Passivity and Social Membership in Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Belonging and being a member of a society or culture, requires a certain degree of passivity. Parents, teachers, adults who are accepted members of society, raised children to become part of the culture. Children are expected to learn these ideals and replicated it as they grow up. Thoughts, customs, traditions are passed on and embedded within children. As children, they internalize these without much thought; it simply becomes an imitation game. In this way, children reproduce these ideologies without thoughts, a very passive action. However, at a certain age, once the children had enough knowledge and tools to think and reason for themselves, they begin to question social norms. From that point onwards, it becomes a constant battle of fitting in and still maintaining a sense of individuality. It is still possible to be an individual as long as it is still within the norm, such as an extremely well known, one of a kind scientist or Hollywood star. Science and arts are accepted in society; they still are members of society. What happens when the need and want to be an individual forces one to be an outsider? The younger someone is, the more acceptable it is to be an outsider. Children at the bridge as between childhood and teens, leading into adulthood, battles with wanting to be themselves and constantly being forced back into society. On the other hand, adults who have certain traits that are undesirable to society are actively trying to keep those hidden so they can continue to be members of society. However, even in this struggle, passivity is still required. In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, passivity becomes the primary tool for the characters to fit themselves back into membership of society. Through passivity, society is able to contain these characters into the accepted norms, thus, forcing and allowing them to be members of society.
The protagonist, David, starts his narration by reminiscing about his past. There’s a sense of regret underlining throughout the beginning, a regret of too many lies. David noted that he’s “too various to be trusted” (Baldwin, 5). The façade he put forwards contains too many changes and lies that keeps him alive and a member of society. This act of lying and changing himself to fit the norm require David’s active participation and knowledge of his surroundings and the people he interacts with. Yet, he has done with too many times that for him, it requires no more effort. It became an automatic response. The lies that spout out of him flow out without his conscious action. This becomes a form of passiveness on his part. David is passively lying and changing himself because this action has become so ingrained into him.
Despite his regret, he does nothing to change his actions. Throughout the novel, David regrets many of his actions, yet, he is passively letting it pass by him, without trying to truly correct his lies. David consistently runs away from his problem, preferring to ignore it rather than face it, as an adult would. By ignoring it, he is allowing society to cover up his mistakes, his differences, and his outsider ideologies. One of the first instances of this occurs with Joey. Joey is a boy whom David had his first gay sexual relationship with. David reflection upon the moment describe it as “an act of love” so filled with “joy” (8). In this instance, it appears as if David is no longer acting and lying to himself and the world, or rather, Joey. David had fully given himself over, actively engaging in this activity. However, just as quickly and easily as his lies slip out, so does his fear of being an outsider. He immediately becomes aware that “Joey is a boy” and Joey’s “body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern” (9). In David’s eyes, Joey’s body became a sight of darkness, enclosure, containment, and death. The knowledge forces David to once again put up an act and drove David away from Joey. The action of love itself was an act of passivity as David willingly and fully delve into, letting his emotions control him. He was going with the flow. Nevertheless, in the morning, once David wakes up, so do all his fears. David runs away and completely avoided Joey. Despite avoiding Joey, David “would have been very happy to see him” (9). If David would have been happy, why passively wait for Joey to come to him? By not seeking out Joey, David can continue to lie to Joey and himself, that what transpired means nothing, perhaps nothing more than a little curiosity. David is passively allowing the event to pass by as he continues to lie and change himself to fit in. There’s a part of David that regrets hurting Joey, but David will never act upon that regret because to do so would mean to accept his action, an action that is unacceptable within societal norms. This action forces David farther away from society and really cast him as an outsider. In order to fit in and to continue being a member of society, David has to let it go. The action of letting something go is a passive action.
Most children learn about what is acceptable within a culture through their parents first and foremost. David’s mother died when he was still young. He lives with his father and his aunt. David notes that his father “would be reading his newspaper, hidden from me behind his newspaper” (11). This creates an image that David is an outsider; his father is the member since he is reading the paper, keeping himself in tune with the world. As a child, David is not necessarily a true member of society yet. David understanding of the world then, is through his father. His father’s action is very passive. His father simply sits and read the newspaper, ignoring everything around him. This action then plays out throughout David’s life. As a child seeing this, David embeds this action within, thinking that it is normal action of being a man. Throughout the novel, David is seen ignoring his troubles and hiding away from his responsibilities, even if he regrets such actions. His father is doing the same thing here. David’s father ignore everything, and when David’s aunt, Ellen tried to confront him, he only reply with “strain and exasperation” (13), signifying that he is tired and does not want to deal with his problems. David replicates his father’s action throughout the novel. Additionally, David is the child and as a parental figure, his father should be more involve and active in David’s life, yet, by reading the newspaper, his father is playing a very passive role and not really taking care of David, who is his responsibility. He would much rather put his time and focus on being a member of society by reading the paper and keeping himself updated within his world. Like so, David also figuratively hides behind the newspaper throughout much of his narration, duplicating his father’s actions.
The setting of the novel takes place in France, rather than in the United States. France, Europe in general, is what people considered the Old World while United States, particularly New York, is consider the New World. David grew up in New York and New York is a place of constant movement and activities. When talking to Giovanni, David describe New York as “very high and new and electric – exciting”, very “twentieth century” and that in New York, “there’s such power there, everything is in such movement” (33). In contrast, Paris is seen as “old” and “all the time gone by” and David cannot help but wonder what will happen “when everyone is tired, when the world – for Americans – is not so new” (33). This contrast between new and old is also a contrast between movement and action versus inactivity and passiveness. Young people are synonymously associated with constant movement and action. New York is where everyone goes. New York has become a center of actions. On the other hand, Paris, with its’ images of old age, is seen as passive. This novel was also written after World War II, where Germany controlled Paris for a time. Paris is weak, old, and broken. This conjures up images of inactivity, just letting the world pass by. Compare to New York, people in Paris are slower, more incline to sit back and enjoy rather than constantly moving and bustling about. New York is also a city of immigrants. It is constantly changing and taking in new ideas into its society. It builds taller and taller buildings, reaching, testing, and risking the limits of mankind. Paris is a city of the old, a city of leisure, calmness and also pain and hopelessness when compare to New York. David recalls Paris with its darkness, only going out at night, a place “infested with vermin” (49) and Hella remarks, “it’s cold out here in the Old World” (134). David, despite pouring all his effort into lying and keeping up a façade, is very much a passive member of society. He contains his queerness by ignoring it. David always ignores the consequences of his actions and his lies. It is only fitting that David leaves New York behind for Paris. He refuses to acknowledge his problems, so instead of risking a change in the city of constant movement, David fled to Paris, a city belonging to the Old World, a city decimated by war and filled with pain rather than hope.
Similar to David, Giovanni is also running away from his problems, and he too, runs to Paris rather than somewhere new and exciting. Giovanni told David about his past in Italy, where he grew up in a “very old” (138) village. He had a female lover and the day he ran away, Giovanni had just buried his baby. He ran to Paris, a city where he “will surely die” (140). Giovanni grew up in an old place, with its tired and worn out images only to end up somewhere just as worse. Giovanni is contained in passive cities, confine so that he will continue to be a member of this society. Additionally, the image of a female is one of motherhood. Giovanni’s female lover cannot be a truly be mother and act out her duty as a female in society without a living child. In a way, Giovanni had failed in his duty as a man to provide a child for his wife. He failed as a member since he was unsuccessful in doing something expected of him as a member in this culture. Like David, instead of facing his problems, he ran away, leaving his responsibility behind and letting the troubles passed by him. Ironically, Giovanni rush into a relationship with David and live a live of constant activity and being presence in the moment. Giovanni’s activity creates a space for his passivity. He wants to ignore and even forget his fast. Forgetting is a passive action, one that happens without conscious thoughts. He is trying to forget his child in a broken city. More importantly, he is trying to forget his failure to provide and fit himself back into society and the idea of manhood.
Another character that exhibits this is Hella. Hella constantly travels and when David asked her to marry him, she said “she would have to go away and think about it” (5). In the beginning, Hella is an outsider. She is living her life and not confiding herself to the idea of what it means to be a woman, that is to be a wife and a mother. Womanhood is seen as a passive role whereas manhood is an active one. Hella refuses to accept these roles. She is the one who is active in the relationship here. She does not want to confine herself yet. However, at the end, Hella begs David to let her “be a woman” because it is “all I want. I don’t care about anything else” (161). She goes on to say “don’t throw me back into the sea, David. Let me stay here with you” (161). There is a change in Hella. In the beginning, she was full of action and adventure, but now, she has become a passive girl, begging David to let her fulfill her role as a woman. She is letting her action create room for her inaction. At the same time, she realizes that she can no longer be an outsider. In order for her to continue, she must conform. In conforming, she’s becoming passive, letting herself be molded back into society.
When Guillaume’s death became known, David express regret. He claims that he feels responsible, but he knows it’s not his fault. David distance himself from everything as the guilt bears him down. David imagines the event that leads to Guillaume’s death (154) and by imagining, David reaffirm that he was not there, he could not have possibly done anything to stop Giovanni. Much like Joey, David left Giovanni behind and while they do see each other, it was only in passing. Also, like the situation with Joey, David could have visit and seek Giovanni out, but David chose to be passive and just stand by as the world pass him. Joey left town after a while, never to be seen again, yet David can still remember him. Giovanni is killed but David will always remember him. Instead of running away to Paris as before, this time, since he is already in the Old World, David tear the envelope containing Giovanni’s execution date and watch it leave, just as he has left the New World behind for the Old World in the beginning.
Throughout the novel, David narrates his past, one fills with regrets and pain. However, David refuses to take any actions, rather he is content with being passive and continuing with his lies. In a lot of ways, David is still a child. Children are given the necessary ideas and tools to be successful members of society. They replicate these ideologies and behavior without much thought, simply doing it because the adults around them do it. Children are passively recreating society. David, with his refusal to act upon his regrets, simply reproduces what he had learned. His passivity allows for his membership into his culture and society. The only way to be members of society is by being passive.
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