|Publisher||Dial Press, N.Y.|
|Media type||Print (hardcover & paperback)|
Giovanni's Room is a 1956 novel by James Baldwin. The book focuses on the events in the life of an American man living in Paris and his feelings and frustrations with his relationships with other men in his life, particularly an Italian bartender named Giovanni whom he meets at a Parisian gay bar.
Giovanni's Room is noteworthy for bringing complex representations of homosexuality and bisexuality to a reading public with empathy and artistry, thereby fostering a broader public discourse of issues regarding same-sex desire.
David, a young American man whose girlfriend has gone off to Spain to contemplate marriage, is left alone in Paris and begins an affair with an Italian man, Giovanni. The entire story is narrated by David during "the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life," when Giovanni will be executed.
David, in the South of France, is about to board a train back to Paris. His girlfriend Hella, to whom he had proposed before she went to Spain, has returned to the United States. As for Giovanni, he is about to be guillotined.
David remembers his first experience with a boy, Joey, who lived in Brooklyn. The two bonded and eventually had a sexual encounter during a sleepover. The two boys began kissing and making love. The next day, David left, and a little later he took to bullying Joey in order to feel like a real man.
David now lives with his father, who is prone to drinking, and his aunt, Ellen. The latter upbraids the father for not being a good example to his son. David's father says that all he wants is for David to become a real man. Later, David begins drinking, too, and drinks and drives once, ending up in an accident. Back home, the two men talk, and David convinces his father to let him skip college and get a job instead. He then decides to move to France to find himself.
After a year in Paris, penniless, he calls Jacques, an older homosexual acquaintance, to meet him for supper so he can ask for money. (In a prolepsis, Jacques and David meet again and discuss Giovanni's fall.) The two men go to Guillaume's gay bar. They meet Giovanni, the new bartender, at whom Jacques tries to make a pass, until he gets talking with Guillaume. Meanwhile, David and Giovanni become friends. Later, they all go to a restaurant in Les Halles. Jacques enjoins David not to be ashamed to feel love; they eat oysters and drink white wine. Giovanni recounts how he met Guillaume in a cinema, how the two men had dinner together because Giovanni wanted a free meal. He also explains that Guillaume is prone to making trouble. Later, the two men go back to Giovanni's room and they have sex.
Flashing forward again to the day of Giovanni's execution, David is in his house in the South of France. The caretaker comes round for the inventory, as he is moving out the next day. She encourages him to get married, have children, and pray.
David moves into Giovanni's small room. They broach the subject of Hella, about whom Giovanni is not worried, but who reveals the Italian's misogynistic prejudices about women and the need for men to dominate them. David then briefly describes Giovanni's room, which is always in the dark because there are no curtains and they need their own privacy. He goes on to read a letter from his father, asking him to go back to America, but he does not want to do that. The young man walks into a sailor; David believes the sailor is a gay man, though it is unclear whether this is true or the sailor is just staring back at David.
A subsequent letter from Hella announces that she is returning in a few days, and David realizes he has to part with Giovanni soon. Setting off to prove to himself that he is not gay, David searches for a woman with whom he can have sex. He meets a slight acquaintance, Sue, in a bar and they go back to her place and have sex; he does not want to see her again and has only just had her to feel better about himself. When he returns to the room, David finds a hysterical Giovanni, who has been fired from Guillaume's bar.
Hella eventually comes back and David leaves Giovanni's room with no notice for three days. He sends a letter to his father asking for money for their marriage. The couple then runs into Jacques and Giovanni in a bookshop, which makes Hella uncomfortable because she does not like Jacques's mannerisms. After walking Hella back to her hotel room, David goes to Giovanni's room to talk; the Italian man is distressed. David thinks that they cannot have a life together and feels that he would be sacrificing his manhood if he stays with Giovanni. He leaves, but runs into Giovanni several times and is upset by the "fairy" mannerisms which he is developing and his new relationship with Jacques, who is an older and richer man. Sometime later, David runs into Yves and finds out Giovanni is no longer with Jacques and that he might be able to get a job at Guillaume's bar again.
The news of Guillaume's murder suddenly comes out, and Giovanni is castigated in all the newspapers. David fancies that Giovanni went back into the bar to ask for a job, going so far as to sacrifice his dignity and agree to sleep with Guillaume. He imagines that after Giovanni has compromised himself, Guillaume makes excuses for why he cannot rehire him as a bartender; in reality they both know that Giovanni is no longer of interest to Guillaume's bar's clientele since so much of his life has been played out in public. Giovanni responds by killing Guillaume in rage. Giovanni attempts to hide, but he is discovered by the police and sentenced to death for murder. Hella and David then move to the South of France, where they discuss gender roles and Hella expresses her desire to live under a man as a woman. David, wracked with guilt over Giovanni's impending execution, leaves her and goes to Nice for a few days, where he spends his time with a sailor. Hella finds him and discovers his homosexuality, which she says she suspected all along. She bitterly decides to go back to America. The book ends with David's mental pictures of Giovanni's execution and his own guilt.
- David, a blond American. The protagonist. His mother died when he was five years old.
- Hella, David's girlfriend. They met in a bar in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. She is from Minneapolis and moved to Paris to study painting, until she threw in the towel and met David by serendipity.
- Giovanni, an Italian boy, who left his village after his girlfriend gave birth to a dead child. He works as a waiter in Guillaume's gay bar.
- Joey, a neighbor in Coney Island, Brooklyn. David's first homosexual experience was with him.
- Ellen, David's paternal aunt. She would read books and knit; at parties she would dress skimpily, with too much make-up on. She worried that David's father was an inappropriate influence on David's development.
- Beatrice, a woman David's father sees.
- The Fairy, whom David met in the army, and who was later discharged for being gay.
- Jacques, an old American businessman, born in Belgium.
- Guillaume, the owner of a gay bar in Paris.
- The Flaming Princess, an older man who tells David inside the gay bar that Giovanni is very dangerous.
- Madame Clothilde, the owner of the restaurant in Les Halles.
- Pierre, a man at the restaurant.
- Yves, a tall, pockmarked man playing the pinball machine in the restaurant.
- The Caretaker in the South of France. She was born in Italy and moved to France as a child. Her husband's name is Mario; they lost all their money in the Second World War, and two of their three sons died. Their living son has a son, also named Mario.
- Sue, a blonde girl from Philadelphia that comes from a rich family and with whom David has a brief and regretful sexual encounter.
- David's father. His relationship with David is masked by artificial heartiness; he cannot bear to acknowledge that they are not close and he might have failed in raising his son. He married for the second time after David was grown but before the action in the novel takes place.
One theme of Giovanni's Room is social alienation. Susan Stryker notes that prior to writing Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin had recently emigrated to Europe and "felt that the effects of racism in the United States would never allow him to be seen simply as a writer, and he feared that being tagged as gay would mean he couldn't be a writer at all." In Giovanni's Room, David is faced with the same type of decision; on the surface he faces a choice between his American fiancée (and value set) and his European boyfriend, but ultimately, like Baldwin, he must grapple with "being alienated by the culture that produced him." In keeping with the theme of social alienation, this novel also explores the topics of origin and identity. As English Professor Valerie Rohy of the University of Vermont explains,
Questions of origin and identity are central to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a text which not only participates in the tradition of the American expatriate novel exemplified by Stein and, especially, by Henry James but which does so in relation to the African American idiom of passing and the genre of the passing novel. As such, Giovanni’s Room poses questions of nationalism, nostalgia, and the constitution of racial and sexual subjects in terms that are especially resonant for contemporary identity politics.
Literary significance and criticism
Baldwin's American publisher, Knopf, suggested that he "burn" the book because the theme of homosexuality would alienate him from his readership among black people. He was told, "You cannot afford to alienate that audience. This new book will ruin your career, because you’re not writing about the same things and in the same manner as you were before, and we won’t publish this book as a favor to you." However, upon publication critics tended not to be so harsh thanks to Baldwin's standing as a writer. Giovanni's Room was ranked number 2 on a list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels compiled by The Publishing Triangle in 1999.
Ian Young points out that the novel portrays homosexuality and bisexuality as uncomfortable and uncertain ways of living, respectively. Young also points out that despite the novel's "tenderness and positive qualities" it still ends with a murder.
Though often considered a gay novel, recent scholarship has focused on the more precise designation of bisexuality within the novel. Several scholars have claimed that the characters can be more accurately seen as bisexual, namely David and Giovanni. As Maiken Solli claims, though most people read the characters as gay/homosexual, ". . . a bisexual perspective could be just as valuable and enlightening in understanding the book, as well as exposing the bisexual experience."
- Stryker, Susan. Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001), page 104.
- Bronski, Michael, ed. Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003, pages 10-11.
- Valerie Rohy, "Displacing Desire: Passing, Nostalgia, and Giovanni’s Room." In Passing and the Fictions of Identity, ed. by Elaine K. Ginsberg. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. Pp 218-32.
- Fern Marja Eckman, The Furious Passage of James Baldwin, New York: M. Evans & Co., 1966, page 137
- James Levin, The Gay Novel in America, New York:Garland Publishing, 1991, page 143
- The Publishing Triangle's list of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels
- Young, Ian, The Male Homosexual in Literature: A Bibliography, Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1975, page 155
- Solli, Maiken, "Reading Bisexually: Acknowledging a Bisexual Perspective in Giovanni's Room, The Color Purple and Brokeback Mountain. MA thesis. University of Oslo, 2012.
- Austen, Roger (1977). Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America (1st ed.). Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. ISBN 978-0-672-52287-1.
- Bronski, Michael (2003). Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (1st ed.). New York, NY: St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 978-0-312-25267-0.
- Eckman, Fern Marja (1966). The Furious Passage of James Baldwin (1st ed.). New York: M. Evans & Co.
- Levin, James (1991). The Gay Novel in America (1st ed.). New York: Garland Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8240-6148-7.
- Sarotte, Georges-Michel (1978). Like a Brother, Like a Lover: Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theatre from Herman Melville to James Baldwin (1st English ed.). New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-12765-3.
- Stryker, Susan (2001). Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. ISBN 978-0-8118-3020-1.
- Young, Ian (1975). The Male Homosexual in Literature: A Bibliography (1st ed.). Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-0861-4.