Study Guide

A Confederacy of Dunces Setting

By John Kennedy Toole

Setting

New Orleans, Circa 1963

Some novels could be set anywhere, but not this one. There's only one city fat enough and lumbering enough and mottled enough to hold Ignatius—and that's New Orleans.

A Confederacy of Dunces is often cited as one of the quintessential novels of New Orleans. The book is set entirely in the city (because Ignatius won't go anywhere else), and it makes extensive use of New Orleans's location, culture, and street life.

New Orleans is a culturally unique city with a strong French influence. The mixture of French speakers and southern English has resulted in a distinctive dialect known as Yat among some of the city's residents. Yat is sort of a vicious New Jersey accent—a nasal intonation that can slice through paint and leave strong philologists weeping in their chalk. Irene Reilly's accent is often cited as a particularly accurate rendition of Yat:

"What you trying to do my poor child? […] You got plenty business picking on poor children with all the kind of people they got running in this town. Waiting for his momma and they try to arrest him." (1.52)

It's a very distinctive mode of speaking, right? But the novel doesn't just use New Orleans for its dialect; it uses the city in many ways. For instance, the Night of Joy is located on Bourbon Street, which is the location of many real life bars and strip clubs, and Darlene's act is a (very) broad parody of the pre-Slavery plantation culture that was part of New Orleans' regional history.

Dorian Greene's party and his friends are part of a long tradition of homosexual culture in the French Quarter. New Orleans's tradition of Catholicism is referenced in numerous ways as well—like, for example, when Mrs. Reilly remembers Ignatius collapsing elaborately during mass in the middle of a sermon on sloth (1.87).

For one final example of the role the city plays in this book, the first scene of the novel is set outside the D.H. Holmes department store—a real New Orleans landmark of the time. Standing by the department store, Ignatius sees the sun set "at the foot of Canal Street" (1.2). Makes sense, right?

Wrong. The sun can't set at the foot of Canal Street, because the Mississippi is to the southeast when you're facing that way. However, the land across the river is known as the West Bank even though the curving of the river means that it is actually to the east. Thus, the novel uses a close knowledge of the city to make an elaborate in-joke—and to show that the novel's world and the real world are not quite the same. Rather, A Confederacy of Dunces twists and curves somewhat like the Mississippi—and like New Orleans itself.