Space and Masculinity in James Baldwin’s [Giovanni’s Room]

Front cover of James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (2013 Vintage Edition)

Front cover of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (2013 Vintage Edition)

Originally published in 1954, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was not only one of the first novels to tackle issues of same-sex desire with heart and honesty, but it was also a text that prompted frank discussions of homosexuality within the public sphere. The narrative focuses on the experiences of David, an American who moves to Paris in a quest for self-discovery after he experiences a near-fatal car accident. After spending a year roaming the streets of Paris with little money and spending most of his time in hotel rooms, he meets Giovanni, an Italian bartender who is attracted to him. Most of the novel is centered on the months that David spends living with Giovanni in his disorganized and disheveled room in the outskirts of Paris, where David comes face-to-face with gender-related crises galvanized by his intense relationship with the Italian bartender. Unable to cope with the inconsistency between his sexual orientation and the expectations of masculinity imposed by himself and others, David abandons Giovanni without notice–only to find out later that Giovanni is going to be executed because he murdered the owner of the bar he worked at.

The novel creates an intricate portrait of David’s sexual awakening, and the frustrations that prevent him from achieving a stable romantic and sexual relationship with another man. David pinpoints the development of his fear of same-sex desire to his first sexual relationship with another boy when he was a teenager in Brooklyn. He describes a tender first sexual experience with his friend Joey–an experience that degrades into a manifestation of fear when he realizes that he made love with another boy:

I was suddenly afraid. It was borne on me:but Joey is a boy.I saw suddenly the power in his thighs, in his arms, and in his loosely curled fists. The power and the promise and the mystery of that body made me suddenly afraid. That body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood. Precisely, I wanted to know that mystery and feel that power and have that promise fulfilled through me. (9)

Masculinity and manhood are integral concepts that shape and form the narrative in Giovanni’s Room. Most of David’s frustrations stem from the fact that he tries to live up to an image of impeccable and flawless masculinity that he cannot possibly uphold. Even when he is in a relationship with Giovanni, the latter senses some distance and some withdrawal on David’s behalf. This thirst for masculinity is due not only to David’s association of manhood with power, but also due to his father’s desire for him to “grow up to be a man” (15). This overwhelming desire to comply with the expectations of masculinity–which include marrying a woman and having kids–lead David to propose to a young woman named Hella, who leaves to Spain on a soul-seeking trip while she considers David’s proposal. This proposal, however, is depicted as an hypocritical farce, mostly because David develops a passionate relationship with a man while Hella spends time in Spain.

David’s engagement to Hella becomes the topic of an intense debate and conversation between him and Giovanni, in which they discuss the nature of women and engage in a very sexist depiction of women as fragile creatures that exist to serve the needs of men. At one point, Giovanni suggests that David would still have a relationship with him even if he were with Hella at the moment. David disagrees with this claim, deeming that it would be disrespectful to Hella to sleep with Giovanni if she were around. Giovanni proceeds to tell David that his decisions shouldn’t be based on what Hella wants, and he accuses David of being too passive and melodramatic. While at first David is taken aback by Giovanni’s comments, he points out that Giovanni’s direct and matter-of-fact nature is perhaps the only way he can cope with David’s aloofness:

Giovanni liked to believe that he was hard-headed and that I was not and that he was teaching me the stony facts of life. It was very important for him to feel this: it was because he knew, unwillingly, at the very bottom of his heart, that I, helplessly, at the very bottom of mine, resisted him with all my strength. (82)

Although David is unable to express his love through words and intense emotion, he does express it through physical actions and through space/place. Given that this novel it entitled Giovanni’s Room, it is perhaps obvious that place and space plays a crucial role in the novel’s symbolism and development. The eponymous room can be approached not only as a symbol of domesticity, but also as a symbol of queerness. David describes the room as a dark and messy space–not only is the room littered with trash, old newspapers, cardboard boxes, and empty bottles, but it is also a dark space. This darkness is attributed to the fact that Giovanni glosses over the room’s window panes with white paint in order to assure his privacy when sharing a bed and being intimate with David. David decides at one point that he has to integrate himself within Giovanni’s room in order to transform it–which can be approached as a subconscious effort to embrace some degree of queerness. This integration leads to the transformation of the room into a domestic space, in which David assumes the role of a “housewife” as he voluntarily cleans and maintains the room:

I invented in myself a kind of pleasure in playing the housewife after Giovanni had gone to work. I threw out paper, the bottles, the fantastic accumulation of trash; I examined the contents of the innumerable boxes and suitcases and disposed of them. But I am not a housewife–men can never be housewives. And the pleasure was never real or deep, though Giovanni smiled his humble, grateful smile and told me in as many ways as he could find how wonderful it was to have me there, how I stood, with my love and my ingenuity, between him and the dark. (88)

Even though the room is a dark, small, and enclosed, it becomes a private space that allows David and Giovanni to live a life that would be impossible outside of the room’s confines. It becomes a space of domesticity and partnership–a space where the unwritten social rules of gender and masculinity are unable to regulate what the two men can or can’t do. This space, as can be seen in the passage above, also enables David to briefly deviate from the expectations of masculinity and manhood–and through the transformation of the room, he develops a sense of pleasure through domestic duties even though he downplays or denies this pleasure.

The problem, however, is that even though the room becomes a space of queer possibility, it also serves to keep queerness restricted and contained. Thus, David and Giovanni are able to have a passionate relationship as long as it remains within the dark and messy confines of the room. In due course, David feels suffocated by the room’s queerness, whereas Giovanni desperately struggles to expand the room’s queerness beyond the confines of its walls. This can particularly be seen after Giovanni is fired, and he begins to unsuccessfully tear down the walls of the room to expand the space. David, however, views this domestic and queer space as a farce–leading him to accuse Giovanni of using the term love as a way of enticing David into assuming a passive and feminine role:

“What kind of life can we have in this room?–this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together, anyway? All this love you talk about–isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money, and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl. That’s what you want. That’s what you mean and that’s all you mean when you say you love me. (142)

David’s accusations lack a solid foundation–a notion that becomes even more heartbreaking when the reader realizes that Giovanni truly loves David. Giovanni’s love is not reliant on David’s embodiment of a “housewife” role. David assumes this role because he wanted to, not because Giovanni obliged him to. Since David is unable to assume the role of provider or head of the household within Giovanni’s room, he goes on to view his self-imposed role as a threat to his masculinity and manhood, prompting him to run away from the queer premises. By abandoning the room, David forces Giovanni to live alone within that space–a notion that fills Giovanni with fear and dread, since he despises being alone. Without David, Giovanni’s room becomes nothing but a dark, empty and lonely space–a place where his queerness is doomed to exist in pain and solitude.

Beautifully rich and complex, I highly recommend this novel. Many of the passages in this novel are stunning and gorgeous. There are so many other themes and characters in this novel that are worthy of discussion and exploration–but I will leave that for future work that I’ll conduct on this novel. I’m really glad that I’ve finally had the change to read this cornerstone text within the genre of gay fiction. 

You can purchase a copy of Baldwin’s novel by clicking here.

Work Cited

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. Print.

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