A Room of One’s Own Making, Both Real and Emotional
In order to truly love, one must be open and vulnerable with another person. James Baldwin’s prolific novel, Giovanni’s Room, depicts a young American man whose inability to be intimate with others because of his own learned shame is what indirectly leads to the death of his lover, Giovanni. The guiding motif of the novel is the room, both physical and metaphorical. David shares the physical space with companions throughout the novel, and coupled with it is a state of shared vulnerability. It is this state of intimacy to which David fails to open himself up out of fear, leaving his partners grasping for any sign of emotional presence from David. The room symbolizes all of David’s encounters with intimacy, and his inability to be vulnerable with another person, even if they are sitting in the same room.
The first room of intimacy is with David’s parents. Although his mother has passed away years earlier, her photograph in their living room “[proved] how her spirit dominated that air and controlled us all … the shadows gathering in the far corners of that room, in which I never felt at home” (10). In that same room is where David tries desperately to gain the attention and affection of his father, who is in the room, and yet, as David puts it, “hidden from me behind his newspaper, so that, desperate to conquer his attention, I sometimes annoyed him that our duel ended with me being carried from the room in tears” (11). David’s father shows the same behaviors which he himself exhibits later in in the novel in his adult relationships. His father is there in the room with him, but he is not truly there, which leads David to believe that intimacy is unattainable. They are in the same room, but not really.
The first time David is in a room with a romantic interest, he is faced with a vulnerability which frightens David because of his emotionally distant upbringing. David describes the adolescent encounter with a schoolmate, Joey. An evening which began as a platonic outing turns romantic when they wake in the middle of the night and become sexually intimate. In the morning, David suddenly realizes the shame he feels for being with another man. The next morning David leaves immediately with a shabby excuse to hide his true feelings. “I knew the excuse did not fool Joey,” says David, “but he did not know how to protest or insist; he did not know that this was all he needed to have done” (9). From the beginning, David is not brave enough to truly show himself. He relies on the other person to either protest or to allow David to push them away. This ambivalence leads them to make their own misguided assumptions about how David actually feels. “I had decided,” narrates David, “to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me. I succeeded very well – by not looking at the universe, by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect, in constant motion” (20).
This “constant motion” unexpectedly ceases when David meets Giovanni, a young Italian bartender while he is living in Paris and his girlfriend, Hella, is away on vacation. It is late one night at a gay bar when his friend Jacques introduces them. As David speaks with Giovanni that evening, he slowly opens up in a way he never has before. For the first time, it would seem that David is ready to be vulnerable, present in that room with Giovanni. As David converses with Giovanni that first evening, he begins to see the other person with empathy. “He looked at me,” says David, “and I saw in his face again something … under his beauty and his bravado, terror, and a terrible desire to please; dreadfully, dreadfully moving, and it made me want, in anguish, to reach out and comfort him” (61). This desire to comfort is accompanied by anguish because David knows how troublesome his feelings for this man are. Every subsequent emotion David has for Giovanni frightens him, spelling eventual demise for their flowering relationship.
As the novel progresses, David and Giovanni fold themselves into one another in a way that only two lovers are able to. David allows himself to be happy with Giovanni, if only momentarily, before the shame of their relationship and the reality of Hella’s return creeps in and sours David’s ability to truly be in that room with Giovanni.
I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea. Time flowed past indifferently above us; our life together held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride (75).
The anguish that David describes here slowly creeps in, but David says nothing of it to Giovanni for fear of facing reality. Of course, eventually it becomes clear to Giovanni that David has left the room, if not physically, emotionally. Unlike Joey, Giovanni confronts him when David finally leaves returns to Hella. David narrates:
“‘I have never reached you,’ said Giovanni. ‘You have never really been here. I do not think you have ever lied to me, but i know that you have never told me the truth – why? Sometimes you were here all day long … and you looked at me with such eyes, as though you did not see me. All day, while I worked, to make this room for you’” (137).
Giovanni blames David for not truly being there with him despite his physical presence. It is a burden of failing to acknowledge internal struggle which David puts on Giovanni, and which Giovanni fails to recognize and enables David to do.
And then there is Hella. Upon her return to Paris, David feels an overwhelming sense of relief. However, this feeling too, is fleeting, for he knows he cannot marry Hella although he has already proposed to her. He cannot commit to Hella because of Giovanni, and the self-realized intimacy issues he has. But he nonetheless enters Hella’s room. David tries to pretend things are normal at first, as is his practice in relationships. “I kept kissing her and holding her,” says David, “trying to find my way in her again, as though she were a familiar, darkened room in which I fumbled to find the light. And, with my kisses, I was trying also to delay the moment which would commit me to her, or fail to commit me to her” (121). The comparison of Hella to a darkened room echoes the elusive presence of his mother’s spirit in his childhood. He fears what will come when Hella discovers his inability to love her, so he runs away. When Hella finally finds him, he is at a gay bar with a sailor on leave. Later, as Hella prepares to leave David, she expresses the anguish which no doubt Joey and Giovanni felt, and perhaps which David felt towards his father as a young boy:
“But I knew,” she said, “I knew. This is what makes me so ashamed. I knew it every time you looked at me. I knew it every time we went to bed. If only you had told me the truth then. Don’t you see how unjust it was to wait for me to find out? To put all the burden on me? I had the right to expect to hear from you…” (164).
Hella lays out the responsibility which David has to express any issues in their relationship, and not simply wait in hopes that those feelings will go away or that the other person will address it. It is with this that Hella leaves David alone in that room to ponder his shortcomings and the reader is returned to the opening chapter where David reflects upon the events of the novel.
At the novel’s close, David is alone with himself truly for the first time. He understands that he was never able to be vulnerably present with anyone in his life because he was never able to be present with himself. He considers:
And yet – when one begins to search for … the moment which changed all others, one finds oneself pressing, in great pain, through a maze of false signals and abruptly locking doors … Of course, it is somewhere before me … Trapped in the room with me, always has been, and always will be, and it is yet more foreign to me than those foreign hills outside (10).
It is with this understanding that David steps out, of the room Hella left him in and onto the busy street, in the hopes of, perhaps, growing to understand and absolve his guilt.
While the book closes on a somewhat hopeful note, it is the optimism of work to be done, rather than the tying of ends. It is not as if David no longer feels guilty, nor does he fully understand how to repair his fractured sense of self. There is, however, for the first time a feeling of acceptance of this anguish he has felt for his entire life. David understands that he must now be alone with himself in his room and accept himself so that he might be able to truly accept and be open with others in the future. It is not an easy task, and it is one which requires David to stop the constant motion he is so used to and enter into a room of his own, and reflect upon himself.
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In order to truly love, one must be open and vulnerable with another person. James Baldwin’s prolific novel, Giovanni’s Room, depicts a young American man whose inability to be intimate […]