Nationality in Giovanni’s Room: A Close Reading
James Baldwin’s work is often defined by an intersection of nationality and sexuality. In Giovanni’s Room, the motif of culture and country of origin is prominent, but difficult to interpret. A particularly dense passage occurs part two of this story, on page 292 beginning with “yet” and ending on page 293 with “disconnected.” This excerpt acts as a window into the relationship between these themes and the progress of David’s journey thus far. A keen reading of this passage helps to answer vital questions about the reading as a whole, including how his attachment (and detachment) to America mirrors his rejection of Giovanni and how America’s juxtaposition to images of innocence and childhood can reveal important information about David’s own journey and self-imposed isolation.
In the initial breakdown of this passage, a hidden yet vital detail is the language that David uses to describe his experience in a room of Americans. His vocabulary choices are particularly telling in this situation because they reflect an arrogant dismissal of American culture. From the first sentence, negative language is used: “harshly,” “forced,” “horde,” highlighting David’s disconnection from his home country. Baldwin’s choice of the word “horde” rather than “crowd” brings antipathy to the entire passage, compelling his audience to read the rest of the passage with a similar aversion to the Americans. This negative language continues throughout the passage with a superfluous abundance of negative prefixes including ‘dis-’ as in “disquietingly” and “disconnected” as well as ‘in-’ as in “incapable.” Rather than noting on the qualities that distinguish Americans from Parisians, David chooses to dwell on the lack thereof- calling attention to a crucial feature about this passage: David has a growing animosity toward America. The reason why is not immediately clear, however; it is not because he no longer identifies with them or sees them as a homologized unit, it is because he wants to see himself in them, and in turn, rejects himself. This will become clear after a full unpacking of the text. Perhaps a more important use of diction occurs with the annulling prefix ‘un-’ , which is particularly emphasized toward the end of the passage, where David alludes to the innocence of the Americans in the words “unsoiled,” “untouched,” “unchanged,” unadmitted,” and “unrealized.” The overall value of this literary technique comes to light when evaluating David’s self juxtaposition to his home country. The question here is: does David see himself as American anymore, and what has the word “American” come to mean?
Whereas the discussed prefixes ‘in-’ and ‘dis-’ mean a reversal of the root word following it or simply “not,” the prefix ‘un-’ more commonly means an entire lack of something, something that never existed in the first place. The section of the passage that uses this prefix describes Americans’ innocent and childlike quality and the lack of the intimacy and personality of Parisians. This is a cliche maintained and emphasized upon by Giovanni, who often employs stereotypes like these to express his dislike for Americans. By juxtaposing images of innocence and images of America, Baldwin is showing us where David began his journey- a young, “untouched” American, “unsoiled” and youthful, and he also shows us the intended conclusion to his journey: the well-oiled confidence of Europeans, a conclusion that David never reaches because of his rejection of that lifestyle. He refuses this closure to his story because it reminds him of his forbidden relationship with Giovanni, a relationship defined by sex and sin. David discusses the purity of Americans as a “travesty of sex,” having had “no traffic with the flesh,” and “preservative against the dangers and exigences of any more intimate odor,” revealing to us that gay sex is a shameful and dangerous thing to be done and marking his resentment toward the sexual acts he has performed with Giovanni. Rather than being ashamed of being an American because of their stereotypic preservation and prudeness, he is referring to what he longs to return to. Baldwin even uses images as “forcing oatmeal down his throat,” which at first glance, reads as a health- conscious wife taking care of her husband. Oatmeal is a bland, homogenous, and quite lawful staple food, so upon closer look, this phrase refers to the pristine lifestyle expected of Americans, or ‘forced down their throats.’ Another staple forced upon Americans is heterosexuality- which is part of why David’s American-ness is continuous with his rejection of his bisexuality. David feels completely defined by his homosexual tendencies, so in order to reject this part of himself, he has to reject his entire identity, including his Americanness. Therefore, he no longer sees himself as an American. Returning to the prefix ‘un-’: David feels dirty, soiled, changed, which is why he calls Americans “unsoiled, untouched, and unchanged.” These details prove that David’s view of America hasn’t changed, but rather his view of himself.
These facets of the passage can also clue us into what David means in the final sentence of the passage, perhaps the most complex and important one:
“Yet I also suspected that what I was seeing was but a part of the truth and perhaps not even the most important part; beneath these faces, these clothes, accents, rudeness, was power and sorrow, both unadmitted, unrealized, the power of inventors, the sorrow of the disconnected.”
In order to unpack this sentence, the reader must continue with the thematic use of ‘un-’. We have discovered that Baldwin uses this prefix to detail what David sees himself as, and in doing so, he drops hints about the deliberate use of the words “unadmitted” and “unrealized.” With these context clues, we can infer that David has already admitted and realized himself. He knows that he is bisexual if not homosexual, and it conflicts with his “American” purity. At the beginning of Giovanni’s Room, he started his journey because he “wanted to find [him]self” (part I, 236). David does exactly this, but lives in a constant fear of it, as revealed from our discussion about the literary technique used in the beginning of the passage. Just like the rest of this particular piece of prose, this sentence is not about Americans: it is about himself. The words “these faces” no longer refers to the “horde” of foreigners, but instead refers to David’s face alone. Following this pattern, we can further investigate the vocabulary used in this sentence. The “unadmitted” and “unrealized” aspects of himself that David refers to are “the power of inventors” and “the sorrow of the disconnected.” These lines are ambiguous and dense, but when understood, further answers the questions about the connection between David’s nationality and his sexuality. The first word, power, refers to the power that he has to realize himself. He recognizes that all of the Americans have this power within them, but that it is “unadmitted” and “unrealized.” “Inventors” is an American cliche, as we often create the image that we “invented” or “founded” America, but it has a deeper meaning: David is still inventing himself. He sees himself as an outlier, but this is a direct result of not using his “power” to be invented. Moving along, “sorrow” is a direct result of his refusal to invent himself. Because of this, he is “disconnected” and does not identify with Americans. The following question then becomes: why? It is not because he has lived in Paris for a long time, nor is it because he now sees their flaws. David’s nationality is a metaphor for his sexuality, and vice versa. David came to Paris young, naive, and optimistic, whereas Giovanni has a long and painful past. These are reflections of their respective countries; America itself is fairly young and characterized by the optimistic “American Dream,” whereas Italy has a past filled with wars for independence and a cultural journey that makes it dynamic and “soiled.” David struggles with displacement because he feels that his sexuality is unAmerican, as a 1950’s American culture is characterized by its heterosexual normativity. It is here that we come full circle: despite having come to Paris to “find himself,” David loses himself.
The final detail that is of importance is applicable to the story as a whole: Baldwin’s decision to use the past tense. Rather than following along David’s journey as it unfolds, we hear of it from an older David, one who has already moved past Giovanni and his life in Paris. This decision isn’t a coincidence; the use of past tense shows us that David has failed his pursuit of happiness. His language used to describe Americans that we have analyzed is not the language he used in the heat of the moment, rather, the language he uses years forward following Giovanni’s death. We can then infer that journey did not function in the way that he hoped it would, but that it did confirm his feelings about himself. Aside from this, we understand that he would not have left America if he thought that his identity was already realized, and this solidifies the function of this passage as showing the reader that David has hit the turning point in his search for himself.
Through a keen reading of this particularly important passage in Giovanni’s Room, we have answered overarching questions about the story as a whole. The thematic divide between David and Giovanni’s origins shapes the story as a whole because it acts as a metaphor for sexuality and identity, which are the story’s main themes. David’s attachment and consequential detachment to America mirrors his rejection of Giovanni and of himself because it was revealed that he was discussing himself rather than the American horde, which in turn, reveals where he has fallen on the timeline of his journey. Finally, the strategic juxtaposition of America to images of innocence and prudeness are reflective of David himself, and show us that he yearns for a simpler past, where he was not affected by the sins of homosexuality. James Baldwin’s literary techniques are unique and complex, but not lost on the audience who interprets his most abstract narratives. This brief but rich work is a window into the intersections of sexuality and nationality that can only exist symbiotically.
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