Book Review: James Baldwin // Giovanni’s Room

My rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is a short novel but you are trapped in David’s world much like he is in the room. It is a novel of confinement — confinement to a room, to gender, to sex and a race — and you can’t put the book down, so you are just stuck with your frustration at how unjust the world is. Likewise, each line is perfectly constructed and holds so much meaning; it’s hard to leave them behind.

Giovanni’s Room was Baldwin’s second novel and he had some trouble publishing it. The characters of the novel are white — a once controversial step to make for a black writer. The narrator opens by saying “My face is like a face you’ve seen many times”. The character is the typical white male (except he had something atypical hidden within). Baldwin didn’t want to be confined to the Black author who could only write Black characters. He felt he had a universal talent and he wanted to express that. Writing has no limits.

Baldwin also argues that race and sexuality are bound up in one. The homosexuality in the novel, therefore, addresses issues of racism as well — just implicity. If you overcome one, Baldwin argues, you overcome the other. If we can accept race, we can accept homosexuality.

The novel opens with the narrator David reflecting on his past and how he came to be confined to Giovanni’s room. David had gone to France after wanting to escape home, leaving his desperate father behind. There he meets a woman, Hella, who he is going to marry. Whilst she was travelling around Spain, not wanting to be confined and wanting to use her brain, David goes to a bar with some questionable male characters and there he meets Giovanni.

From there the reader watches him being sucked into Giovanni’s tiny room. Every time he lays with Giovanni he wants it to stop. But at the same time, he cannot get him off his mind. As every day passes, the room seems to get smaller and smaller. The social norms of society are restricting his moral compass to the point where he leaves Giovanni and commits to Hella.

Nonetheless, David is wrong to think he can return to the purity of masculinity when he commits to a heterosexual relationship. Giovanni has become part of him, the room is still there. The room is everywhere. Just like the walls of the room are man-made, so are the rules and constraints of society.

It’s another novel that shows of toxic the concept of masculinity is. The repression men undergo to appear ‘normal’ only turns them into monsters. David’s inability to accept his sexuality and let go of the artificiality that is masculinity scares Hella away and drives Giovanni to murder. David comments “My crime, is in being a man and she knows all about this already”. Hella understands and maybe accepts that David is homosexual. It seems she does not mind. What scares her is the violence he commits to hide it, to pretend he is the definition of a man.

Earlier in the novel, David father wants to understand him. David shuts him off. “I did not want him to know me. I did not want anyone to know me”. On the surface, David looks like a man and he can control his actions so he conforms to societal expectations. But anyone can do that. A woman could throw on a fake beard, talk in a deeper voice and demand someone submits to them! Masculinity is all an act. David knows that the true human being lies within. It can be hidden and repressed but it only causes the facade to be harder to keep up.

Giovanni, unlike David, is a realist. He knows masculinity is a farce. He doesn’t understand why David cannot just accept his feelings and finally be at ease with him. Why did David keeping running away? Giovanni mocks: “And when you have waited — has it made you sure?” This is a powerful question. Waiting gets us nowhere. Time is limited and if we don’t act now, everything will be lost. David lost everything because he waited too long — too long for their love to be accepted.

Giovanni’s Room is a powerful novel. Even after you close the last page, a part of you is still trapped in his room. You’re trapped in the heartache of the story, your mind lingers over other possibilities. But you’re also trapped in the same society David was in. We live in a room, there is so much more of the world out there. If we just open the door that is attached to the wall of social norms, what will we find?


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