A Father’s Role in the Damaged Masculinity of “Giovanni’s Room”
Throughout Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin makes a series of references to David’s sense of fabricated manhood or masculinity impressed upon him by his father. In the first chapters, David alludes to the hollow jocularity between father and son. This hyperbolized masculinity from his father leads to the formation of David’s fervid belief in archetypal manhood, inducing his unconscious, lifelong pursuit of an ideal masculinity. This pursuit ultimately becomes one of the driving forces behind his actions for the remainder of the novel.
Though nameless, David’s father is the sole archetypal “man” in the entire novel, and therefore is the only model whom the young David has to form his own perceptions of what it truly means to be a “man.” In David’s childhood, David’s father was distant, and the times David interacted with him, any paternal instincts were veiled under a mask of fraternal companionship, not fatherhood: “We were not like father and son, my father sometimes proudly said, we were like buddies. I think my father sometimes actually believed this. I did not. I did not want to be his buddy; I wanted to be his son” (16). As a result, David was forced to interpret and form his own understandings of masculinity, and with no true guiding examples at his disposal, his ideologies became steeped in fictitious stereotypes of manhood.
In later stages of the novel, David’s latent search for true manhood is undeniable. His homosexual relationship with Giovanni threatens his preconceived notions of what it means to be a man, and as a direct result he retreats back to the safety of Hella’s bosom in a vain attempt to conform to his archetypal view of a perfect manhood and patriarchy. There was only one moment of true paternal sentiment, a moment that David seems to view as the only normal interaction he ever had with his father. After the car crash in the beginning of the novel, when David is in the hospital, his father, in a rare moment of what could either be viewed as weakness or strength, finally hints at his buried paternal love for his son through a simple touch of David’s forehead. “Don’t cry, he said, Don’t cry. He stroked my forehead with that absurd handkerchief as though it possessed some healing charm” (18). In a metaphorical sense, the handkerchief did indeed hold a sense of alleviation for David, but his father’s admission of fatherhood was too late. David’s ideological views on masculinity had already cemented themselves in his mind. This latent longing for an archetypal manhood is most pronounced in David’s internal struggle over his relationship with Giovanni. He longs for the sense of intimacy he feels when together with the young man; however, his consciousness causes him to balk.
While a sense of social correctness was undoubtedly a factor in David’s hesitation, Baldwin alludes to David’s terror of his carefully constructed sense of masculinity being shattered as the true reason behind his eventual flight from Giovanni. David hints at the realization of his fears when speaking of his relationship with the Italian: “I invented in myself a kind of pleasure in playing the housewife after Giovanni had gone to work ….. But I am not a housewife – men can never be housewives” (88). David’s previously unbeknownst discomfort about his role in their relationship manifested itself instantaneously; he began to see himself the light of a wife, and it was this notion which eventually threatened his view of masculinity to the extent that he saw no other option than to flee from Giovanni’s grasp in order to preserve his idealistic sense of manhood.
After his flight back to Hella, David’s superfluous rants to her about the immorality and impurity of homosexuals only serve to heighten the sense that he feels the need to overcompensate for the the crushing blow his fragile sense of masculinity took whilst living under Giovanni’s roof. When speaking of Guillaume, David reviles his character, denigrating both his personality and sexuality: “But listen, I said to Hella, He was just a disgusting old fairy. That’s All he was” (150). It is as if David feels that the only way to reconcile his manhood following his bout of ideologically immoral behavior is by vocally denouncing it. Yet his tactic only serves to confirm Hella’s suspicions of his true nature, begging a specific question: was that David’s unconscious intention? Throughout the book, David grapples with his inner struggle between bridled passion for Giovanni and his sheltering sense of carefully crafted masculinity; however, after the dissolution of David and Giovanni’s relationship, the reader is forced to speculate as to whether David has (consciously or not) chosen between the two. As his last hope for a future of an archetypal manhood walks out of his life, David is noticeably unapologetic and reticent; he has the demeanor of a man who has resigned himself to his fate. As he describes the scene, “I took her hand, it was cold and dry like her lips. Goodbye Hella” (166). That inner battle is universal; the struggles between personal sentiments and societal norms plague society as a whole, making Baldwin’s unfulfilled conclusion all the more disconcerting to the reader.
Left conflicted about David’s choice between archetypal normalcy and true nature, the reader must turn inwards to find resolution to Baldwin’s uncertain conclusion. Is nature truly greater than nurture? Will our minds unconsciously choose for us regarding decisions that are beyond our conscious control? Is our own inner sense of how the world should be strong enough to alter our own reality?
In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, David is a heterosexual man with homosexual desires. This desire to be with men leads him desensitized to how he actually feels when he is with all four of his lovers – male and female. Each and every relationship he has been in gets destroyed as he tries to find a deeper meaning to his actions. Throughout the book, David realizes that his relationship and “act of love”(sex) with women is merely lust — a need to establish his sexuality; but at the same time, David deceives himself to think that his relationship with men is love when in reality his actions after being with them show that it is also an act of lust and he therefore fails to keep any stable relationship with his lovers.
David fails to keep any stable relationship with the women he meets because the relationship he has with them – no matter how long it was – is based on lust and not love. David’s lust can defined as the need to establish his sexuality. David knows this and uses Sue and Hella to establish this facade of being heterosexual and only commits to “acts of love” to reinforce the idea that he is indeed a heterosexual man.
This idea of using women to fill his sexual desires is evident when he encounters Sue. David falls in lust with Sue and starts to comment on her appearance of having “small breasts and a big behind… [wearing] tight blue jeans” and even going as far as “mentally [taking] off all her clothes. (95). By describing her physical traits and mentally undressing her from the moment that they meet, David sees her as a way to fill his sexual desire and through her, establish his heterosexuality. David acts on this feeling and offers Sue a proposition to have sex. Even though David starts to think, “what I did with Giovanni could not possibly be more immoral than what I [am] about to do with Sue,” he continues with his plan to have sex with her knowing that it would just be meaningless sex fueled by his lust (99). During the sexual encounter, he describes approaching Sue as “though she were a job of work, a job which it was necessary to do in an unforgettable manner” (100). By describing Sue as a “a job of work” which must be done in an “unforgettable manner,” David fails to make any sort of connection with her that could lead into having a stable relationship. This reinforces the idea that he does not want anything more but her body and what she can provide for him.
Although David is in the process of this “grisly act of love,” he knows that there is no connection between him and Sue; that Sue is just a one-night stand girl. It is because of this understanding that David knows that a stable relationship with Sue is just a wild thought. After committing this “ grisly act of love,” David shrugs Sue aside reinstating the idea that David does not want anything but sex from his female lovers to establish his sexuality.
As for Hella, when David first sees her, he also falls in lust with her. David thinks “she would be fun to have fun with” and states that it was “all [that] meant to him” confirming that the idea to be with her is out of lust and not love (4). The idea of it being lust is evident as David only sees her as someone who he can “have fun with,” not someone who he can keep a stable relationship with. It is not until later that David tries to deceive himself to believing that he loves Hella saying “I told her that I loved her once and I made myself believe it” (5) to further help him cope with his battle against his homosexual desires. David knows for himself that it is a lie when he tells her that he loves her, but he tries to believe it as much as he can because he does not want to question his sexuality. By questioning his sexuality, David would question his action as something based on lust to establish his sexuality, but it is in this timeframe that he does not want to question his sexuality as he wants to believe that he loves her.
It is only after Hella left did David stop deceiving himself and see the truth in his relationship with Hella. He begins to think that what he had with her was pure lust and that he is not sure if it “ever really meant more than that to [him]” (4). He also understands that he has fooled himself to loving her and making himself believe that he was in love to counter his homosexual desires. It is only in the end – after screwing up Hella’s conception of love – does David understand that what fueled his relationship with Hella is the same thing that fueled his relationship with Sue: lust to establish his sexuality.
For these lovers, he fails to keep a stable relationship because all he wants from them is sex. By having sex with them, David believes that he can establish his heterosexuality and therefore, counter his homosexual desire. This shows that David will not be able to have and keep a stable relationship with women because he only lusts after them to establish his sexuality.
As David understands that his relationship with Sue and Hella is based on lust, David believes that his relationship with Joey and Giovanni is out of love, but his actions show otherwise. This confusion leads David to a struggle as he tries to keep a relationship with his male lovers because he does not understand if what he has with them is love or the desire of lust. He fails to distinguish the difference between love and lust, but truly believes during the time of intimacy, that what he has is love.
The first instance where he struggles to distinguish the difference between love and lust is when he is with Joey. He realizes that when he touches Joey that night, “something happened in [them] which made this touch different from any touch either of [them] had ever known” (8). It is this “something” that leads David to think that what he has with Joey is love. He imagines that because it is a different “touch”, there is something more to it and this is what leads him to think that he has fallen in love. He further says that “a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love” (8). From that one encounter, David fools himself to believing that he is so in love that not even a “lifetime [will] be long enough” to show his love. But although he fools himself to believing that he is in love, his later actions proved that it was just a feeling of lust.
This so-called love that David experienced is short-lived and proves that it was not love to begin with. During his night with Joey, David describes how a lifetime will not be enough, but later says, “But that lifetime was short, was bounded by that night…” showing that David was filled with emotions that night that he deceives himself to the point of thinking that what he had with Joey was love (8). Moreover, David starts to mistreat Joey further reinforcing the idea that what he had with Joey is not love. If what he truly feels for Joey is love, David would not be abusive towards Joey.
The line between love and lust is blurred especially in the case of Giovanni. David, from the beginning, already deceives himself to be in love with Giovanni. Jacques unbeknowingly helps David believe this lie when he tells David to “love him, love him and let him love you” (57). As David continues to be with Giovanni, he tries to find good things about Giovanni so that he may continue lying to himself. Something as small as walking down the street makes David love Giovanni and believes that “for that moment [he] really loved Giovanni” (83). He believes that he really loves Giovanni in this moment because it reminds him of Joey and what they did together before the night they slept together. It is this feeling of experiencing something new that David grasps to continue believing that he loves Giovanni. But even though David fools himself, the truth came out.
The truth that David does not actually love Giovanni comes out with the passing of a boy, “Yet, at that very moment, there passed between us… another boy… and I invested him at once with Giovanni’s beauty and what I felt for Giovanni I also felt for him” (83). David, although he thinks he loves Giovanni, does not actually love him as the passing of the little boy brought him back to the reality that what he has with Giovanni is fueled by the desire of lust. By seeing the little boy, David understands that his feeling for the little boy is the same feeling he has for Giovanni and thus leads David to understand that he does not actually love him. The truth that David does not love Giovanni is later found out by Giovanni himself. Giovanni, in his fit of rage, states, “‘You do not love anyone! You never have loved anyone…’” reinforcing the idea that David is incapable of loving anyone and only wants the feeling of being in love through lustful actions (141). Giovanni continues spilling the truth by saying, “‘You want to despise Giovanni because is not afraid of the stink of love,’” further reinforcing the idea that David does not love Giovanni because he is afraid of the stink of love, while Giovanni is not. Since David is “afraid of the stink of love,” he ultimately leaves Giovanni as he is unable to love him. As David’s deception to himself is slowly being exposed, he starts to understand that what he has with Giovanni is not love, but a lustful desire. And it is in this moment that David tells Giovanni that he “will not be coming back” and therefore accepts the truth that he has been avoiding.
David’s meaning of love and lust is blurred as he deceives himself to be in love with his lovers when he actually is not. The results of this lie has led him to destroy his relationships with his lovers. Not only is he not able to hold a stable relationship, but he has scarred each of his lover: Sue believes she is a one night stand girl, Hella has been lied to and her conception of love is messed up, Joey faced abused after his sexual encounter with David, and Giovanni ended up dying. In order to keep a stable relationship based on love, the thoughts and actions of a person should go hand-in-hand, something that David fails to do with his lovers. It is not to say that David is incapable of loving someone, but it is because society’s expectation to whom a man should date that makes David incapable of truly loving someone. To fall in love is different than to fall in lust and it is this difference that people are sometimes incapable of truly loving someone.
A Fading Reflection
In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, the protagonist David grapples with his homosexuality, a part of him that he continually denies, and subsequently fails to repress. As David deals with his identity, he looks for and finds himself, his literal image, in mirrors, windows, and other reflective surfaces. This motif is symbolic of David’s split life, and his growing self-awareness. One of the clearest, and perhaps most poignant, examples of this motif occurs in the extended metaphor in the first and the last pages of the book, where David gazes into a window at his reflection on the day of Giovanni’s execution. These two connected scenes, and his disappearing reflection at dawn, represent the collision of his two selves as his life falls apart, and the ultimate union of the two conflicting versions of David into one broken, but unitary, man.
The first reference to this extended metaphor appears almost immediately. Though David is recounting the story in a flashback, the reader only knows the narrator through what has been said early in the book, and thus this early reflection of David represents the David of the exposition (3). This David is fully immersed in heterosexual culture, complete with a fiancée on her way back from Spain. His reflection is distinct, tall, and “like a face you have seen many times” (3). Baldwin makes no mistake as describing David’s reflection as the easily recognizable trope of the handsome American man. This everyman image includes compulsory heterosexuality, and David’s reflection being described as one that has been seen many times suggests that this reflection is obligatorily heterosexual as an assumed normal state. This description is also intermingled with the narrator seeing Hella in his mind’s eye, his anchor to the heterosexual world. The very fact that his reflection is clear to him in the reflection of the window shows the reader that there are two distinct images of David present. The one, the compulsorily heterosexual, has gleaming hair and is tall and handsome. The other, the David speaking in hindsight, is drunken and miserable. This true, first person narrator David is also fully aware that the coming day, and the death of his male lover, will be “the most terrible morning of [his] life” (3), separating him fundamentally from his reflection.
The same scene reconnects at the very end of the novel, but now the reader fully understands the gravity of the situation that had only been alluded to in the exposition; David has irrevocably been discovered as a homosexual man by Hella and his community, and his internalized homophobia resulted in a recklessness that directly contributed to the death of his lover. Now, “the horizon begins to lighten” and David notes, “I seem to be fading away before my own eyes” (166). The handsome reflection of his heterosexual façade begins to fade away. If the reflection in the window is the idealized version of his life, and the one that he had tried so hard to live fully, its disappearance in the brightening light is its permanent death. And thus, it only makes sense that David’s disingenuous life should be shattered by the light of the dawn of the morning of Giovanni’s death. Now, David is left only with his true self, one that he claims is “dull and white and dry” (168) when he catches a glimpse of it in the mirror. With the disappearance of his reflection, his acceptable other self, David must face the extent of his own self-loathing. His internalized homophobia now manifests in his disgust at viewing his own genitals. He is embarrassed, scared and guilty.
And yet, there is something fundamentally optimistic about the dawning of a new day as a symbol in literature. And this moment of union between David and the man he was pretending to be is also a moment of enormous pressure being relieved. David says solemnly, “I must believe, that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it” (169). He has hit rock bottom, but in this fall he has achieved an oneness of self that he had never possessed before in his life. Baldwin makes David pay for his cruelties by giving up his social status, his privilege and his pride, and the punishment is by no means over as David steps into the light of day to get on the train. But this dawn that washed away David’s falsities is, amazingly, also the dawn of a new life that, though it will doubtlessly be more painful and ostracized, will also be genuine.
Feminist Themes in Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room
Novels with a cast of primarily male characters can include varying amounts of feminist ideas. Although Giovanni’s Room mainly focuses on the lives of gay men, James Baldwin includes various feminist themes. Through the men in Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin showcases how socially created masculinity complexes rely on the humiliation and disenfranchisement of women. Through his main female character, Hella, Baldwin argues how women’s freedom often relies on men.
For men like David, masculinity is dependent on degrading women and femininity in general. While describing his first sexual encounter with a man, David tells of the “joy [David and Joey] gave each other that night” (8). Waking up the next morning, David describes Joey as beautiful and vulnerable, “curled like a baby on his side” (8). Because of these traditionally feminine features, the shock that Joey is a man does not immediately hit David. He becomes overwhelmed with his power over the sleeping man, feeling “gross and crushing” because of his bigger size. This feeling of power and masculinity that overtakes David is resultant of the gender roles in 1950s society, where men had the majority of the power in relationships.
David’s realization that “Joey is a boy” comes when he notices “the power in his arms, in his thighs, in his loosely curled fists” (9). David’s association of males with strength and females with vulnerability results in his own shame over not feeling masculine enough. In this way, Baldwin shows how society’s masculinization of men not only results in stereotypes for women, but in feeling of self hatred for men.
The stereotype of women as housekeepers emerges from this masculinization in society. David feels so ashamed about his sexuality, that he completely rejects the idea that men, especially himself, could do housework. After he sleeps with Joey, he worries about “what Joey’s mother would say when she saw the sheets,” implying that Joey’s mother, not his father, would be the one to launder sheets (9). Once David moves into Giovanni’s room, he cleans it up while Giovanni works, although he feels “a kind of pleasure” from it at first, he soon comes to the belief that “men can never be housewives” (88). This part of his relationship with Giovanni causes David to feel immense shame, and he accuses Giovanni of treating him like his “little girl,” disgust dripping form the word, although David willingly cleaned and “played housewife” with Giovanni (142, 88). This idea of David wanting to be powerful in a relationship extends into his relationship with Hella. He stays with her in part so that he can live with his “manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed” (104). This is another example of how feminist ideas in Giovanni’s Room are so closely tied to ideas about patriarchy and masculinity.
David’s fixation with masculinity stems from his upbringing. Without a mother, David grows up under the care of his alcoholic, womanizing father and an aunt who his father constantly argues with. All David’s father wants is for David to “grow up to be a man” (15). Because David desperately wants to please his father, he internalizes the idea that the only way to be a man is to be a womanizer.
Baldwin uses Hella as the female perspective on the gender roles in society. Hella has an odd place in the novel, being that she is one of the only women, and also one of the only straight people in the story. For the majority of the novel, her character is used as a reminder to David that a more socially accepted path exists for him. Her character moves toward the forefront of the novel, however, when she discusses feminist issues after her trip from Spain. David cannot understand how Hella believes that being a woman is difficult, “not as long as she’s got a man” (124). Hella argues, however, that David’s response is exactly the kind of thing that make womanhood difficult. Relying on men for happiness is “a sort of humiliating necessity” (124). Hella comes to terms with the notion that she couldn’t be free until she “committed to someone” (126). Ironically, Hella’s commitment to David falls through, sending her back home from her life in Europe. Here Baldwin shows how patriarchy controls the lives of women. Women who wanted to find success in the 1950s had to make a difficult choice. They could marry “a stranger,” giving up personal freedom but having economic freedom, or stay alone and risk stability and a socially accepted life (126). In this way, Hella’s life parallels that of David, who has to make decisions based on what society will think of them.
Baldwin also points out how a transgender women or drag queens are treated differently by even other LGBT people like David. David finds these women “grotesque” and refuses to acknowledge that they are even women (27). This could also stem from David’s rejection of men taking on feminine traits, or his rejection of the entire LGBT community in general.
Although hidden under the angst and love story of Giovanni’s Room, the major theme in the novel centers around David’s shame about his sexuality and masculinity. Baldwin provides copious evidence, through David and Hella, that masculinization degrades both men and women, and adds to the harmful gender stereotypes revered by society.
The Interpersonal Struggles of David
Throughout the novella Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, there is a struggle for David to be understood not only by society, but by himself. By showing an internal struggle in David between being able to be completely honest with the events taking place around him such as Hellas very different approach to handling life. However, David utterly unable to be true to himself and his real feelings, like whether or not to show his love for Giovanni publicly. James Baldwin shows that it is harder to critique and realize the true problems at hand when they are problems of your own.
David always seems to be very clear and concise when describing what other people are doing. Throughout the novella, it becomes more and more apparent that David has a very good grasp on how to read others and their true emotions or reasoning for their actions. Baldwin makes it clear that David knows these things when David and Hella return to Paris. David describes Hellas smile as “at once bright and melancholy. Then she suddenly took my face between her hands and kissed me. There was a great question in her eyes and I knew that she burned to have this question answered at once” (Baldwin 121). This part of the novel perfectly shows that with just a small action and some body language from Hella, David knows exactly what she is feeling, and even what she is expecting out of him. It seems to be almost second nature to David to seamlessly recognize what is going on in others minds. David also shows his ability to read other people when him and Giovanni are talking about marriage. He states that “Giovanni liked to believe that he was hard headed and that I was not and that he was teaching me the stony facts of life. It was very important for him to feel this: it was because he knew, unwillingly, at the very bottom of his heart, that I, helplessly, at the very bottom of mine, resisted him with all of my strength” (Baldwin 82). This is a very telling part of David’s relationship with Giovanni because even though he is completely in love with Giovanni, he knows it isn’t socially acceptable, so he tries to fight what he is feeling. Along with that, David realizes what Giovanni needs to make him happy, so David willingly gives up his voice and allows Giovanni to be more opinionated.
Other characters throughout Giovanni’s Room take notice of David’s inability to correctly analyze his own life and situations, realizing that he tends to be too hard on himself for the most part. For example, when David turns to Jaques on advice for how to go forward, his eyes are opened for the first time to how much happier he could be in life. Jaques notices that David is in need of help at this time and says to him “Love him, love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last? Since you both are men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that in the dark” (Baldwin 57). At this time, David was in need of support, and having an outsider look in on his situation was very helpful. Baldwin shows that with this outside help, David is able to realize how his life would be if he chose to commit to Giovanni and be truly happy. Giovanni also begins to realize that David has difficulty looking within himself when he says “you love your purity, you love your mirror. You are just like a little virgin… you will never give it to anybody, you will never let anybody touch it, man or woman. You want to be clean” (Baldwin 141). At this point in Giovanni and David’s relationship, David is having doubts on whether he should be leaving Hella or not. Baldwin uses this to show that David’s internal struggle has become too much for him, and he needs a reality check from someone other than himself to see what is really happening to him.
Alternatively, when David is faced with internal struggles of his own, he tends to downplay them or not be completely honest with himself on what is happening. From the very beginning of the novel, David decides to hide his true feelings from everyone. When David has his first homosexual experience with Joey, David is immediately confused of what has happened and what to do with his life as well as love life going forward. David describes a cavern that seems to open up in his mind as “black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half heard, half forgotten, half understood stories, full of dirty words. I thought I saw my future in that cavern. I was afraid. I could have cried, cried for shame and terror, cried for not understanding how this could have happened to me, how this could have happened in me.” (Baldwin 9). David is not too sure of what emotions he is feeling in this moment, and instead of choosing to share his feelings with Joey or anyone else, he suppresses them completely in hopes that they will fade. Similarly, David experiences many different waves of feelings and says “I simply wondered about the dead because their days had ended and I did not know how I would get through mine” (Baldwin 103). Baldwin shows that when a lot is going on in David’s life, it is hard for him to accurately deal with everything, so even thinks about what it would be like to give up completely because of his inability to be honest with himself.
In conclusion, Baldwin uses the strong difference between David’s keen sense of what is going on with others compared to his lack of ability to be honest with himself as a way to show how society at this time made him feel he had to be a certain way. David hides large pieces of his life from society because he knows the unpleasant treatment he will get if he makes his relationship public information. Had the novella Giovanni’s Room taken place in present day, this internal conflict may not have even taken place, given the more accepting attitudes for all types of people in today’s society.
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.
“Can’t Buy Me Love”: Money and Masculinity in Giovanni’s Room
In James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, references to wealth are juxtaposed with moments of sexuality in order to comment on how economic standing influences gender identity construction, while making a larger critical statement about the fragility of traditional American notions of masculinity. Following tropes of the expatriate genre, the protagonist David is seen sending away to his father for money, soliciting money from friends, staying in hotels, and constantly eating or drinking at restaurants and bars. Told through the first person point of view, each of these conventional ‘American in Paris’ scenes unveils David’s relationship with money, as it relates to his own masculinity. He struggles to maintain his self image as an American man in Paris, as he does not have the structure of a job or a marriage to create his identity against. Similarly, in the absence of these two aspects of life, David lacks power. The result is a physical and emotional displacement, as he is left on his own in a city of men who he believes are completely unlike himself‒most notably, Jacques, Giovanni, and Guillaume. The four men interact with each other throughout and it is the ways in which they use their money that distinguishes them. The male characters in the novel act as foils of each other, and David’s perception of his own masculine identity is made clear through his anxieties regarding wealth and sexuality; the two intersect in this novel, showing how David perceives money as being analogous with male power and can be used either to maintain or degrade one’s manhood.
The contempt with which David views Jacques‒man who is secure both financially and sexually‒is a projection of his own insecurities about his identity; David worries constantly about Jacques’s loudness and brash honesty, which both threaten his private fears and desires becoming public. However, David also encourages a relationship with Jacques out of a need for money, calling him up to meet for supper despite thinking him “a fool and a coward” (Baldwin 23). Although he expresses reluctance towards a relationship with Jacques‒he mentions that he only calls him out of desperation, after already writing to friends and receiving no response‒David allows Jacques to emasculate him by spending money on him. His hypocrisy is evident in an early interaction between the two: at a “rather nice restaurant,” David narrates that he had “arranged to borrow ten thousand francs from [Jacques] before we had finished our apertifs,” (26) even though he later says, “I don’t spend money on men” (30). This cognitive dissonance indicates the value David places on money‒both for what it can get him, and for what it represents to the world. He compromises his desire to assert masculinity by supporting himself financially during a time of need, while simultaneously judging Jacques harshly for succumbing to his request. This is an instance where he fears the side of himself that Jacques coaxes out of him. David rejects this idea of himself as vulnerable and unmasculine by insulting Jacques:“There was, in this tolerance of mine, a fund, by no means meagre, of malicious knowledge‒I had drawn on it when I called him up to borrow money. I knew that Jacques could only hope to conquer the boy before us if the boy was, in effect, for sale; and if he stood with such arrogance on an auction block he could certainly find bidders richer and more attractive than Jacques.” (28)He does this in order to maintain his own image, rather than to tarnish Jacques’s. He even admits his own overwhelming insecurities when he says, “I understand now that the contempt I felt for him involved my self-contempt” (23). The tension created by Jacques’s wealth and his openness about his homosexuality destabilizes David’s conception of manhood, specifically as it relates to himself, and he must rectify this disconnect through contemptuous behavior.
David’s power dynamic with Jacques parallels that of his relationship with Giovanni, except their roles are reversed. When they meet for the first time, David realizes that he has to pay for their drinks because “it was impossible to tug Jacques’ sleeve for the money as though [David] were his ward” (32). He refrains from asking Jacques for money as a way of avoiding emasculation in front of Giovanni‒another instance in which the lack of money is associated with the lack of power. The parallel between the two relationships is emphasized even further by the fact that David uses the ten thousand franc note that Jacques gave him moments before in order to pay for his and Giovanni’s round of drinks. This scene is also another example of David benefiting from the power dynamic that comes from wealth, while also attempting to outwardly reject it. This can be seen in their dialogue, as Giovanni tells him, “You are rich,” to which David replies, “But no. No. I simply have no change,” (32). He does not wish to fully fill the role that Jacques typically plays of the wealthy, older man in a relationship, but he also gains pleasure from the interaction because it gives him a sense of power. This pleasure can be seen in his growing relationship with Giovanni, as he continues to spend time with him in various bars and cafes across the city. However, their relationship is becomes tumultuous because the balance in power is quickly lost. Unlike with Jacques, there is no clear gap between David and Giovanni financially. Each is seen paying for the other at various moments. The same night that David buys drinks, Giovanni returns the favor by paying the bill for their oysters and wine. At points, Giovanni supports David‒especially after David moves in with him and remains unemployed. This peace does not last for long, though, and after losing his job, Giovanni is once again asking David to send away for more money.
The key difference between the two relationships mentioned is that money is used as a facilitator of intimacy between Giovanni and David, while having the opposite effect with David and Jacques. When Giovanni asks David if he has ever slept under a bridge, he responds by saying, “Not yet… but I may. My hotel wants to throw me out,” which he admits is “out of a desire to put [himself], in terms of an acquaintance with wintry things, on an equal footing with [Giovanni],” (46). In this moment, the equality of their financial power leads into a physical closeness, as Giovanni holds David’s hand during this conversation. However, once again David is repulsed by the idea of emasculating himself; he invalidates this intimate moment immediately after, explaining, “the fact that I had said it as he held my hand made it sound to me unutterably helpless and soft and coy… I could not say anything to counteract this impression… I pulled my hand away, pretending that I had done so in order to search for a cigarette,” (46). He rejects his vulnerability, out of fear that it makes him appear weak and unlike the image of the traditional American man against which he constructs his identity. He associates his conversation with feminine qualities and is immediately embarrassed of his appearance in the cab. He only gives into his desire for intimacy after it is confirmed that he and Giovanni are equals: the drinks, the cab that Jacques pays for, and the oysters. The imbalanced money-power dynamic between Jacques and Giovanni had previously provided him with a layer of protection against intimacy, which is stripped away in these scenes leading up to his first sexual experience with Giovanni. David attempts to protest one final time when he tells Giovanni, “I must go home… I must pay my hotel bill,” (62), but then easily accepts Giovanni’s invitation. David’s guarded nature only returns when he is once again placed in the position of power, and expected to fulfill the traditional breadwinner role of the American man. When “the money dwindled” and Giovanni began asking repeatedly if David had gone to the American Express, David becomes “sick” of Paris and wishes to leave (115). The balance in their relationship is once again lost here, and results in an emotional distance that threatens their ability to be vulnerable and intimate with each other and reminds David of his insecurities about his public image. Giovanni’s reliance on him brings him an intense discomfort and desire to once again be near a woman‒first Miss Rheingold, and then Hella.
When compared to the other relationships in the novel‒specifically, that which exists between David and Hella, and between Giovanni and Guillaume‒the relationship between David and Giovanni becomes an example of intermediacy in a money-power dynamic, while the other two relationships are examples of extremes. The former is an example of the traditional extreme, with the man taking the position of power over the woman, while the latter is what David views as the perverse extreme. This is one of the reasons that causes David’s fixation with and subsequent detest for both relationships. Initially, when David is struggling in his relationship with Giovanni, his relationship with Hella flourishes. He finally agrees to “settle down,” a prospect that at first he rejected; when he writes to his father that he “won’t keep any secrets” anymore and that he “found a girl,” he is solidifying his role as a husband (124). He projects this desire for masculine stability on Giovanni in one of their final conversations:“What kind of life can two men have together, anyway? All this love you talk about‒isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money, and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl.” (142)This argument is made ironic by David’s engagement, which shows his craving for the traditional image of a relationship. Their engagement allows them each to follow the rigid gender roles and expectations that have been laid out for them by their culture, creating a paradoxical space for physical intimacy and emotional distance: “We stayed in her room, we made love a lot, we went to the movies and had long, frequently rather melancholy dinners in strange restaurants” (146). David feels trapped by his role in his relationship with Hella, which is only intensified by the fact that the couple was “not rich” but living in a city that is “a playground for the rich” (158-9). Their sexual relationship also dwindles, as “all that had once delighted [David] seemed to have turned sour on [his] stomach” (158). When David loses his ability to financially support Hella, he begins to once again feel like a failure as a man. This is seen when he explains, “When my fingers began, involuntarily, to lose their hold on Hella, I realized that I was dangling from a high place and that I had been clinging to her for my very life” (158). His ability to take care of Hella and play the role of her husband allowed him to feel masculine‒the realization that he could not provide for her successfully or connect with her physically destructed the identity that he had crafted around these characteristics. He compares this loss of identity with the loss of life, as he feels as if he is preparing for a “long fall” off a cliff (158). The couple is contemptuous of each other because neither is fulfilling their perceived expected role, making them a dysfunctional match.
A similarly dysfunctional and unbalanced pairing can be seen between Giovanni and Guillaume. In a similar way to David, Guillaume fills the role of financially providing for Giovanni and taking care of him. Furthermore, Guillaume also forces Giovanni into the traditionally feminine role that David projected onto him, as well. He asserts his financial dominance over Giovanni by calling him “a gangster and a thief and a dirty little street boy” and by taking away his source of income (105). Throughout the text, Guillaume is empowered by his ability to coerce Giovanni into engaging in a relationship with him, while Giovanni is emasculated by his own desperation‒this dynamic mirrors that of David’s initial calling of Jacques when he needs money. Another paradox is introduced here, as David can be compared to both Giovanni and Guillaume, since he has filled both roles depending on his level of wealth and power. This is a source of contempt for David, which can be seen in his descriptions of Guillaume, whom he often calls a “fairy” or a “silly old queen” (155). David refuses to equate himself with Guillaume, and distances himself by insulting him in a way that is comparable to how he treated Jacques. When describing the murder scene, Guillaume is narrated as being “precipitate, flabby, and moist,” (155). David resolves the contradictions within his definitions of masculinity by projecting his insecurities about his economic standing and power, and about his physical appearance onto Guillaume. His attempts to assert a definitive image of his masculinity by maintaining a certain amount of wealth are sabotaged by his hypocrisy, which is only emphasized by his cultural displacement. By positioning David in a setting that disregards his cultural standards, Baldwin exposes his character’s reliance on social cues to feel secure in his identity.
Existentialism in Giovanni’s Room
We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are — that is the fact. – Jean-Paul Sartre
In the novel Giovanni’s Room, author James Baldwin invites his readers to journey to Paris post-World War II. The San Francisco Chronicle describes this read as, “Violent, excruciating beauty,” highlighting the stark contrast between the 1950’s Paris of American expatriates, to the glittery setting of the first wave of the lost generation. Choosing this a backdrop, Baldwin sets the scene for a highly controversial narrative of death, love, and the complexity of choice. Engulfed in the violence and liaisons of an expatriate society, a young man, David, finds himself, “caught between desire and conventional morality.” Playing upon David’s existential crisis, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room discovers how heavy the responsibility of acting for one’s own freedom truly is.
As defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary (1828), existentialism is, “a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.” To understand how Baldwin captured the existential gravity of freedom, we first have to unpack how existentialists believe freedom operates. In the philosophical theory freedom lies in the ability to choose our own values, because our values are isolated from the determination of any outer forces including divinity. Weighing what we value is how we make decisions. Therefore it is key in existentialism to note, it is a personal responsibility to recognize one’s values, and that our decisions are made with autonomy. Decisions are then followed by our actions and further reactions. Therefore we are responsible for our actions, and must learn to see how our actions caused further reactions. This is where as referenced earlier, “the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will,” lies. In the following paragraphs, using this structure of freedom as a guide, how Baldwin uses David’s complex situation to highlight “the plight” will become clear.
At the core of Existentialism is that freedom lies in the power to decide what has value. This is why the 1950s Paris expatriate society serves as a genius backdrop for Giovanni’s Room, keeping in mind that “many existentialists identified the 19th and 20th centuries as experiencing a crisis of values.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2017) We can see that the 20th century was a society undergoing traumatizing changing through, “increasingly secular society, or the rise of scientific or philosophical movements that questioned traditional accounts of value (for example Marxism or Darwinism), or the shattering experience of two world wars and the phenomenon of mass genocide.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2017) These changes forced humans kind to question the value of everything, from life to tradition. The ingenious factor in terms of Baldwin choosing this time period is that it is defined by a literal existential crisis. He is able to highlight the struggle of value and freedom, that we face on a daily basis, by using a topic as common and relatable as love. David’s story of sexual freedom as a young man whose wealth and power is linked to societal expectations, who is resisting ownership of his sexuality as a gay man by engaging with Hella and Giovanni, and who is living in the midst of 1950 Paris post World War II as an American expatriate, makes the complexity and confusion of love jump off the pages of Baldwin’s book. This exaggerated scenario of liberation drives home the theme of existentialism in relation to freedom not existing without responsibility. In order to understand how Baldwin craftily built up of David’s “plight”, we have to return the previously referenced structure of freedom as found in the Existential Movement.
Now that we understand that freedom lies in our ability to measure value, we can determine that decisions are made by weighing the value of one option and outcome to another. So as previously outlined, “freedom is in part defined by the isolation of my decisions from any determination by a deity, or by previously existent values or knowledge.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2017) In Giovanni’s Room these external forces are identified as God , and American society. Throughout the novel David almost never uses religious language for guidance. At the end of Part One When asked by his older Italian housekeeper if he prays David stammers, “No, no. Not often.” (pg 69). And when she asked if he’s a believer he manages an odd smiles to which she replies with, “You must pray,” and an entire spiel about how getting married to a good woman and making babies, will make him happy. Not up until the very end of the book does David use religious language to describe himself and Giovanni. He envisions Giovanni kissing the cross in his last moments only for a priest to lift the cross away from him. David then speaks of his own nakedness in the mirror, “under sentence of death,” and hurrying, “toward revelation.” He closes by thinking, “That the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it.” (Pg 169) The choice for Baldwin to end both sections of the book, with mentionings and reflections of God shows us as readers that although David may not appear devout, he allows his actions to still be lead by the amount of value elders, others, and tradition puts in faith. The second external force David allows to direct his life, is American society. For David he is constantly battling between the white picket fence, a wife and children, or living openly with Giovanni.
David is reminded of what American society expects of him through letters from his Father, asking that he come home, and Hella saying she’ll marry him. He is also affected by strong beliefs of Homophobia, since being opening gay is far from accepted, and is definitely not the expectation for a young man of his social and economic status. The effects that David allows these expectations to have on his life, are clearly seen in his relationship with Giovanni in which he unsatisfied, hostile, and distant. The truth of his actions, is best seen in Giovanni reaction during their largest fight in which Giovanni accused David of wanting him to be, “a little girl,” in reference to the perfect heterosexual American life David just wouldn’t let go of. In these cases David did not use his freedom to decide the value God and societal expectations in his life, but instead he carelessly and out fear tried to adopt the values other put on these external forces, bringing pain and suffering into his life and the lives of others. Baldwin uses this character flaw as a perfect way to show that we make our decisions independent of determination from a higher power, because it is our personal responsibility to measure value for ourselves. The next part of the structure of freedom in Existential Philosophy, is taking responsibility for our actions directed by our decisions, and accepting that our actions will result in further reactions. Baldwin outlines this struggle perfectly using David as focus point. Under existentialism human existence is not, “to be to be understood as arbitrarily changing moment to moment, this freedom and responsibility must stretch across time,” meaning that , “ freedom, rather than being randomness or arbitrariness, consists in the binding of oneself to a law, but a law that is given by the self in recognition of its responsibilities.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2017) This is where again David falls short in exercising his freedom purposefully. Throughout the novel he lives and makes decisions carelessly, with no concern for past lessons, or future consequences.
For David, making decisions is all about how he feels in the here and now. For example, after his first sexual experience with Joey, David explains, “I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shames 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.” (Pg 20) In constant motion David never took the time to look at himself and create a personal code of values in which to make a decisions with. Instead he tried to contain the unrespectable gay side of himself, never taking ownership for many drunken nights with other men. On the balcony in reflection of all that had happened, of how close he allowed Giovanni and Hella to get to him, of the tragic ending of Giovanni, David grapples with his guilt, and starts to understand how his sporadic and disorderly use of freedom resulted in his loneliness. It reads, “Now, from this night, this coming morning, no matter how many beds I find myself in between now and my final bed, I shall never be able to have any more of those boyish, zestful affairs – which are, really, when one thinks of it, a kind of higher, or anyway, more pretentions masturbation. People are too various to be treated so lightly, I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometimes between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.” (Pg 5) This shows that in reflection of his actions David understood that the result of his love life was not the fault of external forces or anyone but himself. In addition he admits to the idea of having the intention of finding his true self in France by saying, “But again, I think, at the very bottom of my heart, I knew exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France.” (Pg21). Based on David’s outlook we can tell he will carry the weight of his loneliness and Giovanni’s death for the remainder of his life.
Existentialists believe that, “Freedom can usefully be linked to the concept of anguish.”(Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2017) Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room perfectly captures David’s anguish as he makes the seemingly impossible choice between a falsehood of the American dream, and a great love that may never be recognized with legitimacy. Baldwin makes use of the dramatically changing 20th century in order to evoke the complexities of freedom of choice that we as humans face in situations of love, lust, or expectation: “freedom entails something like responsibility, for myself and for my actions. Given that my situation is one of being on its own – recognised in anxiety – then both my freedom and my responsibility are absolute…there is nothing else that acts through me, or that shoulders my responsibility.”
(Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2017) After examining this structure of freedom in Giovanni’s Room, we can see how the book is easily used as a talking point for Existentialism today.
The Identity Crisis in James Baldwin’s Nonfiction and in Giovanni’s Room (1956)
I encountered a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself. – James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s writings are most famous for their complexity of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies during 20th century America. His novels and plays portray personal dilemmas, social pressures interfering with the integration of black, gay and bisexual men, and deep internalized issues of these individuals and their quests for acceptance. These characteristics are seen in Baldwin’s essay “A Question of Identity” and his novel, Giovanni’s Room. In these two texts, the main characters face many identity crises in respect to nationality, social status, and sexuality.
In the 1950’s, many aspects of society changed as a result of World War II. During the war, men and women, blacks and whites, played equally important roles. When the war ended, people wanted women and black people to go back to their previous positions in society. However, the minorities did not agree with that, and they wanted to work and be as equals again, since everyone was equally important and needed on the battlefield. Therefore, for groups that were discriminated against in the past, World War II was a provocative model for future change. As a result, many social norms changed. For example, the state created various job opportunities, which were seen as “women’s work.” These jobs were available for nurses, midwives, cleaners and clerical staff. Additionally, during this period, banking, textile and light industries also expanded and provided women with opportunities in administrative, secretarial and assembly work. However, jobs were still strictly segregated by gender, and repetitive routine work was considered women’s work.
Baldwin’s collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, tells the reader about the social environment in the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. Through his work, the conditions of being an African American living in a society with racial discrimination are told firsthand. In one of his essays included in the book, “A Question of Identity,” he talks about the search for the various ways that Americans, in the American student groups in Paris, relate to Europeans and their culture. He analyzes soldiers living in Paris who are studying at the universities under the G.I. Bill, which was offered to them after the war. Baldwin questions why some soldiers are successful in adapting their lives to France, and why some are not. For example, Baldwin states, “This is the reason, perhaps, that Paris for so long fails to make a mark on him; and may also be why, when the tension between the real and the imagined can no longer be supported, so many people undergo a species of breakdown, or take the first boat home” (130). Through this quote, Baldwin says that soldiers have to deal with the conflict between reality and fantasy. Some soldiers have a theoretical and ideal concept of Paris, no real knowledge of the history of France or its people, and no understanding of the language. And thus, when reality finally hits them, they end up buying their tickets to go back home. On the other hand, the successful soldier takes the time to study the history and culture of France, and might even end up living with a French family. Nevertheless, even this soldier could encounter problems because French people may also have an idea of Americans. Overall, Baldwin suggests to the reader that, when living in Paris; we should use the “vantage point of Europe” to discover “[our] own country.”
Something similar can be seen happening within the concept of identity in Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. The America that is shown in the book is one that is wrapped up in David and Giovanni’s relationship. For example, David sees America as the place of his youth, the place of the people he loves and understands. However, he would have never left America if he thought that his identity was not something else as well, or that he was not entirely restricted to his American identity. An example is when Giovanni coyly refers to David’s nationality, David says, “I resented being called an American (and resented resenting it) because it seemed to make me nothing more than that, whatever that was; and I resented being called not an American because it seemed to make me nothing” (89). Being American is the identity that David tries to flee from; nonetheless, it is an identity that defines him. However, we all know too well that he cannot always run from his problems, as they will all catch up to him one day. Another main identity crisis in Giovanni’s Room is David’s struggle with his sexuality. He is either gay or bisexual, a fact that terrifies and defines him throughout the novel. He believes he must only be attracted to women because he is a man. However, David is also attracted to men; therefore, he believes that he cannot be the ideal, socially accepted man.
David makes an effort to have it both ways by keeping his fiancée, Hella, and his boyfriend, Giovanni; but, in the end, he ends up losing them both. David eventually admits to Hella that his feelings for her are empty and unromantic, which leads her to return to America, and Giovanni is ultimately guillotined. David’s struggle is shown during his final fight with Giovanni. David says in a moment of rage: What kind of life can we have in this room?–this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together, anyway? All this love you talk about – isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money, and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through the door and lie with you at night and be your little girl. That’s what you want. That’s what you mean and that’s all you mean when you say you love me. (142) Through this quote, the audience can clearly see David’s denial of his sexuality. Because of this, he lashes out at Giovanni, and they have a huge fight. David is afraid that if he accepts who he truly is, he will lose all his masculinity and will have to fit into gay stereotypes. Additionally, society looks down upon gay people, so he would face a lot of criticism from outsiders. As a result, he would never be happy with Giovanni, feel free to be himself, or have a successful future. He would always have to put up a front just to protect himself and the people that he loves. This is further shown when Hella says that “Americans should never come to Europe [because]… they never can be happy again. What’s the good of an American who isn’t happy? Happiness was all [they] had (165).” Hella’s statement is particularly striking because Americans believe that it is their right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Therefore, David values his happiness over two of the most important people in his life.
“A Question of Identity” and Giovanni’s Room are both powerful texts that portray the challenges many second-class citizens faced during that period. Baldwin effectively included themes of the identity crisis to further the meaning behind these pieces in order to paint a compelling picture of how complicated it can actually be to accept our own humanity.
“The World War II Home Front.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. n.p., 16 Aug. 2012. Web. 02 Apr. 2017. “Striking Women.” Post World War II: 1946-1970 | Striking Women. n.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2017. Baldwin, James, and Edward P. Jones. “A Question of Identity.” Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon, 2012. n.p. Print. Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York; London; Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. Print.
Pink Capitalism in Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
The emergent evolution in the traits of human personality, both physically and psychologically created a new and unique dimension to extend the nebulous boundaries of exploration. While grouting the breaches that occurred during the understanding of the intricacies of man as a social animal, several portals which were clogged by factors such as constraint and confined exemplars of psychology, opened, which later were deemed as the fundamental tools to understand human behavior at certain levels. The conventional notions that were congealed over time are now being challenged and surmised continuously through a different angle, which not only facilitate the chances to understand the complexities in a lucid and clear way but also provides an ease to gaze it through a semipermeable sheet.
“Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.” – (Rand 8)
Capitalism, which propagated the feeling of individual rights and which acted as a flare to signal that the shackles of communism were getting fragile. This started a new kind of wave, a form of slow yet incessant revolution that transitioned not just the way people contemplate but also sparked an individualism ebullition. People no longer wanted to constraint and confine their potential working for higher classes or communists but followed the principal of private ownership, producing their own goods by the means of production. This lead them to earn greater profits based on their caliber. Such an economic system, though consumerist in approach strengthened the idiomatic decision making capacity. This brawny system commemorated an autonomous identity in making, governed by their own rules, extending the boundaries of thought process in order to make greater profit.
Capitalism as a system which is economic and consumer based has the main attributes of private property and wage labor. On the other hand communism which has a vaguely predisposed slavery tendency further restrain the independent thought process, is one of the few factors which curb the rise of a relative autonomous identity. In the nineteenth century, when Capitalism was emerging running parallel to communism and other political and economic systems, its impact was diminutive and was limited to few of the bourgeoisie classes. As Capitalism took its toll on a global level, there was a deep appetency for an identity which can be labeled as an independent one, free from all sorts of manipulation including the physical and psychological one.
The queer subculture, a nebulous body that remain abstruse until the end of nineteenth century, emerged with the emanation of capitalism as it gave the individuals a relative autonomy. As the economy boomed, more and more people developed a sense of self-governing practice, that build a common psychological factor. One of the underlying and basic factor was a true sense of liberation, which irrespective of political, economical or social arena was exposed. People no longer wanted to be near the periphery and ruled by an external force due to the influence of capitalism. This facilitated the cognitive factor and pushed people to step out of the closet, stripping the fabricated identity and exposing their genuine self.
James Baldwin meticulously sketches a gray portrait of the colorful and vibrant queer community. He was among the few novelist in the twentieth century who raised his voiced against the injustice on the gays and lesbians community. Amidst the outrageous and draconian incidents which surfaced, persecuting the homosexuals or framing them for the sexuality or deeming homosexuality as a mental disorder, Baldwin audaciously dissented the imprudent and anachronistic law that labeled queer people as criminal. The dissemination of the queer culture like a wildfire, though intermittent due to judicial hitches and also due to religious intolerance conjured up the thick masses that was sidelined to the periphery yet impeded in number. Baldwin meticulously picks up the intricacies and complexities in the LGBT lifestyle and people and weaves them as the central theme of the novel.
Giovanni’s Room as a whole gives the cryptic insight, a cipher deliberately and wisely left in the fragment of time when society of America deemed homosexuality as a crime. Baldwin not only tries to transcend a nebulous, almost non-existent subculture of gays in the society but also emphasizes the double subjugation on gay black people as he himself was an African-American writer. The novel subtlety yet with discretion builds itself by knitting a love story between two young man, David and Giovanni in the heart of Paris. Baldwin who dedicated his novel Giovanni’s Room to his former unrequited love Lucien Happersberger, a Swiss artist who was married at the age of seventeen. A story that explores the fundamental feeling of love between two young men and with a parallel track explores the conundrum and complexities associated with a love that grows outside the boundaries of society.
Baldwin tries to decimate the boundaries, psychological constraints and stigma that adheres to homosexuality. With the hefty amount of sexual references between the same sex in the novel, it is clearly visible that Baldwin amidst the controversies and stigma surrounding homosexuality dauntlessly. A simple but estranging love story that oscillates between the iconoclastic and conventional rules keeps the novel cohesive and at the same time breaking through the preconceived notion of the then puritanical society. The idea cultivates slowly and steadily of how tedious it is to be a closeted person in a society where belonging to a certain sexuality out of choice is a criminal offense.
Capitalism as a socio-economic system entered the market after the failed feudalism. Tracing back to the basics of how capitalism as a system emerged and evolved and how it became a fundamental entity to surpass the constraints to go global, disseminating its veins not just in the First world but also the Third world community. The middle age feudalism comprising multiple diminutive dictators owning lands marked with specific rules. The lower class or the peasants used to work in the land at the expanse of protection from external forces. This system curbed the further possibility for the peasants and the dictator class to evolve and produce innovative ideas which further congealed the growth of the lower class and hence economy as a competition flunked due to its self contained characteristic. As a result, the peasant class revolted and used their own crops to sell instead of exchanging them for protection becoming lords themselves.
Capitalism has now become an imperative tool in the global economy as one of the ideal, effective and ingenious system even after its shortcomings. To narrow it down:
“Capitalism is a social and economic system where both the means of production and any associated trade are privately owned.” (Web)
Since Capitalism is a convoluted system interconnected to various other system, as for the smooth functioning of the society, it is important to advocate an amalgamation of various other systems. The historical development of Capitalism as a ‘free labor’ system where workers were free laborers in two ways. Firstly, they have the ability to work and have the freedom to sell their labor for wages to whom they want to. Secondly, they are free from the dictatorial power subjugating them but it solely depends upon the labor power. The ‘free labor’ system which was based on the amount of labor power and which subscribe the use of wages gave rise to an autonomous identity, as freedom released the previous shackles and fetters of people psychologically.
This system of ‘free labor’ gave people a sense of understanding the self caliber they possess, and how they can be independent based on the labor they do. This sense of relative autonomous identity gave people a new hope to step out of the closets, in other words, their self made inextricable complex web. Due to this, the compressed communities at the periphery start to sprang up like mushrooms and one such sidelined subculture was the gay and lesbian culture. The queer community which was submerged until eighteenth century with no such mythological or historical evidences in the history emerged in large masses. The 1970, was one of the momentous year for the gay and lesbian subculture as well as the women community which finally achieved true liberation and changed the sexual panorama of the nation.
As the queer subculture impeded due to the perks of true liberation and gained momentum due to equal amount of homophobic events that took place, an equal magnitude of counter force was applied by the community in opposition. These counter attacks, literary or physically produce an atmosphere to curb the inequality by uprooting it. The ramifications resulted in the emergence of gay bars and queer market products for two reasons. Firstly, to raise awareness that homosexuality was not a mental disorder and should be removed from the psychiatric perspective and secondly they sabotaged the entire brawny belief system that manipulated the twentieth century era.
Not only the term capitalism got another angle to be gazed and contemplate upon but a relationship was formed between the free labor system of capitalism and homosexuality. As the wage based system demanded a ‘sociable’ factor, more and more people start acknowledging their sexuality in a larger context instead of confined room, where the homosexual desires were born in isolation and assassinated then and there. As the concept of capitalism unfolded and propagated globally, the gay and lesbian subculture gained momentum resulting in the competition at the economic arena. It resulted in the in the interconnection of Capitalism and Homosexuality and the construction of Pink Capitalism or Rainbow Capitalism.
Pink Capitalism, from a critical perspective is a term which delineates the assimilation or incorporation of the LGBTQ movement and various sexual assortment to market economy and capitalism. The juxtaposition of various sexual diversity into market economy with a motive to obtain greater profits from the conventionally subjugated sections of the society. As these oppressed communities such as gays and lesbians start to come out of the closets, the demand for the independent products impeded along with the equal consumption. One of the reason for this audaciousness was the growth of Homo-nationalism among the people, initially gays and lesbians and even the cis class stood up for the inequality. As these discriminated class assimilated a hefty purchasing power over time, it was possible to construct a new and specific market solely for the gay community. These include gay bars and clubs, LGBTQ tourism and other specific gay oriented products.
The Pink Money which is associated with the purchasing power of gay and lesbian community created an ebullition of gay bars and nightclubs. The market power of pink money is a positive ramification for LGBTQ communities, as it give them a sense of complete identity after years of persecution and inequality. James Baldwin in his novel Giovanni’s Room vividly delineates the image of nightclub. “He was in a good mood and I, of course, was in a good mood too, and this meant we would end up drinking in Jaques’ favorite bar, a noisy, crowded, ill-lit sort of tunnel, of dubious – or perhaps not dubious at all, or rather too emphatic reputation. Every once in a while it was raided by the police.” (23)
Pink Capitalism has evolved in a parallel path along side modern capitalism. Pink Capitalism can be said as the fragment or an outcome of the modern capitalism as there was an ebullition of various sexual diversities. In the novel Giovanni’s Room, the protagonist David is bisexual and romances with his girlfriend Hella whom he met in a bar in Saint Germain des Pres and later with Giovanni whom he the first countenance with in a gay bar of Guillaume in Paris. David also has a brief sexual encounter with Sue, a girl from Philadelphia. The sexual orientation of David in Giovanni’s Room, which is a convoluted sexuality opens up a new and colossal picture of the diversities in sexualities. The acquaintance with these diversities expanded the market as new and different sexual diversities unfolded.
The Pink Money and Pink Capitalism spread in an intermittent way going through several phases. These phases marked the evolution of Pink Capitalism as a major factor in economy as well as homo-nationalism. Before opening the intricate knots about homo-nationalism and how it affected Pink Capitalism, it is significant to know the phases.
The primary phase of pink capitalism is called the underground phase. In this phase, amidst the persecution of homosexual people, gay bars and clandestine which sprang up in Europe and UK during the last decades of nineteenth century. It was the first wave of LGBT rights movement and was triggered with the printing of gay magazines but the movement was tranquilized due to the World War I and World War II with the rise in fascism. The second phase was the community building phase. During this phase, a counter attack towards homophobia due to fascism appeared. Although the consumption and the pink money remained minimal, certain association of these sidelined communities were formed which advocated the meetings of communities and opposed the promiscuous and erotic behavior of homosexual people. It was during this second phase homosexuality was stripped from the mental disease. James Baldwin novel Giovanni’s Room was published during this phase which talked about homosexuality so audaciously but was one of the product of consumption. Giovanni’s Room that was constraint within the four walls of a room where the complexities of sexuality and the intricacies surrounding it took place.
The room is vividly described by James Baldwin and is seemed to hold the heavy air where two different sexualities merged. The room also symbolize the secret and is often shown as ransacked with dark curtains and dingy walls. One of instances from the novel is: “I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s Room.We, or rather Giovanni, kept the windows closed most of the time.” (76)
The third phase was called the integration in media culture phase. During 1970, when the gay and lesbian liberation movement took place which decriminalize homosexuality, a fresh wave of LGBT liberation along with the feeling of homo-nationalism initiated. With the commemoration of homo- nationalism, homosexual acts were no longer a stigma in the urban hub such as cities of Europe and UK which reveled the unique sexual diversity of the people.
Considering the homosexual acts, identity and their relationship compatible with the norms of the society, homo-nationalism augmented not just physically but also psychologically. The third phase was the phase of transition when homophobia was opposed by social and political institutions. One of the concrete reason for the liberation was the limitless potential of the writers and musicians to convey the precarious plight of LGBT communities. One of the hitching factor and a humongous hindrance was the religion that remained stagnant to the new liberation and incessantly opposed it deeming homosexuality as sin.
The incorporation of homo-normative into the puritanical hetero-normative not just opened a new dimension but also completely changed the outlook of market economy and capitalism. From an archaic point of view, the process of sexual freedom and capitalism runs in a parallel direction, as it is based on consumption, but the non reproductive practices such as homosexuality and sodomy which do not produce any offspring. This distorted the economy as the wave of liberation helped people to celebrate their diverse sexuality, it also affected the market as the market economy went down. To counter such distortion, a new market was setup, specifically for the gay and lesbian communities, for the greater profit from the traditionally subjugated sections of the society.
With the successful ramifications in the market economy due to the brawny fragment of the capitalism: Pink Capitalism, different and innovative strategies were advocated by different associations to produce gay friendly products which further facilitated the overall economy of the market. One such strategy is Pinkwashing, a portmanteau word which in context of LGBT which delineated strategies to promote a queer friendly product specifically by the activists to raise awareness with an internal hidden motive to help the economy.
Giovanni’s Room focuses on two different entities. Firstly, it emphasizes the intricacies surrounding the room where David and Giovanni explored their sexuality and secondly Guillaume gay bar was the pivotal point in the novel. The encounter of Giovanni, who was an Italian bartender meets David who came to Paris to find a job. The gay bar is not just a place in Paris but it possess a historical significance as the bar symbolizes the unflinching and valiant entity standing in the heart of Paris during the age when homosexuality was criminalized. It signifies the evolution of homosexuality and how it was not just confined to small dark rooms with closed curtains and dingy walls and was not just a desire of isolation but a full fledged complete identity where people can be who they actually are instead of draping them in the fabric of common masses. James Baldwin, time and again brings out the vivid imagery of the Guilluame bar in the novel. “I remember that the bar, that night, was more than ordinarily crowded and noisy. All of the habitues were there and many strangers, some looking and some just staring.” (23) Another reference of the bar is: This bar was practically in my quartier and I had many times breakfast in the nearby working man’s cafe to which all the nightbirds of the neighborhood retired when the bars closed. (24)
The novel brilliantly captures the panoramic view of the pre-liberation events, where people were compatible to remain inside the fragile closets yet wanted to break the constraints. Giovanni’ s Room incredulously captures this dilemma along with the feeling of homo-national in the urban centers of big countries. The juxtaposition of capitalism and LGBT movement, for the general greater profit in the market economy through bars and nightclubs, LGBT tourism and other queer-friendly products.
Giovanni´s Room by James Baldwin unfolds multiple themes and issues of homosexuality and homo-nationalism but on a wider scale, the novel itself is a product of consumption if not colossal sense, but it acquires a diminutive position, no wonder its publication even after sixty years. While the novel talks about the second wave and one of the significant waves as is studded with hefty sexual references and of the momentous fragment of pink capitalism: bars and nightclubs. The Guillaume bar which stands as a powerful symbol of unflinching and valiant efforts in opposition to the homophobia after the fascist movement. The novel also captures the panoramic view of the pre-liberation events, where people were compatible to remain inside the fragile closets yet wanted to break the constraints. Giovanni’ s Room incredulously captures this dilemma along with the feeling of homo-national in the urban centers of big countries. The juxtaposition of capitalism and LGBT movement, for the general greater profit in the market economy through bars and nightclubs, LGBT tourism and other queer-friendly products.