Giovanni's Room | Study Guide

James Baldwin

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Giovanni's Room | Themes

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Sexual Identity

David struggles with his identity throughout Giovanni's Room. The biggest question he faces is that of his sexuality. David has had girlfriends and is engaged to marry Hella, but he has also had male lovers, including Giovanni. Author James Baldwin doesn't use any specific terms to describe David's sexual preferences—Baldwin himself didn't ascribe to a particular label—so readers are instead left to infer that David is either bisexual or gay. These categorizations are not acceptable to David, who grew up fearing he would never be masculine enough to please his father. He never thinks of himself as an effeminate "fairy" or even as a masculine gay man, a concept that didn't exist in the 1950s. But David also knows he isn't completely straight. When he is with Hella, he can't stop thinking about Giovanni. David's inability—or perhaps, unwillingness—to acknowledge who he really is hinders his ability to love. Until he figures out that being himself is more important than appearing "normal," he will never be able to love himself, let alone someone else. If Giovanni loves David, the sentiment is one-sided, for David is incapable of loving, even though he may want to.

Identity also comes into play when David considers where he belongs geographically. He was born in the United States and raised with American values, namely that men are masculine, women are feminine, and the primary goal of a man's life is to have a wife and children. He harbors no negative feelings toward the United States as a country—he even served in the U.S. Army—but he has always found its social values and expectations oppressive. France is not so rigid. The French don't have laws about whom and how a person loves. Their attitude is more "live and let live" than "live like this." This worldview is a comfort to David, who knows he would be living in fear of being outed should he move back to the United States. Despite his affection for France, however, he doesn't consider himself French or even European. No one does. He is always "le jeune Américain," the young American, a label that automatically brings to mind the image of someone boorish, uncultured, and wealthy, like the tourists who crowd the American Express office. David isn't like those people—he can barely tell them apart. Although he went to France to "find himself," he has lost part of his identity in the process.

Shame

All the characters in Giovanni's Room deal with shame at one point or another. David's father is ashamed that he hasn't been a better role model for his son. Sue is ashamed that she let herself sleep with David even though she knows he was just using her. Jacques is ashamed that he can attract a man only with a show of money. Even Hella is ashamed that she didn't leave David as soon as she figured out he was attracted to men. But David carries more shame than all of the characters combined. He is ashamed of using people for sex and money, of withholding the truth from his friends and lovers, and—most of all—of being attracted to men. David feels very deeply that loving another man is terribly wrong. It goes against everything he has been brought up to value: the American family, traditional gender roles, and an outwardly masculine appearance. He hates himself for wanting to sleep with other men, and he absolutely loathes himself for submitting to the temptation.

David's sense of shame is at the root of everything he does. It explains why he's determined to have a happy, heterosexual marriage and why he insists on telling everyone he's attracted only to women. It's also why he treats people so badly. Giovanni may be the antagonist of the story, working against David's efforts to maintain his image of heterosexual masculinity, but David is also a type of villain. He lies to Giovanni about having a girlfriend, he lies to Hella about Giovanni just being a roommate, and he lies to Jacques about being straight. David's shame and self-loathing are outwardly manifested as contempt for men who are visibly other, such as Jacques, Guillaume, and the young gay cross-dressers at Guillaume's bar. When David insists they're all "disgusting fairies," he's thinking the same thing about himself. His cruelty is always a commentary on what he sees as his own moral failings.

Gender Roles

Giovanni's Room takes place in the 1950s, when men and women were largely expected to follow very specific gender roles. Men were the providers and protectors, and women were the nurturers and homemakers. David is most comfortable when those roles are maintained. His understanding of how the genders are supposed to act comes from his father, whose one goal while raising David was that "he grow up to be a man," which apparently meant keeping his feelings to himself, drinking a lot, and sleeping with a parade of women. This idea of masculinity follows David into adulthood. He makes his preference for women known to all who will listen so that he won't be perceived as unmanly. When David is attracted to a man, it's always someone who fulfills his macho concept of masculinity, for he is repelled by the feminine les jeunes who shriek and gossip at the bar, and he can't understand why anyone would want to have sex with them. He lumps them together with Jacques, whose mannerisms and high-pitched voice could also be interpreted as feminine. David grows annoyed when he realizes he's playing the homemaker in Giovanni's room while Giovanni is out earning money. However, David is equally uncomfortable when their roles flip after Giovanni loses his job. Giovanni's openness with his emotions and vulnerability are too much, too feminine, for David to handle.

Hella also upholds traditional American gender roles. Even though she has traveled by herself, she longs for the day when she is tied to someone else, because it will mean she is truly a woman. Like Giovanni, she thinks women aren't good for much of anything besides taking care of their husbands and having babies. "In a way, it's really all I'm good for," she tells David in Part 2, Chapter 4, after they confirm their engagement. Although she concedes it is "sort of a humiliating necessity" to define oneself by one's relationship to a man, she also finds great freedom in it. Or at least she does until she learns firsthand of David's extracurricular activities. She leaves France as quickly as possible after realizing David has had affairs with men. "If I stay here much longer," she says, "I'll forget what it's like to be a woman." She feels that it is better to be a woman without a man than to be a woman with a man who loves other men, for the woman will still be a woman even when the man is no longer a man in others' eyes.

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