazon gave the perception that it was one of those very polarizing books … one of those “cult classics” that are extremely popular with a lot of people, but highly disliked by a significant proportion of other readers.

At any rate, I picked it up a couple of weeks ago and finally started reading.  I was enthralled.  Yet, as I finished the last page and put the book down, I was left in a rather disturbing quandary.

     Is the protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly a true genius?

Not being a genius myself, it was hard for me to tell. Most would agree that there is an extremely fine line between genius and insanity.

     Is Ignatius merely insane?

Once again, not being insane myself (hopefully) … it was hard for me to tell.

Either way, he certainly exhibits the characteristics usually associated with both ends of the spectrum.

Being unable to recognize or appreciate his true genius, but being particularly sensitive to his apparent psychosis, the wide variety of “dunces” that populate this story are most assuredly in league against Ignatius.  He may be paranoid, but they are indeed out to get him. 

     But, why??

          Is he exceedingly brilliant … or is he simply out of his mind?

The reader must decide. The author provides no real concrete guidance or substantive insight.

     Ignatius J. Reilly … is what he is.

True genius, or totally out of his mind, you will find yourself pulling for him, all the while knowing that you would not want to spend any significant amount of time around him.

Ignatius J. Reilly is at once, among the least likeable and yet one of the most interesting characters in all of modern literature.   His is simply unique.

“A Confederacy of Dunces” is indeed a true modern literary classic and the premature death of the author gives rise to another quandary. 

If he had lived, would the career of John Kennedy Toole have been prolific, productive and as timelessly popular as, say Mark Twain?  Or would he have been another JD Salinger … paralyzed by the success of his initial effort and forever unwilling, or unable to equal or surpass it?

Who knows?  After all, a quandary is defined as a state of uncertainty.

About Judson

Late bloomer ... aspiring writer and musician.
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18 Responses to Ignatius J. Reilly … Fine Line Between Genius and Insanity?

  1. Maggie says:

    I love when a book’s protagonist is a person you wouldn’t necessarily like in real life. I think I might try the book.

    • judson says:

      Maggie —

      Yes. If we only read about people we’d like in real life, we’d be pretty limited in our reading. I loved “The Godfather” … but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to hang with the Corleone family, LOL.

      — Judson

  2. nrhatch says:

    Glad that you found a new favorite hiding (in plain view) on your bookcase. 🙂

    Excellent review.

    • judson says:

      Nancy —

      I’m definitely having fun going back and reading stuff that I probably should have read years ago. This one wasn’t required in school, but it was so highly praised that I just had to give it a try.

      — Judson

  3. territerri says:

    It doesn’t sound like a book I would typically read, but I am definitely intrigued. Thanks for the review! I’m going to look that one up on my Nook!

    • judson says:

      Terri —

      I suppose that is the upside to “e-books” … you can take a look without a lot of investment of time or money. You might enjoy it, but this book is not for everybody. Many think its the best book written in years, while probably 30% thought it was terrible.

      — Judson

  4. I saw this book at Hastings yesterday and wanting it so badly! Curse the budget 😦 I couldn’t bring myself to let go of the Emerson I’d already chosen and couldn’t afford to buy both. It’s definitely on my list for next time, though! I’ll be sure to get back with a comment after I’ve read it.

    • Judson says:

      Kathy —

      Yes, please do let me know what you think when you get around to it. It’s a fascinating book. Thanks for stopping by!

      — Judson

  5. Pingback: Hey Elmer! « A Little Tour in Yellow

  6. Hey Man
    Thanks for the tip, I will be reading this book asap. One good tip deserves another, if you haven’t already read any Graham Greene, I recommend anything he’s written.
    But start with The Quiet American…

  7. Elishebabb says:

    I am in the middle of this book. I know someone almost exactly like Ignatius. I think the cause of this type of personality is a combination of being spoiled by one’s parents, selfishness, hedonism, lack of exercise, lack of religion, and an ego fueled by a value system based on formal education. Ignatius has no mercy on others and lies to receive their mercy. So, what do I do with my weird friend who I worry about? He is brilliant, mean, treacherous, sad. I am reminded of the saying..life is filled with cactus but you don’t have to sit on it. So why do I even bother with him?

    • Judson says:

      A quandry indeed … I can relate to your problem. As I mentioned, when I was reading the book I found myself pulling for Ignatius, all the while knowing that I would not want to spend any significant amount of time around him in real life.

  8. elishebabb says:

    Today I am thinking that I bother with him because brilliance is seductive and addictive – everyone else seems dull after you meet one of these minds.

  9. Sofia Rivera says:

    Hopefully the book is as fun and interesting read as your review- thanks!
    Also question: do you see any similarities between Ignatius and Don Quixote? Heard the comparison recently and was wondering.

    • Judson says:

      Sofia, thank you for visiting! … A parallel could certainly be drawn between Ignatius and Don Quixote … they both go through life tilting at their personal (thought largely imagined) windmills.

  10. Brette says:

    Confederacy of Dunces is my favorite book, which I’m reading for about the eighth time. It still makes me laugh. Thank goodness for Walker Percy, who recognized what a gem it was when other publishers didn’t. The Pulitzer committee also got it right. But even after Toole received the prestigious prize posthumously, the owner of Pushcart Press claimed that if he had it to do over again, he’d still reject the book. He should have been lashed until he dropped, Ignatius would have said. I would have loved to have seen a movie version with John Belushi.

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