Here are some reading questions to help you think about the novel as you read it.
- Interestingly, Giovanni’s Room is the only one of Baldwin’s novels without an African American character, even though it has autobiographical connections (Giovanni is based on a young Swiss man Baldwin himself met in Paris, Lucien Happersberger). Do you think this is significant for the topic of the novel, or not? Why or why not?
- What are the main points of crisis for the narrator (David) as he comes to terms with his own homosexuality—what is he most conflicted about? Think not only about his own desires and feelings (Joey, Giovanni) but also the role other characters such as Jacques, Guillaume, his father, Hella, and others play as embodiments of certain fears and conflicts in David. Make sure to mark passages that seem particularly important.
- In the 19th-century and early 20th-century texts, we talked about the Hellenizing discourse of beauty (Greek culture and homosexuality as a haven for imagining and beautifying queerness). There are some moments of great beauty in this text (language, imagery). What are some of them, for you? Why and how do they strike you as beautiful? Are these moments related to sexuality?
- What are some blatantly homophobic passages, and how are they related to David’s development in the novel? What purpose do they serve? Make sure you find at least two good examples.
- There are some interesting passages about being an American (as opposed to being French, Italian, etc.). Pay some attention to these. What relation do they have to the main themes of the novel, homosexuality and coming of age?
- Think about the main metaphor of the title: Giovanni’s room. What symbolic role might this room play in the novel? How does this “room” relate to another main theme of the novel, that of being/coming/being away from/making a “home”?
- What other largely symbolic themes and images do you find in this novel, especially related to water and to stagnation/inaction/emptiness? How might these be connected to the overall themes of a search for identity, self-denial, and the notion of “home”?
- What is Hella’s role, overall? Would it be a stretch to compare hers to Sibyl Vane’s in The Picture of Dorian Gray? How does/doesn’t the analogy work?
- What is the role of class?
- What is the role of aging/aged gay men, especially Jacques and Guillaume, especially in relation to the young men they meet and woo? What gaps and hierarchies does that reveal within the gay male community, as it’s being depicted here? What does all this have to do with the crime that happens later in the novel?
- Overall, what sorts of contribution has Baldwin made to the developments of queer literature, as we have traced it in this course so far? How does it reveal both a new step (progress) in depicting homosexuality in literature, and carry the burden of queer literature’s past?
- How does this novel address transgression and taboo (to follow up on our discussion of that with the Tim Dean article last week)?
- What do you personally think of the ending of this book? What “lessons” do you think readers could possibly take away from it?