In Giovanni’s Room, David’s paralyzing fear might as well be an additional protagonist. Denial is a way of coping with fear, but not the only way. David, in his interminable terror, spends his life running from himself, from his fear, and from his knowledge of it. His early experience with Joey is only one of a whole series of situations in which he blindly follows his compulsion to deny and to run. It sets up a pattern that continues to escalate through the novel. Baldwin writes of David,
“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.” (15-16)
This early, fairly simple event in which David’s fear of his desire for another man results in his running from Joey and treating him with denial and cruelty could be considered practice for his actions with Giovanni and Hella. Other members of the class have discussed David’s constant inability to make decisions. In the case of Giovanni, Hella, and his father, his indecision and dishonesty stem from his own inability to be honest to himself. His early impulse to cover up his fear with lies continues until David has very little idea who he is or what he really wants. Everything he truly knows about himself he hides so deep that not even he can find it.
“You tell nothing but lies,” Giovanni accuses David during their final meeting. “What are you always hiding?” (137). And to Hella, David tries to explain, “If I was lying, I wasn’t lying to you…I was lying to myself” (163). As a reader, it’s easy to be sympathetic to the victims of David’s endless flight. Any attempt to get close to him inevitably ends in tragedy. I felt frustrated with his cowardice and the way it sabotaged his life. At times he seemed like more of a villain than a protagonist. The true villain in Giovanni’s Room, however, is not David or even Guillaume – it is the society that gives gay men so few options that they succumb to drugs, suicide, and murder as a matter of course. With no model of any sort of happy life as a gay man, David and Giovanni’s fear of the future, fear of their desires, and fear of the world around them is understandable. Although David’s denial does terrible damage, honesty does not appear to be an option. Though Hella rages that David could have told her the truth at any time, crossing that barrier required a strength he didn’t have. That kind of courage shouldn’t be required to live an honest life. In the end, David and the other gay men are all victims of their own fear: a fear fostered by the homophobic laws and cultures of America and France.