Themes and Meanings
Baldwin’s biographer, Fern Eckman, quotes the author as saying, “David’s dilemma is the dilemma of many men of his generation, by which I do not so much mean sexual ambivalence as a crucial lack of sexual authority.” Concerns about sexual authority, as seen in nearly all the characters in the novel, is a controlling theme in Giovanni’s Room. Social determinism directs the course of the characters’ lives, and Giovanni comes to his unfortunate end largely because of the economic determinism that forces him to submit sexually to Guillaume, by whom he is so repelled that he loses control and strangles him.
The interweaving of the themes of sex and death is an interesting one in the novel and a common one in modern literature. For David, every sexual encounter results in a loss. His guilt makes him shun Joey, thereby losing a valued friendship. His inability to accept his own sexuality results in his losing Giovanni and is indirectly responsible for Giovanni’s death. Finally, his inability to sustain a heterosexual relationship with Hella results in her leaving him.
The death of David’s mother when he is five years old represents a significant loss in David’s life. His recurrent nightmare about his mother is a thinly veiled and, for David, a horrible sexual enactment. Because of it, David always views sex as something putrid, unclean, and ultimately repulsive. The novel is filled with symbolism based on dirt and clutter. Giovanni’s room represents to David “Giovanni’s regurgitated life.”
In contrasting David and Giovanni, Baldwin is making a generalized comment on American sexual restraint and its resultant problems as opposed to the greater sexual acceptance that Baldwin senses in other cultures. Giovanni, the Italian, even though he was once married, can live without guilt in his homosexual relationship with David. David cannot accept Giovanni on similar terms.