David stands before the window of a house he’s renting in southern France. It’s night, and he watches his reflection in the glass, trying to peer past his blond hair and the image of himself holding a drink. He’ll be leaving the following morning and knows that he’ll be drunk by then. But instead of cleaning the house like he’s supposed to, he thinks about his girlfriend Hella, who left him not long ago and is making her way back to America at this moment. He and Hella rented this house while they were still living in Paris, and he can still remember that period of his life, during which he tried to convince himself that he loved her. Now he understands that this was never the case.
Although it’s not immediately apparent why David is drinking alone in an empty house, one thing becomes clear in this opening scene: David has been lying to himself about his own romantic feelings. That he’s only realizing now that he never loved Hella—with whom he was living—suggests that he’s quite adept at deceiving himself. Though Baldwin doesn’t yet clarify the nature of this kind of deception, it’s worth noting that being truthful with himself has plunged him into a bout of lonely, depressive drinking. This, in turn, means that he’s most likely unused to being honest about his romantic emotions.
Still thinking about the first stages of his relationship with Hella, David remembers that she decided to travel on her own to Spain as a way of determining whether or not she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. Before she left, David asked her to marry him, but she didn’t take him seriously. While Hella was away, though, she realized she that she did want to marry David, but by the time she came back to Paris he was already with Giovanni, effectively dooming their relationship. However, she didn’t know this at the time, and David didn’t tell her anything about the nature of his relationship with Giovanni. In this state of ignorance, she agreed to move with him to the south of France.
Again, the particulars surrounding David’s troubles aren’t immediately forthcoming. However, Baldwin hints at the fact that David had a romantic connection with a man named Giovanni while Hella—his girlfriend—was away in Spain. This aligns with the previous notion that he has trouble being truthful about his romantic emotions, and readers see that he has been lying not only to himself, but also to Hella. Given that he’s morosely drinking alone in an empty house in southern France, it’s reasonable to say that his inability to be honest about his love life has probably driven away the people he cares about most.
David reflects upon his feelings for Hella, remembering how he insisted that he once truly loved her while she was packing her things on the day she left him. He wonders now if this was ever actually true, realizing that he must have been confusing love for passion and thinking about the many nights they spent luxuriating in bed together. He thinks about the fact that these nights took place in France rather than the United States—a fact that he thinks made him and Hella feel strangely free. Interestingly enough, though, this freedom also made him uncomfortable, and he thinks that he proposed to Hella because he wanted to give himself something “to be moored to.”
An American man living in France, David associates living outside of the United States with a certain kind of freedom, one that enables him to escape whatever pressures or expectations await him at home. This, at least, is what Baldwin intimates when he suggests that David and Hella felt an unexpected sense of freedom when they made love in France, as if simply living in a different country gave them a feeling of sexual liberation. But because David never actually loved Hella (and, indeed, seems to have loved a man instead), the very idea of sexual freedom in their relationship most likely daunted him, as it only emphasized the extent to which he was pretending to be someone he wasn’t. In this way, then, he was actually imprisoned by this so-called freedom, though he apparently embraced this imprisonment by “moor[ing]” himself to Hella—yet another sign that he is an expert at denying what he really wants.
In retrospect, David comes to think that he’ll never again be able to have such care-free nights full of lovemaking, since he doesn’t think he can be trusted with another person’s love. After all, if it weren’t for him, he thinks, Giovanni wouldn’t be facing execution that very night while David himself drinks and stares into the darkness of southern France.
Readers don’t yet know what took place between David and Giovanni or, for that matter, between David and Hella. Whatever happened, though, it’s clear that his inability or unwillingness to be truthful about his emotions somehow led to misery and—in Giovanni’s case—death.
David thinks of all the lies he’s told in his life. One stands out in particular, which is that he insisted to Giovanni that he had never had sex with another man before. This, David now admits, isn’t true. When he was a teenager he spent all of his time one summer with a boy named Joey. While sleeping at Joey’s house one night, David woke up to find his friend searching for bedbugs beneath the lamplight. Making fun of him for being paranoid, David reached out to rustle him in a lighthearted way, but Joey responded gently to his touch, and the two boys suddenly found themselves kissing. After spending the rest of the night exploring each other’s bodies, David woke up the next morning in a state of horror. Looking at Joey’s body, he became afraid that his attraction to another boy would cause him to lose his “manhood.”
In this moment, Baldwin illuminates why David must have had such a hard time being truthful with himself and with Hella about his romantic feelings, as his sexual experience with Joey indicates that he’s attracted to men. This, of course, doesn’t mean he’s attracted exclusively to men—an important idea to keep in mind when discussing Giovanni’s Room, since Baldwin never clarifies whether David is gay or bisexual (a distinction that Baldwin perhaps felt was beside the point). David’s feeling of terror in the aftermath of his sexual encounter with Joey illustrates the many internalized biases he has against gay or bisexual people. Unable to accept the idea that two people of the same sex can have romantic relationships, David thinks he can’t pursue his connection with Joey because it will threaten his masculinity, ultimately suggesting that he thinks being a true man is directly linked to heterosexuality.
Still recalling the aftermath of his sexual encounter with Joey, David remembers how confused he felt. He’d wondered how he could have possibly slept with another boy, bewildered that he could ever want to do such a thing. He’d also thought sadly about his father, remembering that he was all the old man had. Then, suddenly, he decided to put this experience behind him. Getting up, he quickly made breakfast before leaving Joey’s house. He avoided Joey for the rest of the summer and even started bullying him with a group of tougher boys when school started. Every time he saw how much his behavior hurt Joey, he only grew meaner and more ruthless.
David’s thoughts about his father suggest that he cares deeply about what the old man thinks. Indeed, he wants to live up to his father’s expectations, which apparently don’t include homosexual (or bisexual) relationships. In turn, the readers see that David’s denial of his sexual identity is fueled not only by his own entrenched biases, but by his fear that he won’t fulfill certain expectations placed upon him by others. To counteract these fears, it seems, David takes out his aggression on Joey, bullying him so that David doesn’t have to think about the implications of what happened between them.
Thinking about his childhood, David reflects upon his relationship with his father, remembering that his mother died when he was five and that, for this reason, David became the center of his father’s life. He and his father lived with his aunt, Ellen, who helped raise David, though he never particularly liked her. He can still vividly recall overhearing her yell at his father one night when he came in late after hours of drinking. Accusing his father of spending all his money on women and alcohol, she said that he was negatively impacting David’s life—something that hadn’t occurred to David until he heard her say this. However, he didn’t agree with Ellen and felt a sense of solidarity with his father. Shortly after his sexual experience with Joey, though, David started drinking heavily and misbehaving, effectively fulfilling Ellen’s prophecy.
Part of David’s desire to please his father has to do with his mother’s death. Feeling an undue amount of pressure to make his father happy in the wake of his mother’s passing, he refuses to let himself pursue gay or bisexual relationships. In this way, he lives his life according to a set of expectations, limiting himself based on what he thinks will make his father happy. Interestingly enough, his father also has to contend with certain societal expectations, as Ellen shames him for failing to lead the life of an upstanding single father. In turn, readers see the many ways in which people often subject each other—both knowingly and unknowingly—to gendered cultural norms that effectively curtail happiness and personal freedom.
Hoping to bond over a shared sense of masculinity, David’s father has always wanted to treat him as a friend rather than a son, but David yearns to have a genuine father-son relationship. One night as a young man, he gets outrageously drunk and crashes a car full of people into a telephone pole. When he wakes up in the hospital, his father is beside him and speaks emotionally about how David could have died. During this conversation, David breaks down and begins to cry, feeling that he’s all his father has. He apologizes profusely for driving drunk, though he privately senses that he can’t bring himself to articulate the real reason he’s sorry. Hearing his apologies, his father says they will have a long talk about the direction of his life when he leaves the hospital.
The way David’s relationship with his father informs his ideas of masculinity is noteworthy, since his struggle to embody the image of a quintessential man is what later keeps him from happiness. His father’s approach to parenthood is so casual and friendly that it is void of the kind of emotional support that typically characterizes father-son dynamics. Wanting to connect over conventional notions of manhood, his father unwittingly sets certain expectations for David, sending the message that their bond is centered around one thing: the fact that they’re both men. As a result, David feels like he can’t deviate from the lifestyle of a conventional heterosexual male without threatening his relationship with his father. This, it seems, is why he can’t bring himself to apologize for what he really feels, which is that he has let his father down by harboring desires for other men.
When he leaves the hospital, David and his father have a frank discussion about his future. David hasn’t gone to college and doesn’t know what he wants in life, but he understands that the conversation he’s about to have with his father won’t be a genuine form of communication, ultimately realizing that they’ll never be able to talk frankly with one another. In keeping with this, he manages to convince his father that he should move out and find a job, making the old man feel as if this was his own idea when, in reality, David is the one to manipulate the conversation to his benefit. From that point on, he and his father get along very well because his father thinks he’s living the life they agreed David should be living.
Because David can’t tell his father about his true identity (and, for that matter, isn’t even honest with himself about his sexual orientation), he realizes that they will never be able to truly relate to one another. Accordingly, he misrepresents himself so that his father will accept his lifestyle. In this regard, readers see that David is quite capable of hiding from both himself and the people to whom he’s closest.
For a long time, David keeps his father happy by leading a life that pleases the old man, even joining the Army at one point. He notes that he’s able to trick his father in this way because he’s the type of person who can will himself to do anything. However, he now recognizes that this kind of self-assurance and willpower is nothing but deceit and denial. To that end, his decision long ago to leave Joey behind is evidence of his determination to manufacture a life that masks true identity and sexual orientation.
In this passage, David demonstrates a certain amount of self-awareness by acknowledging his own ability to deceive both himself and others. However, this is an observation he’s apparently only capable of making in retrospect, a fact that once more demonstrates his talent at fully deceiving himself when it matters most. This technique of coping, Baldwin suggests, is only temporary—although David was able to suppress his feelings at the time, as an adult he now realizes the gravity of his own self-deception and poor treatment of Joey.
Still standing at the window in southern France, David remembers the fear he felt when he was in the Army and a fellow soldier with whom he’d had sex was court-martialed because others found out he was gay. This terrified David, whose sexual orientation remained a secret. In the coming years, he threw himself into drinking and meaningless relationships with women, hoping all the while to come to terms with himself. Wanting to “find [him]self”—a phrase he now thinks indicates his subconscious understanding that something was amiss regarding his identity—he left America. If he’d known that traveling would only force him to confront the same problems he tried to flee, though, he thinks he would have stayed in the United States. And yet, he also thinks that he knew precisely what he was doing by moving to France in the first place.
As David thinks about his past, he suspects that he wasn’t as ignorant or naïve as he would have liked to think at the time. Although he left home to “find himself,” he now recognizes that the very fact that he wanted to do this was an indication that he understood he was hiding something from himself. However, it’s much different to acknowledge this in retrospect than it is to realize it in the moment, which is why he was able to travel to France to seek a new form of freedom without admitting to himself what he really wanted. Instead of recognizing that his move to France was an attempt to embrace a lifestyle as a gay or bisexual man, he tricked himself into thinking that he was simply embarking upon a new adventure. In turn, Baldwin once again shows readers just how adept David is at deceiving himself.