Homosexuality and society have a long history of not mixing well together, in James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” the main character, David, is a closet-homosexual in the mid- twentieth century living in Paris. His girlfriend, and soon to be fiancé, Hella, has left on a boat for America and will return to Spain in a couple weeks. David loves Hella, but he still has holes in his heart that are not being filled by her. Being a closet-homosexual creates many problems for David, he has not told his fiancé, or anyone else for that matter, and he thinks society as a whole looks down on him and his orientation. His father loves him, and has no idea of his sexuality, as they have grown apart since David has grown up, and David has no intention of telling him. David’s love for a bartender in Paris, Giovanni, presents personal problems for David, because he thinks he loves Hella but now has had an affair with Giovanni and realizes that he also loves him, and is more comfortable in his skin when he is with Giovanni.
David meets Hella at a bar on St. Germain des Press and afterwards they began seeing each other. Before Hella gets on a boat to America, David proposes to her which she almost takes as a joke, but then begins taking it seriously while she’s away. David also tells her that he loves her before she leaves, but after saying it realizes that he may not have actually meant it. David has been hiding from his sexuality all his life, ever since he had his first sexual encounter with a man named Joey when he was a young boy in Brooklyn. David and Joey became good friends in the summertime, David recalls whistling at girls on the beach, but in reality they are both terrified that they will acknowledge them. Joey and David proceed to go back to their room and make love. In the morning after his experience with Joey, David felt very ashamed of it, ashamed at what he his, fear about what society will think, and what his father would think.
David explains his dreadfulness as such: “A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words” (1.1.19). David ignores Joey for the rest of the summer and when they meet again at school, he makes up a lie that he has begun seeing a girl, to further hide his orientation.
David and his father have an interesting relationship, after David’s mother passed away when he was five, he was left in the care of his father and his unmarried aunt, Ellen. David’s father drinks a lot, is a ladies man and is slow to anger, but when he does get angry he gets very angry. David’s father and his aunt Ellen fight a lot and Ellen says there will be a day where no one can control David. This happens after his summer with Joey, David begins to be more and more like his father, coming home drunk, arguing with Ellen, and David’s father doesn’t seem to interfere, but he is frightened that he and his son are growing apart. David and his father grow more and more apart and when his father proposes that David go to college, rather than fight him on the idea, David chooses flight, and leaves Brooklyn. While David is away, his father constantly tries to stay in contact with him, offering him money if he comes home and “settles down” but David opposes this idea, thinking of settling down as “the sediment at the bottom of a stagnant pond.” David has now moved to Paris to pursue a new life and has chosen his pursuit of love over the “American Dream” that his father and Aunt wanted for him, but for David, this “dream” is not one of his own.
While David’s fiancé is away on a boat, he reaches out to a friend named Jacques for money and they end up going to Jacques favorite gay-bar, which is down the street from David’s house. At the bar David feels uncomfortable and thinks that Jacques secretly loathes him, but he keeps up the lie that they are friends so that he is not alone at the bar. This is when David meets Giovanni, a new bartender at the gay-bar owned by a man named Guillaume. David, despite being at a gay-bar, still conceals his sexuality because it is what he has always done, and he believes that he loves Hella. When he sees Giovanni though, he wonders where Guillaume found him, he is like a dream for David. Jacques and Guillaume have a drink together leaving David and Giovanni alone together having a drink, and they begin to discuss the differences between America and Paris, David explains that in Paris you feel “all the time gone by” and in New York, you feel “all the time to come.” David and Giovanni get into a light argument over the differences between Americans and Europeans and Giovanni seems to like the way he argues and is charmed by him. David later explains that him and Giovanni had an instantaneous connection at the bar and will be connected until death. After the four friends leave the bar at around 5’o clock A.M, David resolves that he will talk to Giovanni and explain that there was a misunderstanding between the two of them, and that he has a fiancé and is not interested in him. After coming to this conclusion though, David speculates that he in fact may be the one that is confused. They go to another bar, and it is clear that just about everyone knows and loves Giovanni, and David admires him. In the bar, Jacques and David have a deep conversation about his sexuality and why he wants to hide it, Jacques says the reason he is ashamed is because “There is no affection in them, and no joy. It’s like putting an electric plug in a dead socket. Touch, but no contact. All touch, but no contact and no light” and Jacques tells him to not think of it as dirty, if they both love each other, then it is not dirty, it is just love. After the long night, Giovanni asks David if he would like to go back to his home, reluctant but secretly accepting, David agrees. In Giovanni’s room, he pulls David onto the bed, David describes his thoughts with “Everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes” David feels extreme guilt for his actions, and has a strange conversation with the Italian caretaker of his room, she asks him about Hella and what his plans are between him and his fiancé and she also says that all men need a woman in their life. At this point David gets very uncomfortable and just wants her to leave before he breaks down in tears.
It seems as though David never really becomes one with his feelings, he always has a feeling of secrecy or denial, whether he is back home with his father, with Hella, or with Giovanni. With his father and with Hella, David must hide the fact that he has been with men, and that he likes it. With Giovanni, at least in the early stages of their relationship, David basically hides his entire life prior to meeting him. He does not tell him that he has a fiancé at first, and does not mention his prior sexual experiences with men or what his father thinks of him, to some extent David is afraid of how Giovanni will react if he tells him the whole truth. Eventually David has to tell Giovanni about Hella, because she will be returning to Paris soon, and this creates an ongoing fear in Giovanni because he knows that one day David will leave him. Both David and Giovanni, in a sense, use women to cover their real sexuality, Giovanni says that he only makes love with women with his body, which David points out that that can make a man very lonely, David thinks he loves Hella but it is becoming more and more apparent that it is all a lie, or a cover up. In part two, David and Giovanni talk about what Hella would think if she found out about them, David thinks she would be terribly hurt. David also explains that, in America, what they are doing is a crime; to which Giovanni replies “If your countrymen think that privacy is a crime, so much the worse for your country.” Obviously, nowadays homosexuality is not a “crime”, per say, in America but in the mid twentieth century, it was. People who were homosexual were basically outcasts in society and had no choice but to hide their sexuality, or else they could be arrested or even put in jail. In a way, America was thwarting the “pursuit of love” for many Americans, in order to focus on the American dream and non-homosexual Americans.
One day during David and Giovanni’s affair, David gets two letters; one from his father and one from Hella. The letter form his father is a plea for David to return home, his father has no idea what he is doing in Paris and claims he is wasting his life away; he wants David to return to the American dream. David brushes this off and pays no mind to it; but the letter from Hella is much more compelling. Hella says that she has accepted his proposal and will be returning to Paris soon. This actually excites David and he feels relieved, but also fears having to tell Giovanni, and instead of telling him, David goes out on the town and finds a female prostitute named Sue and they have sex, in an attempt to remove himself from his feelings and reconnect with a female in preparations for Hella to return. After the act, David regards it as immoral, and realizes that he still has to deal with his problems. When Hella returns, David goes to meet her and does not tell Giovanni anything; David disappears from Giovanni for three days while he is flirting and spending time with Hella. During this time Hella senses a small distance between them that she did not notice before, and when they accidentally run into Giovanni, Giovanni freaks out and spirals into a pit of despair even though he knew it was inevitable. Giovanni feels David has used him, lied to him, and never really loved him, and this speculation leads him to murder his former boss, Guillaume, in his bar. A week later, Giovanni is found with Guillaume’s money on him, and is sentenced to death. News of the scandal spreads like wildfire and casts a dark shadow on homosexuals in Paris, a number of gay bars close and the police even go around questioning other gay men; the public morale has shifted towards a hatred of gay men, almost to the extent of America. When David finds out, he is overly distraught and in despair, which Hella does not understand since David told her that Giovanni was just a roommate. This puts a huge strain on their relationship and all David can think about is Giovanni, further and further distancing himself from his fiancé while she has no idea of what the underlying factors are.
David loses all connections he had with Hella and realizes the extent of his love for Giovanni, and how he will never be able to have that with Hella, or anyone else. David escapes Hella and goes to a gay bar to find a sailor to try to comfort him, but after a few days of no contact, Hella finds him with the sailor, and is disgusted. She immediately starts packing saying that she will forget what it means to be a woman if she stays any longer. Hella explains that she always had an idea that this was the case, but could not push herself to believe it. David does not try to stop her; he sees no point in it. Within the course of a couple weeks, David has lost nearly everything that he once cared about. He loses Giovanni due to the fact that he had a fiancé and was trapped in a relationship that he knew he did not want, which send Giovanni into a pit of despair, and ultimately getting him killed. Then he loses Hella, after she finds out the truth about him, and now he truly has no one.
James Baldwin is one of the few writers in the 1950’s that would write about homosexuality and his book “Giovanni’s Room” perfectly captures the struggles that gay men endured during this time. Giovanni’s Room really brought to light the hardships of being a gay man in the 1950’s and even today, the message is clear; society, being so opposed to homosexuality in the twentieth century, can destroy the lives of the men who try to hide their sexuality and ruin entire relationships. Baldwin does an excellent job of creating empathy and even sympathy for gay men in a time where there was none. Giovanni’s Room shows how hard it really was for gay men in the 1950’s, especially in America, but present all over the world.
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