Study Guide

Giovanni's Room

by James Baldwin

Giovanni's Room Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Giovanni’s Room is an intimate, confessional narrative of an American named David who looks back on his turbulent experiences in France on the eve of his return to the United States. The novel works through two time frames simultaneously, for as past events are recounted, the relevance of the present moment gradually emerges. By the end, night has become morning, and only then does the story being told reach its conclusion.

Months earlier, David came to France with his girlfriend Hella, but uncertainty in their relationship and her wanderlust sent her traveling solo to Spain. David, with little money and none forthcoming from his father in the United States, befriends and exploits the generosity of a middle-aged homosexual, a Belgian American businessman named Jacques. With Jacques he moves through the world of Paris gay bars, and at one of them he meets a handsome Italian bartender named Giovanni. David and Giovanni have an immediate rapport, and on the night of their meeting they stay out until dawn under the patronage of Jacques and Giovanni’s boss Guillaume; they end up alone back at Giovanni’s room, where they embark on a sexual relationship.

Having little money, David moves in with his new lover. Though David has had homosexual feelings and experiences before, the intensity of his fascination for Giovanni, and his own position in life—nearing thirty, and, ostensibly, marriage with Hella—make his relationship with Giovanni new and threatening. As so often has happened in the past, David ignores the possible consequences of his actions and continually reminds himself of his freedom, at any point, to abandon this new situation.

Giovanni’s room, as the title suggests, has metaphorical significances for the story David is telling. It is cluttered with the debris of Giovanni’s life—an unhappy past in Italy, an uncertain future in France, a superficial present of drinking and pandering among a...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Giovanni's Room Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Giovanni’s Room chronicles its protagonist’s search for his sexual identity. The search proves to be futile, and the novel ends on a note of considerable hopelessness. David, now living in France, is revealed first through a flashback, in which the reader learns that he grew up in Brooklyn with his father and his father’s sister, Ellen. David’s mother died when he was five years old, but her presence has been a real one. Her picture dominates the living room, and David frequently has dreams about her that are both Oedipal and necrophilic. He does not reveal the real nature of these dreams to anyone. When he wakes up screaming, he merely tells his father and aunt that he has dreamed about a graveyard.

The flashback also recounts David’s relationship to Joey, his closest school chum. One night, when David is staying at Joey’s house, the two boys fall into each other’s arms and have a sexual experience that is highly satisfying to both of them. In the morning, however, David leaves and, because of his guilt, refuses to see Joey for the rest of the summer. When they finally meet at school in the fall, David treats Joey cruelly. Their friendship is destroyed.

After high school, David works, but he soon tires of the life he is living, and he sails to France, largely trying to run away from himself. The bulk of the novel is devoted to telling of his life in France, where, in a gay bar in Paris, he meets Giovanni, an Italian who works there. When the bar closes, David and Giovanni accompany Jacques and Guillaume, two aging homosexuals, to Les Halles for a breakfast of oysters and wine. Then David goes with Giovanni to Giovanni’s room.

Once they are there, Giovanni pulls David down to him on the bed, and the sexual relationship that is to...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

Giovanni's Room Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Giovanni’s Room was James Baldwin’s second novel, after Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). It was a risky book for Baldwin because it openly explored male homosexuality at a time when few writers discussed gay themes. It almost went unpublished. Knopf had taken Baldwin’s first novel, but rejected Giovanni’s Room and may even have suggested that Baldwin burn the manuscript to protect his reputation. Other rejections followed before Dial Press accepted the book for publication.

Baldwin, who was gay, had touched on homosexual love in “The Outing” (1951) and toward the end of Go Tell It on the Mountain, but Giovanni’s Room was a frank portrayal of a gay man’s feelings and torments. The book involves white rather than black characters, which added to the book’s commercial and critical risk. Giovanni’s Room focuses on David, an American expatriate living in Paris, France. Other characters include Hella, an American woman and David’s lover, and Giovanni, an Italian who becomes David’s gay partner. The story is narrated in first person by David.

Part 1 begins with Hella having left for America and Giovanni about to be executed. The rest is told primarily in flashbacks. In the flashbacks, David comes to Paris after a homosexual affair and attaches himself to Hella. He asks her to marry him, and she goes to Spain to think about it. During Hella’s absence, David meets...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Giovanni's Room Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Giovanni’s Room begins with David standing in a great house in the south of France, looking at his reflection in the window as night falls. As he stands, drinking what will be the first of many drinks before the night ends, he casts his mind back over the chain of events leading him to this “most terrible morning of my life.” On this morning, his former lover Giovanni will die on the guillotine. The novel, divided into two parts, is one long retrospective view of David’s life, a series of brooding flashbacks that rehearse the story of his failed attempt to resolve his sexual identity crisis and understand his betrayal of Giovanni. With his former fiancée headed back home and his former lover sentenced to death, David is left alone to sort out his past life in order to see what he can make of his future. His nightlong vigil leaves him facing the dawn with a “dreadful weight of hope.”

While he regards his face in the darkening glass, he conjures up images of his early years in America, particularly his first homosexual experience with a young friend, Joey. He has always refused to admit the significance of this potent and defining event, lying to himself and everyone else to evade the shame of the “beast” inside that threatens to condemn him to an “unnatural” life. He fears the force of his awakened sexuality and adopts a pattern of flight to avoid coming to terms with it—flight from an interfering aunt and a distant, adulterous father, from meaningless friendships and pointless jobs. He finally flees his country, with the half-formed...

(The entire section is 646 words.)

Giovanni's Room Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Adams, Stephen. “Giovanni’s Room: The Homosexual as Hero.” In James Baldwin: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Examines the novel in the context of Baldwin’s first four books, all of which reflect the troubled relationship between questions of personal identity and social survival. Suggests that Baldwin mourns the unrealized possibilities of homosexual love while celebrating its heroic and redeeming capacities.

Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking, 1991. A good narrative biography, with detailed notes and bibliography.

Fiedler, Leslie. “A Homosexual Dilemma.” In Critical Essays on James Baldwin, edited by Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. A critical response typical of some early reviews that found the novel a curiously melodramatic morality play. Still, Baldwin is seen as a religious writer who is to be congratulated for attempting a tragic theme, the loss of the last American innocence.

Goldstein, Richard. “Go the Way Your Blood Beats.” In James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Kenan, Randall. James Baldwin. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.

Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. James...

(The entire section is 531 words.)