Giovanni’s Room

 (sorry this is a little late)

           James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room follows David, an American living in Paris. While his girlfriend travels around Spain, David strikes up an affair with an Italian man named Giovanni. Baldwin dooms Giovanni from the outset of the novel, which recounts the circumstances leading to Giovanni’s ultimate execution. The reader comes to understand that Giovanni’s fate is a product of David’s incapacity to accept his love for Giovanni. What’s worse, David’s refusal to accept his homosexuality renders him a force of destruction in the novel. Not only does the denial of his sexuality destroy his psychological well-being, it catalyzes the destruction of the people closest to him. Both Giovanni and David’s girlfriend, Hella, desperately depend on David to anchor them. Giovanni needs someone to love as a means of curbing the overwhelming force of his own personal tragedy; Hella, on the other hand, needs David to reaffirm her femininity by becoming his wife. David becomes a character whose internal struggles effect grave reverberations on the outside world. Baldwin suggests that masculinity is less about sexuality than it is about self-awareness. David’s insistence throughout the novel that establishing a home with a wife is the only definition of masculinity is proved flawed by the end of novel, as evidenced by the three characters ruined by this notion. As Giovanni begs David to reconsider his decision to leave him, he laments the fact that he “has found a lover who is neither man nor woman, nothing that [he] can know or touch” (154). Giovanni feels powerfully struck by David’s utter lack of humanity, in all senses of the word. David is a character whose actions come across as flippantly cruel due to their apparent irrationality. He is so consumed by his own emotional struggles that those of others become utterly irrelevant to him. But David also seems to lack an essential human quality as well. As a genderless being, David lacks one of the most basic constructs of identity. If throughout the novel David did not perceive his masculinity as being the most crucial aspect of his identity, this lack of gender would not be such a grave insult. However, Giovanni condemns David as an insubstantial, flimsy creature without any real identity and therefore, in a certain sense, inhuman. David’s refusal to accept his homosexuality, and, worse, his denial of his love for Giovanni completely hollows him out. It is this lack of self-understanding that truly destroys his masculinity. 

            Interestingly, Baldwin emphasizes gender identity — masculinity and femininity — as the most significant, if not the only real construct of a person’s overall identity. Taking into consideration the race of the author and the fact that he was a man who aspired to produce writing that was raceless, we can assume that this insistence was meant to combat the reigning perception of the time that self-identity and race were indistinguishable. Through the character of Hella, Baldwin emphasizes the significance of gender identity as a component of overall self-identity. Hella’s entire sense of identity revolves solely around her femininity — or at least what she perceives to be femininity (in fact, she has similar struggles with her femininity as David has with his masculinity, but the novel is not about Hella). Suspecting David’s disinclination to settle down with her, and perhaps suspecting his disinclination towards women in general, she begs: “please let me be a woman. I don’t care what you do to me. I don’t care what it costs. I’ll wear my hair long, I’ll give up cigarettes, I’ll throw away the books…just let me be a woman, take me. It’s what I want. It’s all I want” (152). David’s dismissal of his sexuality as bearing any significance on his life destroys his relationship with Hella. David becomes immersed in his resulting emotional turmoil and becomes distant. His seemingly cold remove leaves Hella tormented in trying to understand his actions. Additionally, Hella believes that she needs to become David’s wife in order develop any sort of real identity. She swears that she’ll relinquish all of her “masculine” attributes if only he should make her his wife: she promises to cut her hair, stop smoking, stop thinking. She is desperate to claim the identity of the conventional wife and woman because without it she is nothing.

            Giovanni’s Room is a novel about the significance of self-identity. David’s lack of it destroys three lives. His lover, having fallen into a life of despair, eventually kills a man and is sentenced to death; his girlfriend is denied the stability of home life that she so craves; David himself is doomed to a life of guilt and psychological torment that he may never recover from.

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