Giovanni’s Room (1956)

Daniel Sanchez on “An Expatriate Running From Himself: Giovanni’s Room”

In Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin explores the issues of homosexuality and masculinity, particularly their (often inextricable) link to one’s national identity. Set in 1950’s Paris and told from the first-person perspective of a Caucasian American expatriate named David, Giovanni’s Room details the doomed love affair that blossoms between the narrator and the title character. Throughout the novel, David’s struggle to accept his sexuality places the American narrator as a symbolic (if unwilling) representative for the social ideals of his home nation, such as marrying a woman and presenting oneself within the strictly-drawn lines between the genders, even as he seeks sanctuary across the Atlantic.

As a bisexual man living in Paris, David is full of self-loathing as a result of his own American-born perceptions of what constitutes “manhood,” and his self-imposed exile to Europe is in fact a desperate attempt to “find” himself, much like the reasoning behind James Baldwin’s own expatriation. With bitter irony, David sums up the results of his search:

“I think now that if I had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home. But, again, I think I knew, at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France” (21).

At the outset of David’s relationship with Giovanni, and indeed throughout its duration, he is haunted by feelings of shame, guilt, and a heretofore unfamiliar sense of longing “to go home; not to that hotel, in one of the alleys of Paris, […] but home, home across the ocean, to things and people I knew and understood; to those things, those places, those people which I would always, helplessly, and in whatever bitterness of spirit, love above all else” (62). This positions David as an American expatriate borne of Baldwin’s own experience with the repressive, strict, and wholly American code of masculinity who begins to associate his foreign surroundings (and companions) with the very acts that transgress said code. In this moment of realization, David resigns himself not only to the fact that he will never truly belong to the foreign country in which he currently resides, but also to the reality of an existence in which the masculine regulations of the United States take precedent over his own desires. He even insists that, while the Parisians with whom he is associated are “certainly anxious enough to claim [him], [he is] intent on proving, to them and to [himself], that [he] is not of their company” (22). Tragically, his attempts to escape American soil in favor of “finding” himself abroad have failed, as he is unable to accept the truth if it means placing himself at odds with his home, and the ideals therein.

For James Baldwin, the arrival in Paris and the freedom to act in full accordance with one’s own sexual desires that came with it was liberating, but for David, it is a source of shame that ignites a desire to “bitterly” return home to America. While still in Paris and struggling with the shame brought about by his love affair with Giovanni, David crosses paths with a young, beautiful, and masculine sailor who awakens in him a feeling of deep-reaching envy. As he stares upon the young man, who “wore his masculinity as unequivocally as he wore his skin” and “made [David] think of home,” he muses that “perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition” (92). In this moment, James Baldwin seems to speak to both the expatriate’s desire to flee from one’s home in search of inspiration and freedom abroad, and the often inexplicable pull that ultimately leads one to return.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Vintage International, 2013 [1956].

 

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