In “Confederacy of Dunces,” an excellent novel, protagonist Ignatius Reilly appears to have it in for the entire world. He probably does. Nonetheless, included in that inventory of the entire world is his mother – a woman hopelessly preoccupied with her only child.
Eventually the 1980 novel exposes a remarkable thing: the world’s ability to donate a niche for Ignatius – a rude, hunting cap-wearing behemoth whose four-syllable words of aggressive political rhetoric occur as often as his flatulence, which comes in the forms of belching and farting in public places. It’s no wonder he seems to have turned on his widowed mother, who’s allowed him to live with her years after funding his master’s degree with money left by his late father, victim of a fan belt accident.
By most standards, the 30-year-old Ignatius should have had mercy on his elderly mother, or at least show shreds of appreciation for her continuing to support his unemployed hind end. He doesn’t – no one ever knows why – and the unique mother-son relationship contributes a significant comedic element placed regularly in otherwise bland portions of the book. It’s as if the author, John Kennedy Toole, had this ingredient to use at his disposal.
Ignatius’ particularly particular issue with his mother seems to be the mere fact that she exists.
Mrs. Reilly stood in the hall looking at the DO NOT DISTURB sign printed on a sheet of Big Chief paper and stuck to the door by an old flesh-colored Band-Aid.
“Ignatius, let me in there, boy,” she screamed.
“Let you in here?” Ignatius said through the door. “Of course I won’t. I am occupied at the moment with an especially succinct passage.”
“You let me in.”
Mrs. Reilly pounded at the door.
“I don’t know what is happening to you, Mother, but I suspect that you are momentarily deranged. Now that I think of it, I am too frightened to open the door. You may have a knife or a broken wine bottle.”
“Open up this door, Ignatius!”
“Oh, my valve! It’s closing!” Ignatius groaned loudly. “Are you satisfied now that you have ruined me for the rest of the evening?”
Mrs. Reilly threw herself against the unpainted wood.
“Well, don’t break the door,” he said finally and, after a few moments, the door slid open.
Ignatius’ relationship with his mother is a painfully honest reflection of natural psyche. Mothers tend to be overly protective of their sons, sometimes to a fault, especially when they have only one. Mrs. Reilly’s problem is she continues to view her boy as a child and supports him accordingly, as she probably did when he was 8. Ignatius, meanwhile, wants to be left to his own life of sporadic employment and idealism, however unproductive it is according to society’s standards. Their association resembles two positively-charged magnets; neither side can flourish until it learns to complement the other.
Trouble is, neither Ignatius nor his mother has a desire to change. Ignatius, preoccupied with his own ambitions, which go no further than becoming a sort of philosopher who’s talked about long after he’s dead, has never learned the value of human relationships in general or what’s required to maintain a spectrum of them. Mrs. Reilly has a destructively narrow definition of “making good” for one’s self. When her son shows little progress in “making good” according to her definition, she becomes more distraught and gradually loses even more hold on Ignatius, who internally dissociates himself from his mother to a greater degree each day. The relationship becomes a mess, really.
There is no loser at the end of the story. Ignatius “makes good” in his own way. It took a dangerous while, and the journey was unforeseeable, humiliating and sociologically treacherous at times, but Ignatius finds love in a wealthy adversary from college, which the reader is left to assume permits him to finally take the next step in his life. It’s a tale of persistence, as reuniting with this woman had been Ignatius’ unmentioned goal since they parted.
And to Ignatius’ surprise, vocalized disdain and moderate disappointment, his mother abandons her son’s captivity and re-marries. She made it clear she was liberating herself. While the book ends without offering proof, one can also reasonably assume she would be happy to hear Ignatius met up with his love.
One can even assume Mrs. Reilly would say her son, finally, “made good.”