The Modern Grotesque Hero in John Kennedy Toole's, A Confederacy of Dunces

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The Modern Grotesque Hero in John Kennedy Toole's, A Confederacy of Dunces

John Kennedy Toole unleashes a compelling criticism of modern society in the principal work he produced in his short lifetime, A Confederacy of Dunces. Using masterfully crafted comedy, Toole actually strengthens his disparaging position on the modern world. Boisterously and unabashedly opinionated, Ignatius Reilly, the principal character of this novel, colors the narrative with a poignant humor that simultaneously evokes both laughter and pity from readers. Near the beginning of the story, his mother's financial difficulties suddenly force Ignatius to leave the womb-like security of his bedroom and seek employment, making him abandon his project of writing a
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A definition of grotesque becomes necessary to fully understand the role that it plays in heightening the novel's satire. In A Handbook to Literature, William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman describe grotesque as being "applied to anything having the qualities of grotesque art: bizarre, incongruous, ugly, unnatural, fantastic, abnormal...The interest in the grotesque is usually considered an outgrowth of interest in the irrational, distrust of any cosmic order, and frustration at humankind's lot in the universe" (240-41). Thus, the grotesque, because of its association with the helpless cynicism of man in his world, is an ideal technique to employ when embarking upon criticism of contemporary society.

However, to most successfully use the grotesque, especially in a humorous work such as Toole's, the author must present a norm from which to deviate, creating a more potent conflict between opposites. Michael Kline elaborates on this in his analysis of A Confederacy of Dunces: "...the grotesque cannot be absolute in order to produce humor. While it can be strange, it must also contrast with some attempted unity to which we compare its divergence" (284). Toole understands this rule of effective conflict, and he presents two disparate levels of grotesque in his A Confederacy of Dunces. A reader detects the incongruity that exists within Ignatius himself, while also identifying the more observable conflict between Ignatius and modern society.

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