Notes on Shame, Desire, and Home: Reviewing Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Sometimes you read a piece of work and find yourself spellbound. Invisible strings of alluring narrator, intense plot—all finely threaded within a riveting storytelling. You find yourself confined within a room—Giovanni’s Room—and realize that you can’t escape; that you’re already way too emotionally involved with the whirlwind vortex of David’s internal battle, destructive lying, and most importantly, his desire for Giovanni. 

Talking about honesty, upon reading Giovanni’s Room, I find myself repeatedly wincing at David’s character. He’s like a wounded dog went astray; full of self-negate and self-pity, all bark and no bite. The way he treats people around him is far from kindly, not to mention the fact that he is too indecisive and conflicted to make up his own mind. In short, he’s everything that I could possibly hate in a character. And yet, Baldwin and his sheer lyricism and poignancy trap me, and I found myself rooting for David during his worst moments, painfully wishing that he’d get it right this time. I found myself sympathizing with the characters whom I find deceitful, not because they’ve changed for the better (which David certainly did not), but because James Baldwin showed me the complexity of humanness; of how self-conflict and remorse failed David and changed him into the way he is. 

If anything, reading Giovanni’s Room was an emotional ride. I felt angry, bewilderedeven bawled my eyes out halfway through the pages. Giovanni’s Room left me with a whirlwind of despair, regret, and longingand it’s up to me whether to pick up the pieces. 

“Those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it” Edmund Burke once said, and thus I think it’s essential to know where the book came from. Giovanni’s Room was written in 1956, during the time when homosexuality was something that’s yet to be accepted in the general public. Despite the rejection and conflict that preceded Baldwin before the publication, Giovanni’s Room turned out to be one of his most known works, alongside Go Tell It On the Mountain. In 1999, Giovanni’s Room also ranked 2nd in The Publishing Triangle’s list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels. Moreover, in 2019, BBC News listed Giovanni’s Room as one of 100 most influential novels. Of course, the reason is not only because of the controversial theme of sexuality, but also because of Baldwin’s distinct poetic style that lures the reader from page one. 

The main conflict of Giovanni’s Room is David’s fear. His fear of his homosexuality and how it ruins the people in his life, including himself. The first time he had a sexual encounter with another boy—Joey—he was overcome with shame and denied it through the usual, “tough guy” act: he bullied the boy. The second time it was with Giovanni, whom David loved in his own way but couldn’t bring to accept in his life. To keep up with the facade, he left Giovanni for Hella to prove to himself that he’s still a heterosexual. However, he found out that he didn’t love her as well and it’s all a poise to run from his sexuality. In the end, David had to face the consequences of the repression of his own sexuality. He became alienated, miserable, and had irrevocably ruined the lives of people he loved. “You are not leaving me for her,” he argues. “You are leaving me for some other reason. You lie so much, you have come to believe all your own lies.” (Baldwin, 1969, p. 131) shows that David’s repression has completely deluded him into thinking that he loves Hella, when in fact it’s just a way for him to escape the consequences of embracing his reality; that he’s in love with a man.

David’s denial isn’t the only thing that obstructs him from moving forward, it is his internalized homophobia and crisis of masculinity as well. Throughout the story, David is pictured to have a hard time grappling with his insecurity of not being “masculine” enough. As a result, he continuously compares himself to every man he meets, hoping that his performative masculinity would pass within the public sphere. David’s sense of masculinity is deeply linked with his sexuality, and thus his attraction to men becomes a hindrance for him to be a “man”. Even when he bullies Joey, it’s out of his desire to feel like a “real man”. The story later examines David’s relationship with his problematic father. It’s shown that David craves an authority figure and the lack of his father’s presence becomes a force behind all his unhealthy behavior and struggles. Giovanni’s Room is a story about how societal expectations on gender strips David from his identity just to feel at home within his performative masculinity.

In The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (1999), Michael Warner noted that in order to function and assimilate in a heteronormative society, queer people must cauterize themselves. This results in a severed identity between queer people and their queerness. Living during the time when homophobia was rampant. David is a living embodiment of a queer person who is confused and out-of-touch with his own self. David realizes during his early age that he’s not completely heterosexual. However, due to the pressure of the patriarchal and heteronomative society he’s living in, he constantly self-negates himself and puts up a facade of performative heterosexuality. This results in self-hatred and internalized homophobia out of fear of being not heterosexual nor masculine enough. During his first homosexual sexual encounter with Joey, he described the experience as: “The black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood.” (p. 16) From this sentence, we can get a sense that David associates his male attraction with the renunciation of his masculinity; of his manhood. This scene makes up the foundation of David’s internalized homophobia, which later transforms into hatred. “But I confess that his utter grotesqueness made me uneasy; perhaps in the same way that the sight of monkey’s eating their own excrement turns some people’s stomachs. They might not mind so much if monkey’s did not – so grotesquely – resemble human beings.” (p.32) David hates his identity so much he associates it with non-human beings; alien and grotesque. Furthermore, upon his first meeting with Giovanni, David had a hard time in acknowledging his homosexual identity. “You like him – the bar man?’, David is stunned into silence and declares ‘I did not know what to do or say. It seemed impossible to hit him, it seemed impossible to get angry. It did not seem real, he did not seem real” (p. 43) While it sounds rude and, unquestionably, coming from a place of privilege, this conversation shows just how dissociated David with his homosexuality; he displaced Giovanni (and the homosexuality he represents) into another realm entirely, a realm where he does not exist, all for the sake to maintain his status-quo and performative heteronomavity. Finally, the most apparent self-rejection narrative is shown in David’s personal note, in which he stated: “I looked at Giovanni’s face, which did not help me. He belonged to this strange city, which did not belong to me.” (p. 63) He perceives Giovanni and him as a totally different being, with Giovanni living in a “strange city” (where he can express his homosexuality), whereas he is abjected. In the end, David ends up tied within his own internalized homophobia, too afraid to see himself beyond the facade he puts to protect him from society and his own self.

Another compelling aspect of Giovanni’s Room is how David navigates and defines the concept of home and how it reflects on his identity. Home, in this case, is the place where he came from: America. After spending some time in Paris, David is tormented by the dilemma of returning back to America. America means safety, comfort, and the familiar that David has grown accustomed to. However, it is also the place where he was most suffocated by his compulsory heterosexuality. Whereas in Paris, he could “anonymously” navigate his sexuality by going to gay bars, flirting with strangers, etc, and get away with that. There’s a sense of comfort by living in a country where nobody knows him. However, as much as it is a comfort, Paris also means the unknown, and David is someone who’s anything but logical and puts his comfort as the paramount importance. Once Giovanni comes along, David grows even more restless. He wonders whether he would still feel at home once he returns to America, or feel displaced and alienated from it? “You don’t have a home until you leave it.” (p. 110) This quote uttered by Giovanni is one of my favorite quotes as it makes me ponder on my own definition of home as well. What constitutes a home—is it the geographic location? the people? or familiarity? How can we feel more at home in a place where we’re only living for 3 months than somewhere we’ve lived ever since we’re a child? In David’s case, it’s even more troubling as when he was still in America, he was confused about who he was and his place amongst the family of things. And when he goes to Paris and finds a new “home” there, he’s even more conflicted with his own identity. Is he that American man who is repressed by his own sexuality, or an American man living in Paris who’s not afraid to embrace the people he loves? How can he be sure that he’s one of them? What if he’s none of it? And if he does pick Paris and Giovanni, is there any guarantee that David won’t regret his decision? These dilemmas, along with David’s indecisiveness and self-rejection, are what later will lead to the downfall of the people he loves.

Giovanni’s Room is a great reflection on how fear, denial, and self-rejection could become a major obstruction in our lives. Reading this book from the year 2020, it simply strucked me just how much humanity has progressed from the prejudice of others’ gender and sexuality—though we can’t stop marching just yet, unfortunately. Interestingly, if we put aside the theme of sexuality, I believe David’s fear is something that we experience universally, in our mundane, day-to-day lives. We all have something that we desperately want to try but are too afraid of, either of the consequences or the result. And so we continue to live harboring mountains of “what if”s, piling higher each day, leading us to nowhere. Giovanni’s Room is a wake-up call for us to stop fearing and start living. To stop caring about what others think of us and start to acknowledge and accept who we truly are, what we want, and who we love—lest we die regretting, forever wondering what could’ve been.


References

Baldwin, J. (1969). Giovanni’s room. Transworld Publ.

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