Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin: Existential Identity Crisis in the Novel

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

The Existential Identity Crisis in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956)

I encountered a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself. – James Baldwin James Baldwin was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. Baldwin’s novels and essays are most famous for its complexity of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies during 20th century America. His novels and plays portray essential personal dilemmas with social pressures stopping the integration of black, gay and bisexual men, while also portraying deep internalized issues of these individuals and their quest for acceptance. These characteristics are seen in Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room. In his novel, the main character, David, faces many existential identity crisis’ with his nationality, role in society, and sexuality.

During this time period, the 1950’s, many things in society changed. This was a result of World War II. During the war, men and women, black and white, 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, particularly women and blacks, World War II was a provocative model for future change. As a result, many social norms changed. For example, the state created many 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 clerical, secretarial and assembly work. However, jobs were still strictly segregated by gender and repetitive routine work was considered women’s work.

In 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 of the various ways that Americans in the American student groups in Paris relate to European and their own culture.

Here he examines American soldiers living in Paris, studying at the universities on the G. I. Bill offered to them after the war. He studies the question of why some of the soldiers are successful in adapting to their lives in France and why some are not.

Journey to Atlanta 6 Baldwin concludes that the conflict that the soldiers must deal with is based on the clash between reality and fantasy. Some soldiers, he claims, have an imaginary, or ideal, concept of Paris in their minds. They have little real knowledge of the history of France, the sociology of its people, or an understanding of the language. When the reality of Paris hits them, Baldwin believes, it is then that they buy their tickets to go back home. The more successful soldier, on the other hand, takes the time to study the history and culture of France. This soldier might even live with a French family, thus encouraging a deeper enculturation. However, even this soldier might encounter problems, because the French people might also maintain a fantasy of Americans. They might, for instance, view all Americans by what they see in the movies, what they read about the government, what they dream about in connection to the idealism and individualism of the relatively new country of the United States. In the end, Baldwin suggests that an American living in Paris should use the “vantage point of Europe” to discover “his own country.”

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