Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a classic tale of a man’s haunting, internal struggle in coming to terms with his sexuality. David, an American, who is engaged to his fiancée, Hella, finds himself in a near torture situation, caught between a conventional lifestyle of heterosexuality and his ongoing homosexual impulses. It is when David meets a Parisian bartender, named Giovanni, that his repressed feelings of homosexual impulses are truly unveiled and as a consequence, falls into a lengthy love affair with the man. This love affair turns into torment and confronts the battle of heart vs. mind for David, as he cannot truly accept his sexuality and therefore identity.
David’s internal struggle is exemplified through the repression that he has to battle within himself. A somewhat internalized homophobia in which he feels compelled to withhold, “The incident with Joey had shaken me profoundly and its effect was to make me secretive and cruel. I could not discuss what had happened to me with anyone, I could not even admit it to myself; and, while I never thought about it, it remained, nevertheless, at the bottom of my mind, as still and as awful as a decomposing corpse. And it changed, it thickened, it soured the atmosphere of my mind” (P15-16). The event that David experienced with Joey obviously had profound costs which seemed to cement his disgust towards homosexuality, and consequently, himself. If anything, in my view, it seemed the more David repressed his urges, the more hatred and anger he felt towards the unwelcome and daunting truth that hovered within him, like a thick fog. It wasn’t until he met Giovanni that the overwhelming burden of all that he had tried to avoid, did he fall victim to his repressed desires, “But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed. With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes” (P64). It is difficult for me to understand why David forced himself to repress his feelings for Giovanni and why he could not accept that he was in love with this man? How could he deny that he did not possess any feelings for him when all the psychological and physiological signs told him otherwise? It was a definite frustration that consumed me throughout my reading.
Baldwin uses Giovanni’s room-, (which the novel is subsequently titled) as a significant setting in the novel. It is a place which symbolizes David’s psychological battle of denial, yet encapsulates a location where David can be set free from his internalized battles. Giovanni’s room pinpoints itself at the heart of Giovanni and David’s love onslaught, as it is the setting of their sexual encounters. The room is symbolic in the sense that it is small and like a maze, together with being hard to find and enter into. This seems to emulate the complexity of David’s feelings and the conflicts that he experiences in regards to his homosexuality; an ongoing urge nestled in a black hole within himself. It additionally seems to cast a spell upon David, where he feels his defenses are weakened and falls into his own hell of wants and desires, “I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea, time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning. In the beginning our life held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride” (P109).
James Baldwin is quoted as saying Giovanni’s Room centers itself around the notion of “…what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody.” This to me is a plausible and sound analysis, as once reading the novel I can see the misery and conflict that David experiences while he is trying to overcome his personal conflicts of love. Baldwin has written a novel that exemplifies the most personally dangerous of conflicts that one can experience, one of self-inflicted turmoil, as opposed to heeding Shakespeare’s advice, ‘to thine ownself be true’.