After two years in Paris, David meets Giovanni in a bar frequented by people to whom Parisians refer as “of le milieu.” At the time, David has almost no money and is about to get kicked out of his hotel for failing to pay rent. Because of this, he calls an older gay man named Jacques and arranges to meet him for dinner. Jacques is a businessman from the United States who was born in Belgium and now lives in Paris, where he frequently hosts orgies and spends lavish amounts of money on attractive young men. Although he senses that David is only reaching out to him because he needs money, he agrees to meet him, delighted by the idea of being seen at the bar with such a good-looking young American man.
The narrative present of Giovanni’s Room takes place as David drinks alone in southern France, but the majority of the novel focuses on the time he spends in Paris directly preceding this period. When David goes to dinner with Jacques, then, it has been two years since he left the Army and traveled to France. The nature of his relationship with Jacques is important to note, since they seem to have a mutually-beneficial connection that hinges upon their shared ability to exploit each another. While David uses Jacques for money, Jacques uses David to benefit his public image. In this regard, then, both men allow themselves to be manipulated so they can each get what they want. As Baldwin outlines this dynamic, he prepares readers to question who, exactly, has more power in such relationships—a question he doesn’t address until later in the novel.
Although David often spends time with other gay (or possibly bisexual) men, he pretends to be straight, which is why Jacques wants to be seen as his date, relishing the thought that people might think he has finally gotten through to the closeted American. In retrospect, David thinks that Jacques is partly responsible for Giovanni’s eventual death, though no more responsible than David is himself.
Part of Jacques’s interest in David has to do with David’s inability or unwillingness to be truthful with himself about his sexual orientation. This, it seems, makes him even more appealing to someone like Jacques, who wants to be seen as a flirtatious and devilish older man capable of sexually conquering a confused and attractive young man. In this way, the nature of their mutually exploitative relationship begins to shift. Jacques’s fascination preys on David’s delicate emotions, whereas David’s interest in Jacques is strictly monetary and, thus, surface-level. In turn, the power dynamics of their relationship no longer seem quite as equal as they first appeared.
After David and Jacques have dinner and Jacques agrees to lend him 10,000 francs, they make their way to a bar owned by Jacque’s friend, Guillaume, another older and wealthy gay man. David has spent a fair amount of time at this bar but has always tried to pose as an interloper. In this role, he judges the young gay men and “les folles” who frequent the establishment, harshly thinking that some of them don’t even look like humans. On this particular night, though, he and Jacques see that Guillaume has hired a strikingly attractive young Italian man, Giovanni, as a server. This is the first time David sets eyes on Giovanni, and though he’s immediately attracted to him, he hides this reaction. Jacques, on the other hand, makes no effort to conceal his interest in Giovanni, so David offers to disappear for a moment to allow the old man to flirt.
David’s intolerance when it comes to the people surrounding him in Guillaume’s bar recalls his decision to bully Joey after their sexual encounter. In both cases, he recognizes something of himself in the people around him, and because he doesn’t want to acknowledge this part of himself, he treats these people with bitterness. Judging the gay men and “les folles” (a French slang term for crossdressers or trans women) in Guillaume’s bar, he appears determined to deny his own attraction to men. In turn, this determination turns into a form of resentment of anyone who might threaten his contrived self-image as a heterosexual man.
David knows that the only way Jacques will be successful in wooing Giovanni is if Giovanni needs money. In fact, even Jacques understands this—after all, this is the exact dynamic that characterizes his relationship with David, who pretends to be unaware of just how much Jacques is attracted to him. In doing so, he’s able to use Jacques’s interest to his benefit by keeping the older man in a constant state of hope.
Although it might be the case that Jacques preys on David’s closeted confusion, it also becomes clear in this moment that David exploits Jacques’s emotions. Of course, his desire to take Jacques’s money is certainly less psychologically invasive than the delight Jacques takes in making him uncomfortable, but David’s technique of giving Jacques hope is indeed emotionally manipulative. In this manner, Baldwin continues to develop the complicated power dynamics at play in such relationships.
Giovanni comes to take Jacques and David’s orders. They’re both stunned by his beauty, but Giovanni politely defers when Jacques tries to flirt with him. Uninterested, he turns away to serve another table, at which point Jacques asks David to invite Giovanni to have a drink with them. When he sees how much this terrifies David, he says, “I was not suggesting that you jeopardize, even for a moment, that [...] immaculate manhood which is your pride and joy.” Going on, he explains that he wants David to ask Giovanni to have a drink with them because he knows the young server will refuse if he himself is the one to ask. After some initial hesitation, David finally agrees.
In this scene, Jacques gives David an excuse to finally explore his true desires. What’s worth noting is that Jacques’s request gives David the perfect opportunity to pursue his attraction to men while maintaining his guise as a heterosexual man, since he’s only asking Giovanni to have a drink on Jacques’s behalf. Jacques recognizes that this is the perfect way to get David to leave behind his strict ideas about masculinity without damaging his “immaculate manhood,” a phrase that underlines David’s sense that his own masculinity is fragile and precious, something he might ruin by deviating from stereotypical male behavior. Now, though, he can both indulge his inner desires while maintaining his public image as a straight man—a perfect combination to get him to step slightly outside his comfort zone.
When Giovanni returns to David and Jacques’s table, David invites him to have a drink with them. Just then, Guillaume appears behind Jacques and says, “Not only have you finally—thank heaven!—corrupted this great American football player, you use him now to corrupt my barman.” This delights Jacques, who wants to be seen as a misbehaved and seductive older man. Laughing together, he and Guillaume fall into conversation while David faces Giovanni, remembering with a start that he has just asked him to have a drink. Giovanni accepts his offer, and because Jacques is distracted, David is forced to use some of his 10,000 francs to pay for the drinks.
The fact that David has to use his own money to buy Giovanni a drink is a perfect representation of how invested he is in this flirtatious interaction. The only reason he agreed to ask Giovanni to have a drink was because he thought he would be able to preserve his heterosexual image while secretly indulging his attraction. Now that he’s left alone with Giovanni, though, he loses hold of his excuse to pursue the attractive young server, thereby making it harder for him to posture as an uninterested straight man.
Giovanni asks David where he’s from, and the two men discuss the differences between New York City and Paris. David maintains that New York feels different because Paris is old and majestic, whereas Manhattan is modern. Giovanni, who is from Italy, flirtatiously disagrees, marveling that Americans always seem to think of themselves as futuristic and new when, in reality, the United States is made up of emigrants. Giovanni suggests that everyone experiences the same predicaments in life, saying that people are like fish in a vast body of water and that, no matter what happens, big fish eat always little fish. In response, David insists that a person can choose to eat or be eaten—an idea that strikes Giovanni as absurd. “To choose!” he laughs. “Ah, you are really an American.”
In David and Giovanni’s first conversation, they lean on their national identities, using them to define each other. In particular, Giovanni calls attention to David’s American belief that people can choose their fate. This is an important conversation because it is related to David’s approach to his sexual identity. In the same way that David believes he can choose to ignore his attraction to men, he thinks it’s possible for a person to meticulously control their lives. In contrast, Giovanni clearly believes that humans must embrace the unchangeable realities of life. What’s interesting, though, is that he associates David’s naiveté with his American identity. Giovanni’s categorization undoubtedly has complicated implications for David, who has purposefully left the United States in order to enjoy the freedoms of a new lifestyle—a lifestyle that Giovanni himself perhaps represents.
David doesn’t like being so closely associated with American ways of seeing the world, but Giovanni is only being playful. After a moment, Giovanni asks if Jacques is David’s uncle, and when David assures him that he isn’t, he admits that he finds Jacques rather absurd. David agrees, but feels he must vouch for Jacques because he has just taken his money.
It’s relatively unsurprising that David dislikes Giovanni’s suggestion that he’s a quintessential American, since he has made such a concerted effort to escape that way of life. On another note, readers once again see the strange power dynamics at play in David’s relationship with Jacques, since he feels obligated to speak kindly about the old man merely because he has accepted money from him. As the novel progresses, then, it becomes clearer and clearer that this friendship is fraught with unspoken concerns and struggles.
As David talks to Giovanni, he’s unnerved by how much he’s enjoying himself. However, he becomes acutely aware that everyone in the bar is watching them, clearly taking pleasure in watching David flirt with a man. Before long, Giovanni turns away to serve more tables, though not before promising to return to finish his conversation with David.
Again, David is either unable or unwilling to embrace his attraction to men. For this reason, he feels ashamed for enjoying his conversation with Giovanni so thoroughly. In keeping with this, he can’t stop thinking about what other people might be saying or thinking about him, an indication of just how much he cares about his public image.
While Giovanni is gone, David is terrified to see a trans woman slowly approaching him, though he himself doesn’t refer to her as anything but “it” and, finally, “he.” Finding this woman grotesque, he’s petrified when she stops before him and asks if he likes Giovanni. Outraged, David says that this is none of her business, and she surprises him by agreeing. However, she also tells him that someone like Giovanni is dangerous for someone like David. When David tells the trans woman to go to hell, she laughs and says, “Oh, no, I go not to hell. But you, my dear friend—I fear that you shall burn in a very hot fire.” She then touches her head and indicates that the flames of hell will consume David’s mind. In response, David tells her to go fuck herself. Before she parts, she tells him that he’ll be very unhappy.
David’s unwillingness to refer to the trans woman who approaches him as “she” underscores the resentment he feels toward anyone who might pose a threat to his tenuous conception of masculinity. In this regard, his transphobia stems from his own confusion about what it means to be a man. To him, heterosexuality and conventional manliness are what define masculinity. Consequently, it unsettles him to think that both he and this trans woman could be attracted to men. This person has made the decision to present as a female, and her ability to do this forces David to reckon with the socially-constructed nature of gender. If this trans woman who has the same sexual preferences as him can be something other than a man, then David could be too, and this idea disconcerts him because he’s trying so hard to commit himself to such a narrow conception of masculinity.
When David is on his own again, Jacques leans toward him and says that everyone is talking about him and Giovanni. With a coy smile, he asks if Giovanni has grown confused about which one of them is interested in him, and David assures him that there has been no confusion. David also adds that he doesn’t want Jacques to get confused about how David feels regarding Giovanni, but Jacques dismisses this idea, saying that he has never been less confused about anything in his life. Going on, he gives David a piece of advice, saying that only very young people have time to entertain confusions about who they are and what they want. He then points out that David isn’t all that young anymore. However, David merely shrugs this off by saying that Jacques is speaking nonsense.
Although Jacques seems to take a mean-spirited kind of delight in toying with David’s closeted confusion, it’s worth noting that his advice in this moment is quite sound. In fact, his blunt words indicate that he cares about David to a certain extent, since he doesn’t want the young man to spend more of his adult life in denial about his sexual identity. Unfortunately, though, David is unwilling to hear this from Jacques, even if his attitude toward Giovanni has already made it quite clear that everything Jacques has said is true.
Giovanni briefly circles back to David and Jacques, at which point Jacques drops overwhelmingly obvious hints about the fact that David is interested in him. And though David hates him for doing this, he also can’t deny that he’s enjoying himself and is extremely glad that his girlfriend Hella is on vacation in Spain. At the same time, though, he wishes he could bring himself to leave the bar and find a female prostitute, but he knows he doesn’t have whatever it would take to do this.
As David continues speaking to Giovanni, his guard slowly falls. However, this doesn’t mean he’s comfortable with the effect Giovanni has had on him—it simply means that his repressed desires are too strong to overcome. After all, he began this interaction thinking that he could safely step outside of his comfort zone without sacrificing his image as a heterosexual man. As soon as he did this, though, he saw that it would be impossible to hide his true feelings, and now he seems to have surrendered to whatever’s going to happen between him and Giovanni.