The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

While David is the seeming protagonist and the first-person narrator in Giovanni’s Room, Giovanni shares the role of protagonist, is a sort of secondary protagonist. David cannot reconcile his own sexuality with his moral code. He early associates sex with death, as is seen in his dreams of his dead mother: “. . . she figured in my nightmares, blind with worms, her hair as dry as metal and brittle as a twig, straining to press me against her body; that body so putrescent, so sickening soft, that it opened, as I clawed and cried, into a breach so enormous as to swallow me alive.” David’s sexual experiences with women are overshadowed by this memory of his childhood nightmares. Having been reared by a virile father, David cannot accept the homosexuality that is an ingrained part of his nature.

Giovanni, on the other hand, has been married and has fathered a child. When the child died, Giovanni left Italy and came to Paris. Giovanni’s love for David is a pure and natural affection, but David cannot accept it as such, because to do so would be to accept his own homosexuality, which he has long been fighting.

Juxtaposed to David and Giovanni are Jacques and Guillaume. They are old homosexuals, unattractive men who pay young boys for their sexual favors. Knowing them makes David fear what he will become if he yields to his own homosexual nature.

Joey, the adolescent with whom David first had a sexual experience, is...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


David, an American living in France. David is in his mid-to late twenties, and he is a selfish and self-deceiving man. The story is told through his recollections on the eve of the morning that Giovanni is to be executed for murder. As a boy, David had a mutually fulfilling sexual encounter with another boy, Joey, but felt ashamed and left early the next morning. He ignored Joey the rest of the summer. As a penniless young man living in Paris, he becomes involved with a woman, Hella Lincoln. He also becomes involved in another homosexual relationship, this time with Giovanni, an Italian bartender. David ends this relationship as cruelly as he did his first homosexual encounter, and he becomes engaged to Hella in an effort to deny his true sexuality. All of David’s actions ultimately become ruled by his homosexual desire or his desire to escape his homosexuality.


Giovanni, an Italian living in Paris. A passionate, good-looking homosexual whom David meets, Giovanni is attractive to—but is not attracted by—the men at the bar where he works. He is, however, attracted to David, whom he comes to love deeply. When David moves out on him, he searches frantically for him and is devastated to find that David has moved in with Hella and that he is denying that their relationship ever happened. Unemployed and broke, he becomes Jacques’s companion but leaves when Jacques stops giving him money. When he goes back to Guillaume’s bar to apply for his...

(The entire section is 617 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Baldwin employs a first-person point of view in the novel, a choice that appropriately foregrounds the confessional nature of David’s narrative. Throughout the retrospective account of his life, David seems to need to unburden himself, to speak his guilt and purge his conscience of multiple betrayals. He needs to confess his homosexuality, confess his love for Giovanni, confess his complicity in Giovanni’s death. He needs to speak the truth, but his life has been one long evasion of that. Giovanni’s charge that “you have never told me the truth” is echoed by Hella’s pained question and demand, “What do you want? . . . Why don’t you tell me the truth? Tell me the truth.” When the hapless Sue sighs, “I don’t know what you want,” David cannot or will not tell her. Even if he could respond, he is, as he says of himself, “too various to be trusted.” Facing up to the answer truthfully means abandoning years of practiced self-deception for a painful self-awareness.

The first-person narrative also ensures that the primary focus remains on David, on his wavering, fearful, deeply divided consciousness. This mental conflict renders him strangely passive: He is carried along to Giovanni by the events of one night and carried away from him by events some months later. His failure is a failure to act on what he knows about himself and to embrace the possibilities for happiness based on that knowledge. In this failure he is depicted as being peculiarly American, behaving like a typical American tourist who keeps to the surface of things, longing to trade in his innocence for the rich volatility of real experience but fearing to be soiled in the process.

In contrast, Giovanni emerges as the embodiment of Mediterranean experience, a sensibility open at once to the sacred and the profane, soiled by life but capable of a redeeming purity. His is an old culture, steeped in pagan...

(The entire section is 781 words.)