In Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin suggests that societal gender norms often interfere with a person’s sense of self. This happens when David internalizes conventional notions of what it means to be a man, making it hard for him to accurately understand his own masculinity. Because he associates manhood with heterosexuality, he feels that his attraction to Giovanni indicates his failure as a man. Worse, he’s reluctant to question these restrictive conceptions of what defines a person’s gender, instead resigning himself to the idea that he cannot be a true man while existing in a homosexual relationship. Interestingly enough, his girlfriend Hella also struggles with gender-related limitations, pointing out that women aren’t taken seriously unless they associate themselves with men through marriage. Despite these reservations, though, she makes plans to marry David, who doesn’t even acknowledge her desire to be seen as an individual. Consequently, both David and Hella give up who they truly want to be in order to fulfill the gender roles they think society requires them to assume. In turn, Baldwin shows readers just how difficult it is to deviate from stereotypical notions of what it means to be a man or a woman.
David’s obsession with presenting himself as a supposedly conventional man stems from his relationship with his father. When he’s a young boy, he hears his father tell David’s aunt Ellen that all he wants is for David to become a true man. “And when I say a man, Ellen, I don’t mean a Sunday school teacher,” his father says, implying that only certain lifestyles are appropriate for men—lifestyles that are stripped of anything that could be associated with traditional conceptions of femininity. As a result, David tries to present himself as a heterosexual man even though he is sexually attracted to men. During his relationship with Giovanni, for instance, he frets constantly over what his father would think. In one letter, his father implores him to return from Paris, asking what, exactly, David is doing abroad. After reading this, David senses that his father has refrained from asking the following question: “Is it a woman, David? Bring her on home. I don’t care who she is. Bring her on home and I’ll help you get set up.” David believes that his father can’t bring himself to actually ask this question because he knows he wouldn’t be able to withstand the truth. In turn, it becomes clear that David thinks his father will only accept him if he’s in a heterosexual relationship—something that would supposedly fulfill the old man’s lifelong wish for David to live up to his expectations of what a man should be.
It’s worth emphasizing just how much David associates heterosexuality with masculinity. When he has his first homosexual encounter with his childhood friend, Joey, he plunges into despair while looking at Joey’s body, thinking that his attraction to the boy will cause him to “lose [his] manhood.” This suggests that he thinks sexual orientation is what defines a person’s gender as a man or a woman. Under this interpretation, then, any deviation from heterosexuality will threaten his ability to be the man that both he and his father want him to be. This is why David tries to force himself into embracing heterosexuality. When he hears that Hella will soon be returning to Paris, for example, he goes out and has sex with a female acquaintance, Sue, desperately trying to reestablish his façade of being a heterosexual man. Afterward, he reflects upon this experience and begins to think of heterosexuality as a source of stability, something that will give him safety and security. He notes that he wants a woman to ground him so that he can move through life with his “manhood unquestioned.” When he thinks this, readers see that he’s primarily interested not in actually loving a woman, but in the idea of asserting his masculinity once and for all. To underscore this belief, he decides to leave Giovanni, saying, “What kind of life can two men have together, anyway?” By saying this, he suggests that men simply cannot survive in this world unless they exist in heterosexual relationships. For this reason, he leaves Giovanni when Hella returns, effectively sacrificing his happiness and true sexual orientation so that he can conform to what he thinks society expects of men.
Somewhat ironically, David’s utter unwillingness to challenge so-called conventional gender roles stands in stark contrast to Hella’s outspoken complaints about the ways in which society restricts women. While walking through Paris one day, she tells David that she recently realized she can’t be free until she associates herself with a man through marriage. This, she implies, is because she lives in a patriarchal society that refuses to acknowledge her on her own terms, so she can’t become someone until she belongs to someone else—namely, a man. Interestingly enough, David also lives in a world that refuses to acknowledge him on his own terms, but he can’t articulate this to Hella because doing so would mean revealing his true sexual identity and thus threatening his ability to conform to conventional notions of masculinity. Consequently, he merely says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” pretending to be ignorant of the ways in which society boxes people in to various gender roles. And though Hella is cognizant of the restrictions placed upon her by the world she lives in, she submits to reality by returning from Spain to marry David. In this sense, then, both she and David try to inhabit traditional gender roles despite the fact that these conceptions of masculinity and femininity curtail their freedom. This, of course, leads to their misery, as Baldwin intimates that gender roles are nothing but social constructs that often inhibit people’s true desires and keep them from being themselves.
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Gender and Societal Expectations Quotes in Giovanni’s Room
And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no-one to watch, no penalties attached—it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom. I suppose this was why I asked her to marry me: to give myself something to be moored to. Perhaps this was why, in Spain, she decided that she wanted to marry me. But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.
I was ashamed. The very bed, in its sweet disorder, testified to vileness. I wondered what Joey’s mother would say when she saw the sheets. Then I thought of my father, who had no one in the world but me, my mother having died when I was little. A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words. I thought I saw my future in that cavern. I was afraid. I could have cried, cried for shame and terror, cried for not under standing how this could have happened to me, how this could have happened in me. And I made my decision.
I cannot say that I was frightened. Or, it would be better to say that I did not feel any fear—the way men who are shot do not, I am told, feel any pain for awhile. I felt a certain relief. It seemed that the necessity for decision had been taken from my hands. I told myself that we both had always known, Giovanni and myself, that our idyll could not last forever And it was not as though I had not been honest with him—he knew all about Hella. He knew that she would be returning to Paris one day. Now she would be coming back and my life with Giovanni would be finished.
Again, somewhere at the bottom of me, I realized that my fears had been excessive and groundless and, in effect, a lie: it became clearer every instant that what I had been afraid of had nothing to do with my body. Sue was not Hella and she did not lessen my terror of what would happen when Hella came: she increased it, she made it more real than it had been before.
Yet it was true, I recalled, turning away from the river down the long street home, I wanted children. I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed. I wanted the same bed at night and the same arms and I wanted to rise in the morning, knowing where I was. I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed.
“You want to be clean. You think you came here covered with soap and you think you will go out covered with soap—and you do not want to stink, not even for five minutes, in the meantime. […] You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying little moralities. And you—you are immoral.”
“You may laugh,” she said, humorously, “but there is something in what I say. I began to realize it in Spain— that I wasn’t free, that I couldn’t be free until I was attached—no, committed—to someone.”
“What do you want, Hella? What have you got now that makes such a difference?”
She laughed. “It isn’t what I’ve got. It isn’t even what I want. It’s that you’ve got me. So now I can be—your obedient and most loving servant.”
“But I knew,” she said, “I knew. This is what makes me so ashamed. I knew it every time you looked at me. I knew it every time we went to bed. If only you had told me the truth then. Don’t you see how unjust it was to wait for me to find it out? To put all the burden on me? I had the right to expect to hear from you—women are always waiting for the man to speak. Or hadn’t you heard?”