25 James Baldwin: Giovanni’s Room

Mr. Kiran Keshavamurthy

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James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room is a layered portrayal of social alienation. With a minimal plot, the novel’s significance lies in its poignant representation of class, race and sexuality, at a time when poor immigrants and homosexuals were persecuted. Like some of Baldwin’s other novels and essays, Giovanni’s Room dramatizes the social and psychological pressures that inhibit its characters’ quest for (self) acceptance. This quest as we shall presently see, ends tragically with the impending death of Giovanni, the eponymous protagonist.


The Author: James Baldwin (1924-1987)


James Baldwin’s mother divorced his father, a drug addict, when he was an infant, and moved to Harlem in Manhattan, New York. There she married a preacher named David Baldwin. The family was very poor and Baldwin, being the eldest, spent much of his childhood caring for his several younger siblings. Baldwin’s essays suggest his adoptive father was particularly harsh towards him and his brothers and sisters. His stepfather’s death in 1943 coincided with Baldwin’s nineteenth birthday, the birth of his father’s last child, and the Harlem Riot of 1943. The title essay of Baldwin’s collection of essays, “Notes of a Native Son” opens with this date. The date bears significance in Baldwin’s writings as it marks the beginning of his quest for a sense of self, free of social and familial ties.


Baldwin’s completed his schooling in Harlem but he was never happy in school, as it was a space of racial segregation and hostility towards blacks. When still in his teens, he attended meetings of the Pentecostal Church and even converted. He later renounced Christianity and believed the reason for his conversion was to seek remedies for his personal crises. He realized Christianity only perpetuated racial slavery by tolerating oppression in the promise of an afterlife. His vision of religion however still loomed large in his writings.


It was Baldwin’s experience of discrimination as a black gay man in Harlem that compelled him to leave the United States at the age of twenty-four and settle down in Paris, France. His flight had to do not just with racism but his desire to write beyond his African-American context. His first novel, a semi-autobiographical one, Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953) described his early years as a preacher in Harlem that anticipated more works on the African-American experience. His second novel Giovanni’s Room however, suggested Baldwin’s resistance to being labeled as a black American writer, for all its characters were white immigrants facing a very different form of racial and class oppression in France. Baldwin who spent most of his writing career in Paris, asked his publisher to burn the manuscript anxious of losing his reputation as a writer. But the manuscript was not burned and the novel was surprisingly well received by sympathetic critics and reviewers. It now features among some of the best gay and lesbian novels of the twentieth century.


His later novels, Another Country, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone and his long essay The Fire Next Time, dealt with black and white characters, sexuality and the turbulent years of the 1960s. Baldwin became a known spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement and toured the American South in 1963 and interviewed black families who were most affected by racial segregation and oppression. Some of his other writings focused on the uneasy relationship between Christianity and the growing Black Muslim movement headed by Malcolm X. His emphasis on love and understanding were not well received by black nationalists who questioned the political potential of love in changing race relations. His book-length essay No Name in the Street discussed his  experience of the 1960s including the assassinations of three of his friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. His forthright discussions of homophobia and homosexuality in his essays from the 1970s and 1980s also made Baldwin an inspirational figure for the emerging gay rights movement. Baldwin’s acknowledgment of his sexuality strained his relationship with the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.


Baldwin’s most productive period was in the 1970s and 80s soon after he moved to Saint-Paul de Vence, a village in southern France in 1970. It is here that Baldwin hosted many of his friends including Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, singer and pianist Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, the black writer Richard Wright, Huey P Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Jean Paul Sartre, Jean Genet and so on. Baldwin died of cancer on December 1st, 1987.




David: The first-person narrator of the novel, David is a young man who has moved from New York to Paris, France. He has a girlfriend named Hella and in her absence has a sensuous relationship with Giovanni, an Italian bartender.


Hella: Hella is an American woman who meets David on a trip to France. She travels to Spain to contemplate David’s marriage proposal, returns and agrees to marry him. But she abandons him  when she discovers his homosexuality and returns to America.


Giovanni: Giovanni is a poor Italian bartender who falls in love with David. Although he knows his relationship with David is foredoomed by Hella’s return, he is unable to bear the prospect of losing David. He is exploited by Guillame and Jacques and is finally executed for murdering Guillame.


Guillame: An older acquaintance of David’s, Guillame runs a gay bar in Paris. He and his clientele are sexually drawn to Giovanni. He exploits Giovanni who murders him when he forces himself on him and refuses to give him his job back.


Jacques: An old American businessman born in Belgium. He is an acquaintance of David’s and lends him money. He is also drawn to Giovanni who does not reciprocate his attentions. He is seen with Giovanni after David and Giovanni’s separation but their ‘relationship’ does not last.


Joey: David had his first homosexual experience with Joey, a boy from Coney Island, Brooklyn.


Ellen: David’s paternal aunt, she spends her time knitting and wears excessive makeup at parties. She worries David’s father’s drunken behavior and his relationships with a woman would have an adverse effect on David’s development.


Madame Clothilde: The owner of the restaurant in Les Halles


The caretaker: Born in Italy, she moved to France as a child. Her husband’s name is Mario, they lost all their money in the Second World War, and two of their sons died. Their living son is also called Mario. David stays in her house after he and Giovanni separate.


David’s Father: His relationship with David is characterized by an artificial affection. He cannot to bear to acknowledge they are not close and feels guilty he may have failed to raise his son. He remarries after David is grown but before the action in the novel begins.



The narrator of the novel, David, is a young man from Manhattan, New York who has moved to Paris, France. His girlfriend, an American woman named Hella, is on a trip to Spain to contemplate David’s marriage’s proposal. David runs out of money to pay the hotel where he stays and calls up Jacques, an older acquaintance, for money. They meet at a gay bar owned by a man named Guillame. David meets Giovanni, a poor Italian bartender who describes his first meeting with Guillame at a cinema theatre and the free dinner he was given. David and Giovanni end up sexually consummating their friendship. David later moves in to Giovanni’s room and reveals to Giovanni his relationship with Hella. Giovanni is not threatened by the confession and both the men know their relationship is bound to end with Hella’s return. But with Hella’s return Giovanni is unable to bear their separation.


David leaves Giovanni’s room without informing him for three days and writes to his father asking him to send money for his marriage to Hella. David later encounters a distressed Giovanni with Jacques at a bookstore. He later tells Giovanni he cannot have a life with him without sacrificing his manhood. He leaves Giovanni but encounters him several times later and notices his new relationship with Jacques, an older and rich man. He later learns Giovanni’s relationship with Jacques has ended and suddenly the news of Guillame’s murder appears in the newspapers for which Giovanni is castigated. David imagines what may have transpired between Guillame and Giovanni. Giovanni may have refused to sleep with Guillame in return for a job but may have had to finally give in. Guillame may have then refused to re-hire him as a bartender as his clientele may no longer be interested in a man whose sexual life has been played out in public. This may have resulted in Giovanni’s revenge. The police discover the absconding Giovanni and he is sentenced to death for murder. David leaves Paris with Hella for the south of France but he is haunted by guilt over Giovanni’s execution. He goes to Nice for a few days where he spends time with a sailor. Hella follows him there and discovers his homosexuality, which she says she suspected all along. She bitterly leaves for America and David is left with images of Giovanni’s execution and his own guilt.

Narrative Analysis


The novel addresses the question of social and psychological estrangement through its first-person narrator, David. The narrative, like Baldwin’s other novels, dramatizes David’s struggle and failure to achieve a coherent sense of self that is independent of familial and social constraints. The novel represents a world where love and intimacy cannot traverse divisions of class, ethnicity and sexuality. The characters of this world are imprisoned in their own loneliness even as they constantly long for love or a sense of home. David’s internalization of social structures inhibits his ability to forge intimate bonds. He is always confronted by his own opacity or of those around him. He confesses in the opening chapter of the novel, it was his fear of freedom that urged him to propose marriage to Hella, although he was never more than sexually interested in her. He believes he is in love with her but realizes love was only one of the many fictions he created to conceal his inability to commit. On the night before Giovanni’s execution he realizes, Now, from this night, this coming morning, no matter how many beds I find myself in between now and my final bed, I shall never be able to have any more of these boyish, zestful affairs – which are, really, when one thinks of it, a kind of higher, or, anyway, more pretentious masturbation. People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. 


His first sexual relationship is with a boy named Joey. He is initially overwhelmed by the novelty of experiencing another body, but the joy of sensuality soon turns to a fear of losing his manhood. The thought of being discovered compels him to shamefully suppress and disavow his homosexuality. Guilt is the reigning affect in the novel as it characterizes David’s inability to acknowledge his own sexuality. He is haunted by images of a “cavern…black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half- understood stories, full of dirty words.” (Baldwin, 1956: 8). His mother’s early death is an unsettling loss that undermines David’s selfhood. He associates the putrid image of the cavernous body of his mother who died when he was five, with the loss of masculinity. His relationship with his father after his mother’s death, is masked by an artificial affection that only reinforces the opacity of their relationship. He is as estranged from himself as he is from his drunken father, and yet he internalizes his father when after his encounter with Joey, he becomes “secretive and cruel” (Baldwin, 1956: 14). He remembers his aunt’s anxious concern that his father’s secret affair with a woman he later marries would affect him. He also remembers his father’s defensive reaction to his aunt’s intrusion of his privacy. Although his father wants to believe they have a transparent and hearty friendship, David derives comfort and security from the thought of being a formal and unknown son. His fear lies in having to acknowledge his sexuality by identifying with his father, I did not want to know – not anyone from his mouth – that his flesh was as unregenerate as my own. The knowledge did not make me feel more like his son – or buddy – it only made me feel like an interloper, and a frightened one at that. He thought we were alike. I did not want to think so…But I wanted the merciful distance between father and son, which would have permitted me to love him. 


The story begins with Giovanni’s execution and through a flashback recounts the happenings that lead up to the execution. David does not, as he confesses in the opening chapter, arrive at any self- knowledge from his move to France or his relationships with Hella and Giovanni. On the contrary,  he is confronted by his illusory sense of self-ownership, “People who believe that they are strong- willed and masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self- deception” (Baldwin, 1956: 18). David’s discomfort is evident when he steps into Guillame’s gay bar with Jacques and sees Giovanni for the first time. He is anxious to dissociate himself from the many ‘undesirable’ and effeminate ‘fairies’ at the bar and pretends to be heterosexual.


His sense of unease is not restricted to his sexuality. His first conversation with Giovanni registers the unequal experiences of immigrants and foreigners in a new city. To David, Paris appears an old city where time has been extinguished unlike New York, which is a new and contemporary city. To Giovanni, this American sense of novelty suppresses or is oblivious to a history of migration from Europe to appear at the forefront of a universal narrative of modernity. As Giovanni mockingly remarks, Americans seem to consider themselves a separate species with a sense of time that only registers the promise of American progress. The Americans, do not seem to believe in “pain, death and love” (Baldwin, 1954: 30) that would puncture and disillusion the misplaced optimism of the American Dream. Giovanni believes that in reality, time is common for all and characterized by a hierarchy between the empowered and the powerless. There is no room for agency or choice in this hierarchy, as David believes, but an irrevocable cycle of power and defeat. Giovanni’s brief remark about France crumbling reflects the state of post-war France, which, like Germany, was gradually recovering from the death and destruction of the Second World War. There are other moments in the novel where David’s stereotyping of poor Italian immigrants who all smell the same and wear identical clothing from the same department store, is compared to the choice and variety of New York. But beneath their appearance he also perceives the “power and sorrow, both unadmitted and unrealized, the power of inventors, the sorrow of the disconnected.” (Baldwin, 1956: 80). David’s conflicted relationship to his American identity is revealed in his conversations with Giovanni. If he does not like being reduced to his American-ness, he feels he is nothing if he is not identified as one. His sense of ease in a new city has to do with his financial means. When he runs out of money to pay the hotel, he longs for the familiarity of his home in New York that he loves despite all its disadvantages. The strangeness of Paris is extended to the strangeness of Giovanni. In the desolate world of the novel, a sense of home, like love, can never be a real or substantial claim, but a mere longing for an imaginary home, that cannot be fulfilled without being disappointed. David imagines himself as a nomadic wanderer unfettered by human ties, but this freedom he realizes is only an isolating form of entrapment.


The novel’s title Giovanni’s Room bears significance to the economic divide between the urban and the rural. As physical space, poor immigrants like Giovanni inhabit the squalid suburbs of the city that upper middle-class Frenchmen like Jacques and Guillame associate with disease. But in affective terms, Giovanni’s room represents the possibilities of domestic love, and the attendant risk of being openly homosexual in a semi-rural space subject to rumors and greater surveillance. Three  of the major characters in the novel, Giovanni, David and Jacques, acknowledge emotional vulnerability, and a further structural vulnerability of being homosexual, as a necessary condition for love. Unlike the relative safety of anonymous sex, love involves self-disclosure and the possibility of being ‘out’, of being a visibly identifiable homosexual. On their visit to a restaurant in Les Halles, Jacques emphasizes the importance of love as the only way of redeeming an otherwise insensate and meaningless life. He looks back on his own life, which he realizes has been nothing but a series of mechanical sexual encounters with young boys in dark alleyways. Jacques seems to suggest anonymous sex is safer, but it has robbed him of the ability to feel beyond the physical body. He urges David to love Giovanni to spare himself a life of misery.


‘Love him’, said Jacques, with vehemence, ‘love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty – they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better – forever – if you will not be ashamed, if you will not play it safe…You have played it safe long enough…and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever – like me.


At another moment in the novel, Giovanni confesses he lost his religious faith after losing his young wife and a child in Italy. During his numerous sexual encounters with women he “made love only with the body.” (Baldwin, 1956: 71). His misogyny is unmistakable as he insinuates his inability to love women has to do with his inability to treat them as equals. He even suspects Hella is a disloyal woman and believes she is of no consequence for him to have a relationship with David. For Giovanni, love is life or life is worth living only when there is a man to share it with. When David first moves in with Giovanni, he realizes his significance lies in redeeming Giovanni’s life by bringing order to his room. To David, the chaotic disarray of Giovanni’s room is an exteriorized sign of Giovanni’s “grief and punishment”: the grief and punishment of being a lonely and exploited immigrant (Baldwin, 1956: 78). He believes he can become a part of Giovanni’s life only if he transforms his room into a secure space of domestic order. But this is a role that David pretends to perform as it becomes clear to him he can never love Giovanni or anybody else for that matter. The image of ‘making love’ to mutually substitutable bodies recurs as a sign of self-estrangement, where romantic love and intimacy is divorced from desire and lust. While there is specificity to the object in love, lust is vector-less and shifts from one body to another, reducing the sexual act to an impersonal act between impersonal bodies devoid of any interiority. The impossibility of a bond becomes increasingly clear in the novel, as each character notwithstanding the longing for love, is condemned to be isolated in his/her own loneliness or perhaps, narcissism. Love remains an egalitarian ideal of companionship that cuts across social and sexual boundaries. Opposed to love is the (male) body imprisoned in its narcissistic mirror image suggesting its illusory power and autonomy. But the position of the male voyeur is a lonely and precarious one that simultaneously reassures and undoes his power. When David decides to leave Giovanni, Giovanni declares David’s inability to love him is tied to his moral hypocrisy; his inability to be honest to himself. If he has the power to judge and reject Giovanni, it is a power he derived from Giovanni’s willingness to be vulnerable.


‘You do not love anyone…You love your purity, you love your mirror – you are just like a little virgin as though you had some precious metal…down there between your legs! You will never give it to anybody, you will never let anybody touch it – man or woman. You want to be clean…you do not want to stink…You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying little moralities. And you – you are immoral. You are, by far, the most immoral man I have met in my life…Do you think you could have done this to me if I did not love you?’


David realizes leaving Giovanni will not promise him freedom from the sensual indulgence of body, but reawakens him to its sexual impulses, “in fleeing from his body, I confirmed and perpetuated the body’s power over me.” (Baldwin, 1956: 128). David is caught in a deadlock where every bid for freedom only results in a deeper sense of entrapment. Clearly, David’s promiscuity has less to do with his homophobia or homosexuality or the fear of losing his masculinity. His promiscuity is not a function of his homosexuality for it is also true of his relationships with women. In a bid to transition, as it were, back to heterosexuality, he sleeps with Sue, a rich American woman he meets at a bar shortly before Hella’s return from Spain. David senses Sue’s air of distrust and despair and his own inexplicable impulse to have sex with her. Even the pleasure of the sexual act is subsumed by its mechanical emptiness and David does not derive an assurance of his masculinity. Every sexual act is a deceptive promise of self-identity that only leads to further disappointment.


From her trip to Spain, Hella discovers she can only be free if she is committed to someone. She identifies her womanhood with the security of marriage and wifely subordination. Although she suspects David’s affection for Giovanni, she believes what she has to offer, a family and a home, is sufficient to secure him from Giovanni’s misery. She places the responsibility of making a choice on David but he is already isolated by his guilt for being unable to love Giovanni. His desperation to move out of Paris with Hella is related to his equation of Paris with Giovanni’s room, a place that awakened him to his illusory sense of freedom. The caretaker of the hotel where David stays, Madame Clothilde, sees through David’s isolation when she encourages him to get married, “Men…they always need a woman to tell them the truth.” (Baldwin, 1954: 61). The novel returns to with the spectral image of the body that constitutes a Christian vision of death and redemption from an embodied existence. When David strips before the mirror as if to discover the truth of his embodied self, he sees Giovanni’s terror stricken face. He is confronted by the inscrutability of his naked body frozen in Giovanni’s body, as he imagines him being led to the guillotine. He realizes his body cannot be redeemed by death. He believes his salvation is “hidden in [his] flesh”, in suffering life with the hope of realizing love (Baldwin, 1954: 149).

The deadlock between an illusory freedom and an embodied sense of entrapment that can only partially be redeemed by love is best captured by David’s response to Jacques’ question. When Jacques asks him if he was ever happy with Giovanni, David feels Giovanni may have been happier  if he had stayed in Italy with his wife and children. Jacques replies that no one can permanently stay in the garden of Eden. David realizes, this garden is an ideal whose loss can either be remembered as the loss of innocence, or forgotten as the denial of pain and innocence. The world is mostly divided into those who court madness by remembering or forgetting. Heroes who do both are rare.

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