Looking the Part: Performative Narration in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood and Katherine Mansfield's "Je Ne Pane Pas Francais"

By Henstra, Sarah | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Looking the Part: Performative Narration in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood and Katherine Mansfield's "Je Ne Pane Pas Francais"


Henstra, Sarah, Twentieth Century Literature


In the early part of the twentieth century Djuna Barnes and Katherine Mansfield each wrote a work whose Parisian setting and sexually ambivalent characters provide the backdrop for an inquiry into the convoluted mechanisms of desire and loss. Barnes's Nightwood, after an initial success boosted by T. S. Eliot's endorsement of the novel, was discussed marginally in terms of its stylistic innovation by critics until the mid-1980s, when feminist scholars rediscovered in it the thematic struggle to depict female homosexual desire. Mansfield's short story "Je Ne Parle Pas Francais," on the other hand, has been largely passed over by critics and anthologists in favor of her apparently more domestic, tranquil pieces concerned with childhood and family. Besides setting, what the two texts have in common is their peculiar spokesmen: Matthew Dante O'Connor and Raoul Duquette, self-styled guides to the Parisian underworld, whose exorbitant volubility and narcissism place them in a difficult relationship to the reader. C omparing these narrators raises critical questions about the elusive narrative gap between what a character says and what the text intends us to hear.

Recent readings of each work tend to agree that Matthew and Raoul are treated ironically by their authors, so that the narratives signify in opposition to their pronouncements by sharing a joke with the readers at the pair's expense. The "perversion" of the two speakers constructs them as parodic figures within works of early-feminist satire of male social authority and its various ruses. Critical consensus positions these male narrators as objects of ridicule or as examples of masculinity gone awry, against which the awakening feminine consciousness of the stories asserts itself. Pursuing Matthew and Raoul with an eye to their performative use of language, however, suggests the insufficiency of such ironic readings to account for the vexed interplay of mischief, exhilaration, discomfort, and sorrow mobilized in their utterances. Matthew and Raoul seem strangely alert to the staged or rehearsed quality of language in general and of their own identities in particular; the burden of this awareness places them at an unusual junction of narratorial trajectories. Barnes and Mansfield have created in Matthew and Raoul narrative voices that expose and challenge the social and discursive limits on the construction of the self. The role-playing and selfspecularity that characterize their narration can be seen as an instance of what I will call a mimesis of subjection: a dramatization at the textual level of the (ongoing) process by which we submit to cultural strictures on gendered and sexual behavior in order to establish ourselves as legitimate subjects in society. By acting out subjection and by gesturing to what must be disavowed or lost in the struggle for a stable subject status, these narrators provide Barnes and Mansfield with the narrative occasion for both a critique of the totalizing forces of social power and a creative vision for mobilizing that power differently.

Nightwood's labyrinthine topography of corruption, desire, and despair finds a fitting mouthpiece in Dr. Matthew Dante O'Connor: Irish-American expatriate, unlicensed gynecologist, indefatigable drunkard, transvestite, swindler, liar. The conventional thumbnail character sketch that introduces Matthew in the novel points to his proclivity for the limelight as his distinguishing feature: "He was taking the part of host, the Count not yet having made his appearance, and was telling of himself, for he considered himself the most amusing predicament" (14-15). While not overtly contradicting the doctor's opinion of himself, the ironic narrative parallax established here signals what will become the reader's primary dilemma regarding this character: how are we to interpret Matthew's self-centeredness? The doctor can hardly be called the novel's main character. The book is not about him but about Baron Felix Volkbein, who marries the enigmatic Robin Vote and is abandoned by her, and about Nora Flood, who has a lesb ian affair with Robin and is also abandoned by her. …

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Looking the Part: Performative Narration in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood and Katherine Mansfield's "Je Ne Pane Pas Francais"
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