Prison

Kathleen Harvey
November 18th, 2010
Professor Elkin
Response

In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, David is constantly struggling with his identity as well as his place in the world as he flees one place for another in hopes for finding a home. While trying to escape one place, he inevitably finds himself in another prison, trapped by his own body or by the people around him. Throughout the novel, the spaces, particularly the room David shares with Giovanni, at first a place of refuge, turn into an oppressive prison.
In the beginning of part two, David describes Giovanni’s room and even though it is a place that once gave him happiness, his deep-rooted fear and uncertainty were perpetuated by it as he felt more and more enclosed. The room allowed them to act freely on their desires without the eyes of the public on them but at the same time this “insured privacy” created a prison where the windows that were covered in a “heavy, white cleaning polish” were always closed where the courtyard was encroaching on their tiny space every day. Even when Giovanni tries to expand the room by building bookshelves he runs into a brick wall and his remodeling project once again fails. David recognizes the dangerous potential of the room on the first day. What frightened him right away was “when one began searching for the key to this disorder one realized that it was not to be found in any of the usual places. For this was not a matter of habit or circumstances or temperament; it was a matter of punishment and grief,” (Baldwin, 84). He continues to describe the walls and ceiling as closing in on him and he feels that the windows are watching him like the eyes of a guard. The room became a prison for both of the men and despite their efforts and intentions, they could not save each other from its walls. The description of Giovanni’s room has a striking similarity to the imagined description that David gave the prison cell towards the end of the novel… The lack of light, the unobtainable keys, the small space and the doom of what the future holds. Not only does the Giovanni’s room that feels like a prison become a reality when he goes to jail, for David, every room thereafter would remind him of that room.
Even though he felt that moving to the south of France would allow him to escape from Giovanni and the guilt he felt for what he did to and with Giovanni, the secret he kept from Hella created another prison instead of a sanctuary. Their house together soon became a place they both wanted to flee. David had hoped that “there would be something Hella could do for [him]. And this might have been true if the days had not dragged by like days in a prison,” (Baldwin, 148). David fled from Paris at the wrong time, to the wrong place, with the wrong person, and with the wrong mentality. He still was not able to let himself fully love Hella, Giovanni, or the person he became when he was in Giovanni’s room, acting most freely. Before he can accept who he is, he moves on to another place. This is even seen early on in the book when David quickly flees Joey’s room after he feels ashamed and confused about what he did. As David continues to search for a home, whether that be a place or a state of being, he grows farther away from it because he does not accept himself.
As the novel concludes, the reader is left with an uncertainty about David’s future and is led to believe it will be a pessimistic one. He has not yet come to terms with himself even though he had been forced to tell his secret to Hella. He does not feel any freer than before. David’s inability to accept himself and free himself is evident when he says:
I look at my sex, my troubling sex, and wonder how it can be redeemed, how I can save it from the knife. The journey to the grace is already begun, the journey to corruption is, always, already, half over. Yet, the key to my salvation, which cannot save my body, is hidden in my flesh, (Baldwin, 159).
He is trapped in his own body. He has not accepted himself or his sexuality and he feels that his own body is a prison. Like Giovanni’s room, where the key can never be found, David will never be able to fully unlock himself from his body that is closing in on him.
Although David’s struggle to identify himself is never resolved, this novel takes him through a great transformation as he attempts to flee from something that is a part of him. He was able to let himself be loved by another man and by the end of the novel Hella finds out his true nature and he cannot deny it. Unfortunately for David, it is too late. So much destruction has occurred around the people he loved and in the end he is left alone as a perpetual prisoner. Whether he is in a room or simply in his body, he cannot escape his suffocating surroundings.

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