Giovanni's Room

Date: 2024-02-04

book cover of 'Giovanni's room' with leaves on it

My intentions for writing

I listened to Giovanni's Room as an audiobook. I feel quite self-conconscious; I think I have poor reading comprehension, but I wanted to try anyway. I decided to let the book play straight through, and reassured myself that the important moments would stand out to me, and I would be able to follow the general plot. Below I've discussed my interpretation and moments that stood out to me. The last thing I want to talk about is how I felt reading it. David leaving Giovanni really affected me, how miserable that was, but mainly I wanted answers to my questions. Why was Giovanni sentenced to death? Will David grow up to be a "man" like his father wanted? Will David break through his oppressive views on sexuality and truly love someone? Or will his body be dirty forever and forever? How will he leave the room that suffocates him so? Why does David take and take and take, and what does that say about his character? Will he ever truly change?

David is running away

David is running away from everyone and everything. He feels frightened and runs away from Joey. He stores away that night deep in his mind, trying to forget. David feels hatred towards his father, and so he runs away. David fears his relationship with Giovanni, and so he runs away. He runs away from who he is (a man attracted to men), hides himself, and judges those who are more openly gay. He keeps others at arms length (physically and relationally) because he can't bear to be seen for who he truly is.

"David seems to think of himself as a tourist in the gay world the same way he is a tourist in France... this isn't his 'real life.'" paleosol

The Room: a self-imposed prison

I think the room means two different things to David and Giovanni. To Giovanni, it was a place to cultivate love and intimacy. To David, it was a prison to escape. Yet, it's David's refuge as he runs away from home with no plan. David took and took and took until there was nothing left to take, and he left without looking back, and with little remorse, at least, in that moment.

Gender

I will be brief, but I wanted to point out two things that David thought about himself. While living with Giovanni, he describes himself as someone playing housewife. Then, when he fights with Giovanni, he positions himself as "[Giovanni's] little girl." He clearly feels emasculated, as he does not fit into the narrow definition of masculinity. Baldwin foreshadows that David will struggle with masculinity when a young David's dad says, "All I want is for David to grow up into a man." What does it mean to be a man? David is constrained by the box he puts himself into.

Shame: being clean and being filthy

This is my favorite aspect of the book. There are multiple instances where things or people are referred to as clean or filthy. Without a doubt, it represents shame and purity: the shame of being attracted to the same gender. David likes to push down his awareness to the point that he lies to himself and everyone around him. I'm not sure he is ever explicitly aware of his shame, but it rules over and ruins his life.

Jacques warns David:

"'Love him,' said Jacques, with vehemence, 'love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? ...And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty — they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better — forever — if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe. He paused, watching me, and then looked down to his cognac. 'You play it safe long enough,' he said, in a different tone, 'and you'll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever — like me.'"
— James Baldwin, Giovanni's Room

This moment stood out to me. I had a strong feeling it would foreshadow David's fate: he would, in fact, keep himself from loving another man because of his shame, and then he would feel filthy forever and forever. I wanted that not to be the case. It turned out to be correct. Giovanni eventually says something along the lines of, "I have never reached you."

"'You do not,' cried Giovanni, sitting up, 'love anyone! You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will! You love your purity, you love your mirror—you are just like a little virgin... You want to be clean. You think you came here covered with soap and you think you will go out covered with soap—and you do not want to stink... You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love.'"
— James Baldwin, Giovanni's Room

I think right after this David even says "this filthy little room." Of course the room is filthy too. The ever encroaching walls Giovanni tried so hard to make hospitable are caked in shame. I love that Giovanni was unafraid to love and "stink", which was in stark contrast to David.

Love, and the lack of it

I realized once David abruptly left Giovanni– a cruel abandonment, really– that David never truly loved Giovanni, at least not in the typical sense of love. Yes, after David's departure and through Giovanni's imprisonment, Giovanni consumes David's thoughts. David feigns concern, and he laments, wishing he was in Giovanni's arms once more. It's not love, though. It's guilt. David may not admit on the conscious level that he is guilty, but he is overwhelmingly guilty. He was able to leave Giovanni without feeling a single thing. He was cold and uncaring. I'm no psychologist, and I hate slapping the "narcissist" label onto things as it often flattens a person's character to the second dimension, but David, at the minimum, exhibits narcissistic behavior. It's heartbreaking how little David cares for others, if at all. He takes and takes and takes, and then discards. To say "you love your mirror" is to say "you're so obsessed with your image above all else," and it obscures David's view of the things that really matter. Even as he plays out Giovanni's death sentence, he is thinking about himself. And David lacks the self reflection and awareness to ever figure out why his life turned out the way it did. David will always feel empty, never to be whole. The way I write about David seems so damning. It's just tragic. Perhaps he has the agency to change, but he seemed doomed from the start.

I'm fighting myself on whether David truly loved Giovanni. I tend to fall into this black and white thinking that people with narcissistic traits are incapable of love, but really, I think they often love in a stunted, deeply repressed way.

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