Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The thematic heart of the novel in many ways resides in the image of the title itself: Giovanni’s room. This room to which David and Giovanni retire at the end of their long first evening together, and which is the center of their world during their idyllic spring and summer months together, becomes a symbol of their relationship in all of its dimensions. Remote from the center of Paris and the dingy haunts of urban gays, it is a room where love triumphs and where it ultimately fails.

It is at first a refuge, a glowing creation of their own lovemaking, where they can shut out the intrusive, judgmental world and where David can experience that part of himself that he has fought to deny. It is tiny, crowded, dirty, but it is also theirs, and their passion expands it, investing it with a natural purity. Gradually, however, as David begins to withdraw in fear from the “beast that Giovanni had awakened” in him, the images of the room change. It becomes a trap; surveying its curtainless white-painted windows, torn wallpaper, piles of dirty laundry and tools and suitcases, David recoils, feeling suffocated by the clutter of Giovanni’s life that had earlier seemed so charming. Oppressed, unable to breathe, he longs only to escape; yet he admits in his retrospective meditation that it was in fact like “every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter.” The room is not a prison, but David is a prisoner: He is a prisoner of his own flesh in any room he inhabits. At the novel’s end, he comes to the liberating realization that “the key to my salvation, which cannot save my body, is hidden in my flesh.”

What David rejects in rejecting Giovanni’s room is the task of making this room a real home, of reclaiming...

(The entire section is 720 words.)