(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)
Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Je Ne Parle Pas Français” is narrated by one Raoul Duquette, an aspiring French writer. Duquette is perhaps one of Mansfield’s most fascinating characters. He is the only first-person narrator that she ever used in any of her stories, making this story by far one of her most interesting.
An analysis of a first-person narrator should seem easy considering that he is the character through which we see the entire story. However, the reader’s knowledge is narrowed to only Duquette’s own perceptions. So, it is actually somewhat more difficult than it first would appear.
As the reader only sees the world through Duquette’s own interpretations, we must come to understand why he interprets the world in the way in which he does. In doing so, we may better understand his interactions with those in it. In the end, he is a man of many flaws and one who only ever really shares himself through his writing.
Raoul is very imaginative and very high on himself. As confident as Raoul is in his writing skills, and from his writing it is easy to see why, he is, in fact, a lonely man. Raoul describes himself as a true Parisian, born and raised. He says that he has no family and likes it that way. Raoul has forgotten his childhood completely, save the vivid memories of his family’s laundress. “Bury it under a laundry basket instead of a shower of roses and passon outré,” he writes of his past.
The only other detail which Raoul offers about his past is that he was “tiny for my age, and pale, with a lovely little half-open mouth – I feel sure of that.” From these vague details, it is plausible to believe that he was certainly not a favorite son. It also seems he had a fairly unhappy childhood.
Our narrator says that his life truly began as soon as he moved into his first apartment. Who he is now did not exist before that moment. “I date myself from the moment that I became the tenant of a small bachelor flat,” he declares. “There I emerged,” he writes importantly, “came out into the light and put out my two horns with a study and a bedroom and a kitchen on my back.”
For the first time in that apartment, Raoul found he was finally able to define himself. He would be an aspiring writer who would write a book to “stagger the critics.” His writing talents are certainly never in doubt, especially with the way he tells his own story. It seems that he has made somewhat of a decent living thanks to his talents. Yet, aside from his writing, he seems to have very little else happening in his life.
Raoul goes into quite a bit of detail about his appearance, likening himself to “a little woman in a café who has to introduce herself with a handful of photographs.” He blames this on his “submerged life.” He reveals himself to be a very imaginative and very sensitive man, as well as a romanticist. It is here that he makes it very evident that he is definitely a loner; he feels quite brilliant and important for his writing, but that is all.
Beyond that, Raoul simply drifts through life. His livelihood exists only in the exquisiteness of his works and within his own imagination. He is still, in a sense, the same little boy as which he began. But, he has learned to simply move on, and not live in the past. This practice has indeed helped him to create at least a solid literary career.
After his rather lengthy introduction, Raoul tells the story of what made the café at which he writes this story so special to him. It is about the first real friend he ever made. He orders whisky, even though he despises it, for the mere fact that he firmly believes he must to write about an Englishman. This Englishman, Dick Harmon, is his first real friend. Drinking his whisky rather disgustedly, but thoughtfully, Raoul writes about how he met Dick. They met at an editor’s party where Dick was the only Englishman, making him easily stand out. Raoul instantly found Dick absolutely fascinating.
When Raoul asks the host about him, he discovers that Dick is a writer himself, making a special study of modern French literature. By chance, Raoul just happened to be a “young, serious writer who was making a special study of modern English literature.” Upon learning this, it was Dick, apparently already aware of him, that as Raoul put it “made the first advances.”
It is curious how Raoul seems to refer to Dick not as a buddy and more as a sort of romantic interest. Then again, considering the evidently hermitic nature of Raoul’s existence, it is wholly unfair to blame him for feeling otherwise. Anyhow, the two instantly became fast friends, having very much in common with their profession and favorite topics of conversation.
When the two meet for dinner, Raoul reveals things about himself to Dick no one else knew. These presumably include things he does not even tell the reader, and Dick becomes his confidant. Whether Dick really takes much of what Raoul’s sense is anyone’s guess. They were both rather drunk at the time, by Raoul’s admission. But it is still a huge deal for Raoul because he had never found anyone else who he was so comfortable in being with.
As Dick leaves in a rush for England to take care of some important business, Raoul feels insulted Dick did not inform him sooner. After receiving Dick’s letter a couple days later, he doesn’t get another letter until many months later. By that time, Raoul has almost forgotten all about Dick, consistent with his “rule of not looking back.” Before he meets Dick and his lady friend, Mouse, Raoul practices a part in front of his mirror. This is to make himself out to be much more successful than he really is.
When he meets Mouse, for the first time in his life, he finds himself truly fascinated with a woman. It is a sad ending to the entire deal, after what happens between her and Dick. Although it seems entirely possible that Raoul and Mouse could have continued their relationship, the extreme awkwardness of the situation made him never go near their lodgings ever again. For all that he has consistently done to leave the past behind, he can never stop thinking of Mouse.
When Raoul sees the phrase “Je ne parle pas Français” inscribed in green ink on the bottom of an otherwise pedestrian piece of paper, he is overtaken by the echo of the memory of his first true love telling him those exact same words. It is a sad story, and one is left to wonder what will become of poor old Raoul. Will he ever be able to just move on like he has so many times before?
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