A pivotal story in Katherine Mansfield’s career, “Je ne parle pas français” is also a key modernist short story. The piece was composed over two weeks in the last year of World War I, at the time when Mansfield was developing the fatal stages of the tuberculosis that would kill her. She wrote to her husband John Middleton Murry that the story was a “cry against corruption” (1951, 149), and it reveals a more cynical, more cruel view of human personality than her earlier stories. It is also the first story told in a persona not her own. “Je ne parle pas français” was originally published privately by Murry’s Heron Press; early reviews noted a similarity to the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, particularly to Notes from Underground. The story was included in the 1920 collection Bliss, published by Constable, but only after Mansfield agreed to cut several passages consisting of explicit sexual material. Bliss as a collection received generally positive reviews, and “Je ne parle pas français” garnered quite a bit of attention for its amoral narrator and frank subject matter.
The story is told from the point of view of Raoul Duquette, who describes himself as “twenty-six years old and a Parisian, a true Parisian.” Raoul is a writer whose book titles (False Coins, Wrong Doors, Left Umbrellas) reveal the emptiness of his being and the deceptiveness of his nature. He claims he has no memories of childhood save one: a sexual encounter with an African laundress (one of the suppressed passages). Raoul traces his own adult sexual deviance—he is promiscuous and irresistible to women, probably bisexual, a sometime prostitute and procurer—to this incident. He maintains that people have no soul: “I don’t believe in the human soul. I never have. I believe that people are like portmanteaux—packed with certain things, started going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever, until finally the Ultimate Porter swings them on to the Ultimate Train and away they rattle.” These themes of deviance, of emptiness, permeate the whole text. Raoul’s reflections on the nature of human experience and personality, especially when he sees the sentence Je ne parle pas français on some blotting paper in the café, bring Raoul to recollections of his friend, an English writer named Dick Harmon with whom he was infatuated. They spent a great deal of time together when Dick was first in Paris, making a study of French literature. Raoul was insulted when Dick suddenly had to return to England, but agreed to help him find rooms some time later when the Englishman came back to Paris, this time with a beautiful young woman named Mouse. It is Mouse’s line “Je ne parle pas français” that gives the story its title and haunts Raoul; it is what she says to him upon meeting him and her final words to him the last time he sees her. A few hours after their arrival in Paris, Dick abandons her, ostensibly to return to his mother. Raoul promises to come back again to see Mouse and make sure she is all right, but he never does.
In the creation of the narrator Raoul, Mansfield establishes a character who is entirely artificial, who sees himself as a literary creation and the world around him as text. He is an unreliable narrator, a figure who illustrates Mansfield’s ideas about the tenuousness of the self and the impossibility of taking action and representing experience. This was a wholly new direction for her as a writer, resulting in her first truly modernist story. According to her letters, the tension between Frenchness and Englishness is also crucial, a tension that characterizes modernism as a whole as the text moves between symbolism and a self-conscious irony in regarding those symbols. Everything about Raoul, including his Frenchness, is in some sense a self-reflective creation. Finally, the representation of sex— including Raoul’s purported homosexuality—is quite daring, and Mansfield uses it to contribute to the ambiguity that surrounds him and his actions in the story.
Little critical attention was paid to this story for many years, as critics were not entirely certain how it fit into the Mansfield canon; it seemed a radical departure from what earlier critics called her “lyrical,” “delicate,” or “feminine” style. In recent years, however, the story’s engagement with homosexuality and desire, as well as its blurring of boundaries between masculinity and femininity, have made it a much-discussed text.
Dunbar, Pamela. Radical Mansfield: Double Discourse in Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.
Henstra, Sarah. “Looking the Part: Performative Narration in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Je ne parle pas français,’ ” Twentieth-Century Literature 46, no. 2 (2000): 125–149.
Mansfield, Katherine. Letters to John Middleton Murry. New York: Knopf, 1951.
———. Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield. 1937. Edited and with an introduction by John Middleton Murry. New York: Knopf, 1967.
Meisel, Perry. “What the Reader Knows; or, The French One.” In Katherine Mansfield: In from the Margin, edited by Roger Robinson, 112–118.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.