History: First published in 1956, this is James Baldwin's second novel. Giovanni's Room is noteworthy for bringing complex representations of homosexuality to a reading public with empathy and artistry, thereby fostering a broader public discourse of issues regarding same-sex desire.
One theme of Giovanni's Room is social alienation. Susan Stryker notes that prior to writing Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin had recently emigrated to Europe and "felt that the effects of racism in the United States would never allow him to be seen simply as a writer, and he feared that being tagged as gay would mean he couldn't be a writer at all." In Giovanni's Room, David is faced with the same type of decision; on the surface he faces a choice between his American fiancee (and value set) and his European boyfriend, but ultimately, like Baldwin, he must grapple with "being alienated by the culture that produced him."
Baldwin admitted that his publisher first told him to "burn" the book because the theme of homosexuality would alienate him from his Negro readership. However, upon publication critics tended not to be so harsh thanks to Baldwin's standing as a writer. Giovanni's Room was ranked number 2 on a list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels compiled by The Publishing Triangle in 1999.
Ian Young points out the novel portrays homosexuality and bisexuality as uncomfortable and uncertain ways of living, respectively. Young also points out that despite the novel's "tenderness and positive qualities" it still ends with a murder.
Plot: David, in the South of France, is about to board a train back in Paris. His girlfriend Hella, to whom he had proposed before she went to Spain, has returned to the United States. As for Giovanni, he is about to be guillotined.
David remembers his first experience with a boy, Joey, who lived in Brooklyn, too. The two bonded and eventually had a sexual encounter during a sleepover. The two boys began kissing and making love; the next day David left, and a little later he took to bullying Joey in order to feel like a real man.
David now lives with his father, who is prone to drinking, and his aunt, Ellen. The latter upbraids the father for not setting himself as a good example to his son; David's father says that all he wants is for David to become a real man. Later David comes home drinking too, and drinks and drives once, ending up in an accident. Back home the two men talk, and David talks his father into letting him skip college and get a job instead. He then decides to move to France to find himself.
After a year in Paris, penniless, he calls Jacques, an older homosexual acquaintance, to meet him for supper and ask for money. In a prolepsis, Jacques and David meet again and talk about Giovanni's fall. Back into the plotline, the two men go to Guillaume's gay bar. They meet Giovanni, the new bartender, whom Jacques tries to make a pass at, until he gets talking with Guillaume. Meanwhile, David and Giovanni become friends. Later, they all go to a restaurant in Les Halles; Jacques enjoins David not to be ashamed to feel love; they eat oysters and drink white wine. Giovanni recounts how he met Guillaume in a cinema, how the two men had dinner together because Giovanni wanted a free meal. He also explains that Guillaume is prone to making trouble. Later, the two men go back to Giovanni's room and they have sex.
David moves into Giovanni's small room. They broach the subject of Hella, about whom Giovanni is not worried, but who reveals the Italian's misogynistic prejudices about women and the need for men to dominate them. David then briefly describes Giovanni's room, which is always in the dark because there are no curtains and they need their own privacy. He goes on to read a letter from his father, asking him to go back to America, but he does not want to do that. The young man walks into a sailor; David believes he thinks David is a gay man, though it is unclear whether this is true or the sailor is just staring back at David. A subsequent letter from Hella announces that she is returning in a few days, and David realizes he has to part with Giovanni soon. Setting off to prove to himself that he is not gay, David searches for a woman with whom he can have sex. He meets a slight acquaintance, Sue, in a bar and they go back to her place and have sex; he does not want to see her again and has only just used her to feel better about himself. When he returns to the room, David finds a hysterical Giovanni, who has been fired from Guillaume's bar.
Hella eventually comes back and David leaves Giovanni's room with no notice for three days. He sends a letter to his father asking for money for their marriage. The couple then walks into Jacques and Giovanni in a bookshop, which makes Hella uncomfortable because she does not like Jacques's mannerisms. After walking Hella back to her hotel room, David goes to Giovanni's room to talk; the Italian man is distressed. David thinks that they cannot have a life together and feels that he would be sacrificing his manhood if he stays with Giovanni. He leaves, but runs into Giovanni several times and is upset by the "fairy" mannerisms which he is developing and his new relationship with Jacques, who is an older and richer man. Sometime later, David walks into Yves and finds out Giovanni is no longer with Jacques and that he might be able to get a job at Guillaume's bar again.
The news of Guillaume's murder suddenly comes out, and Giovanni is castigated in all newspapers. David fancies that Giovanni went back into the bar to ask for a job, going so far as to sacrifice his dignity and agree to sleep with Guillaume. He imagines that after Giovanni has compromised himself, Guillaume makes excuses for why he cannot rehire him as a bar-tender; in reality they both know that Giovanni is no longer of interest to Guillame's bar's clientele since so much of his life has been played out in public. Giovanni responds by killing Guillame in rage. Giovanni attempts to hide, but he is discovered by the police and sentenced to death for murder.
On the day of Giovanni's execution, David is in his house in the South of France. The caretaker comes round for the inventory, as he is moving out the next day. She encourages him to get married, have children, and pray.
Hella and David then move to the South of France, where they discuss gender roles and Hella expresses her desire to live under a man as a woman. David, wracked with guilt over Giovanni's impending execution, leaves her and goes to Nice for a few days, where he spends his time with a sailor. Hella finds him and discovers his homosexuality, which she says she suspected all along. She bitterly decides to go back to America. The book ends with David's mental pictures of Giovanni's execution and his own guilt.
Review: Whoever has read James Baldwin's first novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," or his collection of essays and sketches, "Notes of a Native Son," knows him to be one of our gifted young writers. His most conspicuous gift is his ability to find words that astonish the reader with their boldness even as they overwhelm him with their rightness.
The theme of "Giovanni's Room" is delicate enough to make strong demands on all of Mr. Baldwin's resourcefulness and subtlety. We meet the narrator, known to us only as David, in the south of France, but most of the story is laid in Paris. It develops as the story of a young American involved both with a woman and with another man, the man being the Giovanni of the title. When a choice has to be made, David choose the woman, Hella.
David tells the story on a single night, the night before Giovanni is to be guillotined as a murderer. He tells of his life in Giovanni's room, of deserting Giovanni for Hella and of making plans to marry her, of the effect of this on Giovanni, and of the effect of Giovanni's plight on his own relations with Hella. Mr. Baldwin writes of these matters with an unusual degree of candor and yet with such dignity and intensity that he is saved from sensationalism.
Much of the novel is laid in scenes of squalor, with a background of characters as grotesque and repulsive as any that can be found in Proust's "Cities of the Plain." But even as one is dismayed by Mr. Baldwin's materials, one rejoices in the skill with which he renders them. Nor is there any suspicion that he is working with these materials merely for the sake of shocking the reader. One the contrary, his intent is most serious. One of the lesser characters, in many ways a distasteful one, tells David that "not many people have ever died of love." "But," he goes on, "multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour--and in the oddest places!--for the lack of it." This is Mr. Baldwin's subject, the rareness and difficulty of love, and, in his rather startling way, he does a great deal with it.
Opening Line: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”
Closing Line: “Yet, as I turn and begin waking toward the waiting people, the wind blows some of them back on me.”
Quotes: “And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no-one to watch, no penalties attached – it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.”