The Role of Father and Son Relationship in Shaping One’s Masculinity
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?
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