A Confederacy Of Dunces: Setting
A Confederacy Of Dunces is a picaresque novel by American novelist John Kenedy Toole. Now a cult classic, the book focuses around the protagonist, Ignatius Jacques Reilly, an educated but slothful 30-year old man living with his mother in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. Considered a canonical work of Modern literature, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981; 12 years after the author’s suicide. In the following paragraphs, I will begin to enlighten the reader with valuable insights to the story, specifically highlighting the importance of the setting in relation to the composition and structure of the plot.
A Confederacy Of Dunces, as mentioned before, is set in mid-19th century New Orleans, a time for which colored equality was slowly emerging within society. The setting, while some might argue lacks much importance in the book, plays a key role in the characteristics of key figures in the story.
A key element of the setting, the city, allows Toole to really begin to develop and form his characters, each with a distinct New Orleans accent. 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. The setting’s influence on the character’s accent can best be exemplified through Mrs. Reilly, the mother of Ignatius. Mrs. Reilly’s accent is often considered a particularly accurate representation of Yat, and displays yet another reason why the book is considered a quintessential novel of New Orleans.
An example of the speech utilized by Mrs. Reilly:
“What you trying to do my poor child? […] You got plenty business picking on poor chirren with all the kind of people they got running in this town. Waiting for his momma and they try to arrest him.” (Toole, 3)
The setting also allows for connections to be made within the book, so as to explain and simplify the plot to the reader. The book makes multiple references to popular location in New Orleans, such as Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, the D.H. Holmes Department Store, and utilizes actions within these locations to provide a broad explanation of the city’s vast history.
For example, in The Night of Joy, a failing bar frequented by Ignatius, an act by bartender Darlene provides an extremely broad parody of the pre-Slavery plantation culture that was part of New Orleans’ regional history. Toole’s clever usage of setting also allows to better help the reader understand the realistic fiction element of the story. The first scene of the novel is set outside the D.H. Holmes Department Store; a real New Orleans landmark at the time. Standing by the department store, Ignatius saw the sun set “at the foot of Canal Street” (Toole, 5).
As logical and realistic as this may seem, the sun can’t set at the foot of Canal Street, because the Mississippi is to the southeast when facing the direction of the Canal Street. 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, that A Confederacy Of Dunces twists and curves somewhat like the Mississippi, and like New Orleans itself.
Another important element of any story’s setting is how it affects the mood. New Orleans is an extremely culturally diverse city with both French and Spanish influences, known for its attractive and vivid nightlife. In a way, the city itself is an almost perfect representation of any tragicomedy; essentially finding joy in misery (Represented by the vivid lights in the night). It helps piece the story together and create in short of the greatest comedic stories of all time; an inexplicable work of genius.