Giovanni’s Room Response
French & Expat Lit
Whether coming from America, or Italy, or just from the French countryside, people who moved to the city of Paris often anticipated gaining new freedoms. For those expecting such freedoms, their search focused on an acceptance that they may have not felt in their original homes. David, of Giovanni’s Room struggles with strong feelings of fear, shame, terror, and disgust when he thinks about his sexual relationships with men. He feels these sentiments of shame and fear in America but, even when he moves to Paris, cannot escape the guilt he feels because of his attraction to men. In describing his love affairs with other men, David often uses the word “dirty”. Moreover, David’s impressions of Guillaume and Jacques and their “dirty habits” indicate his discomfort with homosexuality. David’s reaction to seeing the cross-dressing boy in Guillaume’s bar also suggests David’s own homophobia:
“There was a boy who worked all day, it was said, in the post office, who came out at night wearing makeup and earrings and with his heavy blond hair piled high. Sometimes he actually wore a skirt and high heels…People said that he was very nice, but I confess that his utter grotesqueness made me uneasy; perhaps in the same way that the sight of monkeys eating their own excrement turns some people’s stomachs.” (Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room p. 27)
David’s admission of feeling repulsed by the cross-dressing boy’s “grotesqueness” speaks to his unwillingness to accept all who share his homosexual identity. David’s alienation of the boy stems partially from his fear to admit similarity between himself and the flamboyant cross-dresser, and partially from his natural inclination to isolate himself and other gay men.
Throughout Giovanni’s Room David wrestles with trying to understand why he gives into his homosexual desires and urges. He often expresses repulsion and disgust when he thinks about and questions his sexual orientation. While still living in America David’s first sexual experience with a boy, Joey, illuminates the disgust and fear that David feels:
“The power and the promise and the mystery of that [Joey’s] body made me suddenly afraid…I was ashamed. The very bed, in its sweet disorder, testified to vileness…A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words.” (Baldwin, Giovanni’s p.9)
In this admission, David eludes to the idea that he does not have the power in this situation by his use of “power”. David recreates Joey’s body as a powerful unknown to which he feels he must submit. Baldwin’s choice to use the words “sweet disorder” to describe what David and Joey’s physical encounter had produced offers a taste in the complexity of David’s feelings after his first gay experience. While he cannot deny the pleasure it has brought him, David cannot reconcile his homosexuality. David’s willingness to sleep with Joey in the heat of the moment ultimately frightens him, as does his inability to explain why he had done so:
“I was afraid. I could have cried, cried for shame and terror, cried for not understanding how this could have happened to me, how this could have happened in me.” (Baldwin, Giovanni’s p.9)
By stating that he does not comprehend “how this could have happened to [him]”, David first removes himself from any culpability. He then seems to entertain the idea that rather than coming from an outside force, his decision to have intercourse with Joey came from within himself. Even at that, David suggests that the part of himself that urged him to give into his desires is foreign. David only begins to accept his homosexuality at the end of the novel just before his fiancee Hella discovers him with a sailor, and leaves David. When this happens, however, David has already left Paris; David grows weary of Paris and all that it has come to represent for him. In an attempt to escape Paris, but more so to escape Giovanni, David and Hella move to the French countryside. Simultaneously, the French police search for and arrest Giovanni on charges of murdering Guillaume. Giovanni’s arrest indicates the Parisian society’s views on gay men clearly:
“Most of the men picked up in connection with this crime were not picked up on suspicion of murder. They were picked up on suspicion of having what the French…call les gouts particuliers. These “tastes” which do not constitute a crime in France, are nevertheless regarded with extreme disapprobation by the bulk of the populace…” (Baldwin, Giovanni’s p.150)
The way in which the French police handle Guillaume’s murder case also points to their attitudes towards homosexuals. In the media coverage of the case a main focus becomes preserving Guillaume’s family name and his “manhood”. In the minds of the rest of society, pointing out Guillaume’s sexual preference would only result in defiling his name. Giovanni’s conviction as a dangerous, uncontrollable gay man capable of murder, exemplifies the willingness of the French justice system and media, to stereotype homosexuals as unpredictable and unstable people.
Baldwin’s writing of David as an expatriate in Paris who projects his own feelings of shame about his homosexuality onto other gay men, in addition to Giovanni’s conviction work to shatter the myth of Paris as a place of escape. Instead, Baldwin makes clear that Paris does not provide an all-accepting society in which all citizens will have an equal status.