We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin: Comparative Analysis
Summer Reading Essay Prompt
Conventional characters can be defined as those that conform to widely held expectations. In both Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, both David and D-503 are faced with societal expectations that they are expected to uphold. In We, D-503’s obeys all the commands that he is given by the One State therefore playing a conventional role in society. In Giovanni’s Room, society’s expects David to fall within the realms of heteronormativity. In both novels, the protagonists deviate from their conventional roles by breaking society’s expectations of them. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, D-503’s failure to achieve individuality and break free of his stereotypical role in society depicts the indomitable role that conformity plays within society, while in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, David’s struggle with heteronormativity portray how societal norms still remain prevalent regardless of whether conventional roles are broken.
In Zamyatin’s We, the motif of the ancient house illustrates that individual desires are highly pertinent to humanity, but they do not dominate the human tendency to conform. The ancient house is a place where the numbers of One State can observe the history of the human race. The opaque house has no windows and is the complete opposite of D-503’s home, a glass building with complete transparency. The glass home illustrates that he is transparent to society. When D-503 is in this ancient house, it is the first time he is not being observed by all of society and in turn is not faced with the conventional expectations of conforming to the One State’s standards. He ultimately breaks the law and the expectations of ultimate conformity by having sex with I-330 without a pink ticket. D-503’s desire to have sex with I-330 illustrates how much influence his individual desires have over his actions. However, the time he spends in the ancient house is short lived and when he returns to his glass home, he spends most of his time reflecting on the times in which he broke conformity. Furthermore, his constant documentation of the incidents in the ancient house illustrate how D-503 must report all his actions to the One State. While he does deviate from some of the conventional expectations placed upon him he ultimately records these digressions. In this way, D-503 conforms to societal norms in which he documents all of his actions and the events of his life that deviate from conventional expectations.
In Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, the motif of Giovanni’s room depicts that individual desires only temporarily take dominance over society’s expectations. David is expected by society to be a heteronormative man, marry a women, raise a family, and live a normal life in the country. However, in Giovanni’s room, David rejects these expectations to some extent. In the room, David and Giovanni pursue their relationship and fall in love. While David does break the conventions of a heteronormative life by falling in love with a man, he also develops a domestic role in the relationship. David takes upon himself the role of cooking and cleaning, the role that is stereotypically taken up by a woman. While David does break the conventional expectation that he would be partnered with a woman, he falls into heteronormative tendencies. Furthermore, David is constantly worried about the windows in the room, concerned that someone will see him and Giovanni. This depicts David’s fear of societal rejection and it is ultimately this fear that drives David to end his relationship with Giovanni and further pursue his relationship with Hella. The desires that David portrays in Giovanni’s Room only temporarily shield his conformity to societal expectations.
The unconventional actions in both the ancient house and Giovanni’s room illustrate the power of influence within human desires. D-503 continually returns to the ancient house and ultimately helps his friend O escape from it. While D-503 chooses to stay, (conforming to societal expectations), he does acknowledge the existence of a world beyond the One State. On the other hand, David has a conflicting relationship with Giovanni’s room. He is constantly debating whether he should live in the room, finally choosing to move out without warning Giovanni. While humanity is debating on conforming to societal expectations and pursuing individuality, both novels illustrate how ultimately conformity has dominance over individuality.
In We, the eutopic setting of the One State illustrates the characters inevitability to conform. The glass homes, the prescribed jobs, and the Benefactor looming over the city are all factors that control the citizens. The One State is surrounded by a green wall which is never broken into. This green wall portrays the stereotypical roles put in place for the citizens of the One State and their instructions to never step outside of them. D-503 depicts the One State as a utopic world in which he wants to conform to the expectations however, this illustrates his indoctrination to fit conventional roles as he has never visited any other place. When D-503 is introduced to the world beyond the green wall, he waivers. This illustrates how a singular setting can lead to a belief that there is only one convention an individual can fit into. D-503 does not realize that he has a soul, the ability to choose his own identity, and break free of his conventional role in society.
In Giovanni’s Room, the setting of Paris, France, illustrates the many expectations which are offered by society and the human tendency to struggle with multiple. Giovanni’s room is placed in the outskirts of Paris, where David and Giovanni can be seen as outsiders to society (not conforming to heteronormative expectations). However, when Hella and David are together, they are centered in the middle of Paris, where their heteronormative relationship fits in. David constantly shifts his narration between the center of Paris and the outskirts. He is deciding which convention he will ultimately conform to. While David eventually leaves the outskirts of Paris and returns to the center with Hella, he remains indecisive. Even after Giovanni’s execution, David moves to another city where he has an affair with a sailor. He believes he must choose one conventional role and is indecisive on which one he must choose.
In We, D-503 did not realize that he had other options for his societal role due to the singular setting of the novel. In his mind, the only convention he fit was the one that the leaders of the One State prescribed him. On the other hand, David was placed in multiple settings and was given a plethora of conventions he could conform to. Riddled with conventional expectations implemented by his father, David escaped from Brooklyn and moved to Paris, then its outskirts, and then back to Paris. He was deciding which convention to follow, a gay man, an outsider in his society, or a heteronormative man in the center of society, widely accepted by all. On the other hand, D-503, was only given one other option, the choice to not conform to the one One State’s expectations. Both Zamyatin and Baldwin communicate that individuals must ultimately choose which societal role they will conform to based on their individual desires and exposure to different societal expectations.
Both novels conveyed humanity’s inevitable nature to conform to conventions. While D-503 was not presented with many options, he eventually conformed, although by force, to the expectation to be a loyal, unwavering citizen of One State. He exposed the ancient house and the plots of the people beyond the Green Wall. David on the other hand did not choose a singular conventional role. While he left Paris by the novel’s conclusion, his chosen convention was ambiguous. Hella catches him with a man and he ultimately confessed his homosexuality to her. His new setting illustrated that he was still attempting to find a conventional place in society. Ultimately, both Zamyatin and Baldwin illustrate how societal conventions play a dominant role in determining one’s individuality.
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