Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin


author James Baldwin published 1956 date start Feb 01, 2024 date read Feb 23, 2024 edition ebook

classics lgbt romance


Not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour—and in the oddest of places!—for the lack of it.

Giovanni’s Room, to me, is a story of a man who cannot find it in himself to be completely vulnerable. It is the story of a man dealing with toxic masculinity, with homosexual repression, with internalized homophobia, and all the shame and guilt that comes with it. Because, in essence, to love and to be loved is to be vulnerable, to be perceived, to see and be seen. A nakedness that has nothing to do with taking your clothes off.

David is the narrator and protagonist of Giovanni’s Room. He develops a relationship with another man, Giovanni, despite already being engaged to a woman named Hella. Throughout the novel, there are moments where David briefly falls into vulnerability, how beautiful it was to love (a man), and immediately after comes the reflex of disgust and hatred and shame, both for him and the person he’s sleeping with.

At many points, he is fearful of being perceived as gay, particularly in that scene where he and Giovanni first meet and hit it off, and afterwards he’d notice that everyone in the bar had seen them, comparing it to being watched in a zoo. Jacques, David’s old gay friend, asks him if he likes Giovanni, to which David pretends not to hear the question. He proceeds to tell Jacques he must be confused to think that he could be with another man. To which Jacques replies: “Confusion is a luxury which only the very, very young can possibly afford and you are not that young anymore.”

I liked their conversations in this scene and in the next morning. Jacques tells David that “[Giovanni] doesn’t know that when he looks at you the way he does, he is simply putting his head in the lion’s mouth.” They talked about the shame of being with another man, that if he thinks of homosexual acts as dirty, then it will be dirty and full of loathing for each other’s bodies. He warns David would end up like Jacques, “trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever” if he kept playing it safe, if he kept being full of shame.

“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.”

For most (or really, the entirety) of the book, David parades his shame and misery in the text. There would be parts where he’d be projecting it onto Giovanni or Hella, how both of them probably hated him as much as he hated being with them. This kind of miserable thinking translates into reality, and as they say, misery loves company. Misery infects the people around you, it destroys the people you love and your relationships with them because all you can see is naught but misery.

This is seen particularly with David’s final confrontation with Giovanni and Hella. Giovanni tells him that he has never reached him, that David has never been present with him the way he was: “Do you think I did not know when you made love to me, you were making love to no one?” In this same conversation, Giovanni tells him that David is “afraid of the stink of love,” which interestingly parallels the previous dialogue with Jacques about dirty bodies, and later on, David describes Giovanni’s room as a “filthy little room”. Furthermore, David projects onto Giovanni that the only reason men would love other men is because they’re not “man” enough to love a woman. (Which, you already know, is full of shit.)

“If you cannot love me, I will die. Before you came I wanted to die, I have told you many times. It is cruel to have made me want to live only to make my death more bloody.”

In his confrontation with Hella, she comes to understand why David has been acting this way. She had known about David in the way he looks at her, and every time they slept together, and yet she herself did not want to see it, wanting David to confess it for himself. Still, David does not own up to his actions, saying that he’d only been lying to himself, that it was not his intention to hurt her. Thankfully, Hella sees through his bullshit and leaves him for good: “Shout it to the peasants, how guilty you are, how you love to be guilty!”

There’s the metaphor of Giovanni’s room as a closet, and the opposite of a closet, where David and Giovanni are free to love each other inside it. Yet, it is described in the text as a small and tight space, disorderly, with only one window: a place intended to be claustrophobic, where David feels suffocated to be inside of. Even when he’d already left that room, he still wanted to leave Paris, because he could not stand to be near it. It is also interesting to note that, upon his first arrival, David thinks the reason Giovanni had brought him to his room is so that David could destroy it and give Giovanni “a new and better life.” And again, the metaphor of love being disorderly pops up again.

With my hand on the knob, I looked at him. Then I wanted to beg him to forgive me. But this would have been too great a confession; any yielding at that moment would have locked me forever in that room with him.

Though this was published in the 1950s, it’s as timeless as it can be. Shame and guilt (and internalized homophobia) still plague queer people to this day, even as they live in a world that is relatively more accepting. (And the word “relatively” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, if I might add.)

At the risk of this review being too long, I also want to bring up race in the text, particularly with David as a white American. This was intentional, to focus more on the homosexual relationship, and racism is too heavy a weight for Baldwin to include at that point in his life. It cannot be denied that there is an intersection between racism (antiblackness, in particular) and homophobia, one that cannot be easily escaped, and one that white people have the luxury of safety from. It is also because of this that this book was refused to be published at first. It’s how authors of colour—and Black authors, especially—would be boxed in to write only about their race, and that they cannot (or are not allowed to) write about anything else.

In any case, Giovanni’s Room is truly about love, the nakedness and filth of it. To love and to be loved is rooted in our bones. It is part of what makes us human. And to be afraid of that love, to deny yourself from fully loving other people, is to deny others the pleasure of loving you.

references / further reading