The Paris in James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room is a kind of hell in which desperate men step on each other to climb out of the hole they’re in, never realizing it’s possible to help lift one another out of their predicament. Fear motivates everyone; they’re afraid of anyone finding out who they really are before they can, but they also need somewhere they belong. So they draw people just close enough to be used, and then cut them as soon as that need has been fulfilled. That fulfillment doesn’t last long, though, and it’s not too long before they need something else again — companionship, money, distraction. David, the protagonist, enters this scene as an unrooted American trying to find himself. What he discovers is someone whose fear overrides his capacity to love, with disastrous consequences.
David meets Giovanni, the bartender at a gay bar in Paris, as he’s asking an older acquaintance for money. Jacques hits on the mysterious Italian and strikes out; David manages to strike up a friendly if challenging conversation. Conversations leads to dinner and drinks, which leads to sex; David, with nowhere else to go, moves into the waiter’s small room where they talk and have sex all summer. Eventually, David’s girlfriend Hella announces that she’ll be coming back to Paris after their “trial separation” and he’s faced with a choice — does he fall in with the expected path to adulthood, with marriage and children? Or does he break things off with Hella to continue his relationship with Giovanni? Complicating matters is the fact that Giovanni loses his job in the gay bar where he works after the owner makes one too many passes at him.
Throughout the novel, David sees people as a means to an end; they can provide him with something that buys him more time to figure out what he wants and who he is. Jacques, the old gay man he leans on for money, is someone that David doesn’t like or respect — and he makes it clear that he thinks the feeling is mutual. However, he exploits Jacques’ sense of shame to get the money he needs to remain. His relationship to Giovanni is built on that same impulse. He feels a physical lust and confused attraction that he doesn’t know what to do with; the poor Italian is there to ease that tension, so David uses him. Later, when faced with the prospect of Hella’s return, he hooks up with a distant acquaintance just to prove to himself he’s still attracted to women. His partner, Sue, realizes she’s been used at the same time she makes a few hesitating attempts to actually connect with him. The fear of being responsible for someone else’s happiness is just as much a reason that David distances himself from Giovanni as the fear of committing to an alternative sexuality.
What’s most interesting to me about Giovanni’s Room is how sensitively it deals with David’s bisexuality as one piece of the character’s larger issue — his inability be open and honest with himself. Giovanni isn’t David’s first homosexual encounter; as a kid, he slept with a friend that he then bullied in order to hide his guilt. He also overhears an argument between his father (who is prone to drinking) and his aunt where his dad says that he just wants David to be a “real man”. Unable to work out for himself what that is, David begins drinking himself.
We see how things like abuse and neglect are internalized by the victims of it, and how that expresses in a cycle of perpetuation eventually. David was never taught how to be reflective, how to cope with hard truths, how to anticipate and manage consequences. He only knows how to run away from discomfort — into the bottle, or the arms of someone who can make him feel good, or a new city full of distractions.
The culture he falls in with is populated with people who have no idea how to rectify that, because they’re running too. Wealthy, established men run away from the pressures of having a high status in a society that would not accept them for who they really are; their shame is assuaged by one-night stands and brief, tumultuous relationships with broke younger men who need a job or a place to stay. Each partner secretly hates themselves for what they’re doing, and resents the other for taking advantage of their own vulnerabilities; it’s an environment where the basic interpersonal relationship is built on competition, not cooperation. Each partner is looking to get the most out of the relationship while putting in the least amount of work.
This underworld, full of men who want everyone to look at them admiringly but are unable to even look at themselves, encourages the worst impulses in people like David and ruins anyone attempting to be vulnerable and sincere. Even those rare moments of self-reflection are accompanied by a resignation that these men are trapped this way; any attempt to live honestly would likely end with a very long and painful fall.
The tragedy here is that so many people end up being warped and twisted in the most delicate and dangerous periods of their lives. Unable to navigate their own strange feelings, the only community they have shows them that sublimation and distraction is as good as it gets — there’s no reconciliation to be found. Society’s disrespect for their “particular tastes” becomes personal disrespect, and their behavior stems from that. Since everyone in the scene is despicable, it excuses all manner of similar actions.
So many novels about minority experiences in a particular place or time in history share this fundamental trait; the protagonist simply cannot make peace with themselves because society refuses to provide the basic respect needed to see themselves as someone worthy of that stillness. And so many novels project that this fundamental sociological rejection leads to anti-social behavior — murder, sociopathy, bitter solitude, misanthropy. This underscores the need for us to belong somewhere, to have communities that support and enrich us. But it also provides the blueprint for how institutional injustice curdles within the victims who endure it until self-hatred — and selfish, amoral behavior — oozes from our pores.
Giovanni’s Room is another cautionary tale in this vein. The closing moments of the novel find David wandering the streets of southern France all alone, imagining the miserable consequences he feels personally responsible for. We’re left to imagine what David actually does with his experience — does he sink further into despair and escape, or does he take the clarity he’s gained to make the necessary changes? Is that even possible?
I have to believe so. We can each of us unlearn the toxic ways we’ve learned to deal with each other and ourselves. But it requires claiming for ourselves the respect that society feels unable to give us, seeing each of our fellow people as individuals worthy of that same respect, and a keen, painful awareness of the consequences of demanding the things the world is not ready to provide. Living honestly is not easy by any stretch, but it is the way out of the hell people like David put themselves in.