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Mother-Son Conflict in Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces


John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces unveils diverse issues people encounter in their lives. These problems include but are not confined to relationships with others, ways to fit in the community, and attempts to realize oneself and satisfy one’s needs. At that, family issues, or rather the relationship between the mother and the son, are at the core of the entire story. Toole shows the hardships and sad outcomes of life under one roof of Ignatius and his mother that are deeply rooted in unmet expectations and self-centeredness, turning to narcissism at times.

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Disturbing Relationships

The Son’s Cruelty

The author sheds light on the nature of the disturbing relationships between the son and the mother from the very first pages of the book, which makes this toxic link central to the story. Ignatius runs at accusing his mother of his own mistakes or vices, and this is apparent in the first scene. The protagonist is wearing posh but uncomfortable clothes, making him feel miserable. However, instead of reflecting on his choice of shoes, the man is “polishing a few carefully worded accusations designed to reduce his mother to repentance or, at least, confusion” (Toole 2). It becomes clear that the son does not show much affection to his mother and, vice versa, he finds pleasure in humiliating her and making her suffer quite often. Ignatius does not lose any chance to accuse his mother of any unpleasant events in his life.

The Loving Mother

At the same time, his mother is ready to save her child, even though the child is already a thirty-year-old man, from any negative influences of the world. The mother saves Ignatius from the police officer, and she seems to support her boy even when he indulges himself and avoids accepting appropriate job offers. The mother expresses her dissatisfaction with her son when she talks to other people, but she does it gently, showing her love. When talking to bartenders, her friends, the patrolman, or her potential husband, she expresses her grief about her son’s bad habits and qualities, but she still tries to be a caring mother.

She can also tell him that he is cruel to her and that she is not going to support him financially anymore. Nevertheless, Mrs. Reilly is always the loving mother, while Ignatius is always a spoiled grown-up child despising everyone, including his mother. These kinds of attitudes that are displayed at the beginning of the story remain unchanged up to the end of the book.

Unmet Expectations and Beliefs

The Mother

The background for such toxic relationships between the mother and the son is, at least partially, the two people’s unmet expectations and beliefs. Mrs. Reilly, just like any mother, wants her son to become a successful person. In her case, the woman concentrates on financial success with quite little attention to the exact source of wealth. Her dear son has failed to meet her expectation as he lives in her house although he is thirty years old.

Even when he is forced to get a job, he earns little money, and his job is far from prestigious. The woman invested in her son’s education as she thought that “chirren was supposed to comfort you in your old age” (Toole 203). Instead of having a decent job and helping his mother, Ignatius is trying to evoke social unrest in his community and cause a lot of trouble.

Mrs. Reilly’s beliefs also contribute to her dissatisfaction with her son. The woman is affected by the craze over Communism and spies (that existed in the United States after the Second World War). The woman is afraid of Communist ideas that are threatening the essence of the American Dream and American life. She suspects that her son is a Communist, which is seen as the most horrible sin.

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The Son

Ignatius, in his turn, also has unmet expectations related to his mother. At this point, it is necessary to note that the man has unmet expectations regarding his own life and can hardly accept reality. He cannot land a good job, which is perceived as the inability of others to acknowledge his potential. He cannot develop proper relationships with women, and Ignatius simply finds them all fools and unworthy creatures.

As far as Mrs. Reilly is concerned, Ignatius truly believes he cares about her and does everything a good son would do. The man thinks he helps the woman to address her alcohol addiction, which is quite an exaggerated diagnosis he makes. In his journal writings, Ignatius concludes that his “dear mother’s increasing unpleasantness” causes him a lot of discomfort because of “a truism of human nature, that people learn to hate those who help them” (Toole 232). The man perceives all his mother’s remarks and utterances as a way to make him feel worse.

Ignatius also has beliefs that oppose his mother’s values. He is not concerned about pursuing the American Dream, which seems to be Mrs. Reilly’s core value. The man is trying to become a star of a social movement with little real attention to different groups’ needs. The man is eager to confront society, while the woman is afraid of possible scandals and the ones her son is causing.

The Conflict

The reason for the conflict between the mother and the son lies in the fact that the son finds his mother’s beliefs naïve and old-fashioned, while his mother is afraid of her son’s ideas. The two do not understand each other as they have two different perspectives of the world. Moral milestones and ethical norms the two close people have are also quite opposing, which becomes the ground for the conflict. Of course, this situation is quite an ordinary generation gap, but the main characters of the story are unable to properly deal with it, which leads to a conflict that cannot be resolved.

Self-Confidence and Narcissism

The Son

Finally, the confidence or even narcissism of Ignatius and his mother is another cause of the conflict. Both of them focus on their selves and their needs while paying little attention to others. Ignatius believes he is a genius who cannot be properly understood and appraised by his contemporaries. He finds the world around him decadent and corrupt and chooses to emphasize his superiority instead of reflecting on his real potential and achievements.

Notably, Mrs. Reilly is regarded as part of the decadent world and a person of quite limited intellectual potential. From the very first pages of the book, the author shows the way Ignatius manifested his superiority when treating his mother. The son “often had to keep her in her place” (Toole 2). He is narcissistic enough to establish a place for his mother where she belongs.

The Mother

It is not quite surprising that the mother is as narcissistic as her son is, which seems a hereditary trait in their family. Mrs. Reilly shows affection and does care for her boy, but, to a larger extent, she wants to evoke empathy in others. She wants to seem the best mother in the world, making her boy seem quite a disaster (which is not far from being the truth). She invests in her son’s future by paying for his education, expecting him to care about her in her older years.

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Mrs. Reilly is thinking about the scandals her son may cause and the disgrace that can fall upon her. The major trouble is her reputation rather than the well-being of her darling boy. Her narcissism is best exhibited when she decides to institutionalize her son for attitudes and behaviors that can hardly be fully seen as being caused by a mental health disorder.


In conclusion, it is necessary to stress that Toole managed to create a story that unveiled many important issues that have existed in American society on interpersonal and social levels. Ignatius and his mother illustrate the toxic relationships between family members deeply rooted in these people’s beliefs and traits of the character. Unmet expectations and dissatisfaction with their lives place the son and the mother into a constant conflict. Instead of truly supporting each other and helping to come to terms with the reality, Ignatius and Mrs. Reilly are too concerned about their needs and wants.

Work Cited

Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces: A Novel. LSU Press, 2014.

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