In Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin invites readers to consider the exploitative powers of money and sex, illustrating the various ways in which people use their wealth or sexuality to manipulate others. In particular, Baldwin focuses on the relationships that Jacques and Guillaume (two wealthy, older gay men) have with attractive young men who need financial support. These relationships, Baldwin suggests, have very little to do with love, since both parties are primarily interested in getting what they want from each other. For instance, David and Giovanni manipulate Jacques and Guillaume by flirting with them for money and food, while Jacques and Guillaume manipulate David and Giovanni by incentivizing this behavior in the first place. However, Baldwin suggests that this dynamic isn’t necessarily equal, since it’s clear that Jacques and Guillaume have power over David and Giovanni, considering that the two young men depend upon them for financial assistance, meaning that they need them to survive. This is evident when Guillaume fires Giovanni from his bar because he’s jealous of his relationship with David. This eventually leads Giovanni to kill Guillaume. Through this violent outcome, Baldwin shows that wielding financial and sexual power over a person often has disastrous results, and that mutually-exploitative relationships are inherently dangerous because one party inevitably has more influence than the other.
At first, the kind of relationships that David and Giovanni have with people like Jacques and Guillaume seem relatively harmless. When Giovanni first meets Guillaume in a movie theater, the older man tries to corner him into going out with him by making up a story that puts Giovanni in a vulnerable position. Despite his awareness that Guillaume is trying to manipulate him, Giovanni feels he has nothing to lose by indulging this wealthy stranger’s fantasy of flirting with an attractive young man. After all, Giovanni is quite poor and unable to work in Paris because he doesn’t have a permit, so he agrees to have dinner with Guillaume as a way of feeding himself. This, in turn, enables him to find a job, since Guillaume hires him to work as a server in his bar. But this arrangement comes at a price, as Giovanni must withstand Guillaume’s sexual advances. Regardless, though, Giovanni is happy to have a worker’s permit, so he puts up with Guillaume’s sexual encroachments. He tells David about this arrangement in a very casual way, acting as if he doesn’t mind that he has to submit to Guillaume’s desires in order to keep his job. In fact, both he and David make light of this situation by frequently taking advantage of Guillaume and Jacques’s willingness to give them money, confidently telling themselves that paying is “the least these dirty old men” can do for them. In turn, they treat these relationships as connections founded upon a harmless give-and-take dynamic that doesn’t necessarily put them at a disadvantage.
Because Giovanni and David are apparently so comfortable with using sex appeal to manipulate Guillaume and Jacques for money, it seems that the four men have a mutually-exploitative relationship. This, in turn, gives their relational dynamic the appearance of equality. Even David, who doesn’t actually sleep with Jacques, actively manipulates the older man by going out with him and allowing Jacques to pretend they’re on a date. He only does this when he needs to borrow money, and Jacques seemingly understands this, but this doesn’t affect the terms of their relationship, since David still gets the money he needs while Jacques takes delight in spending time with a good-looking man in public. As a result, this kind of relationship—which is completely devoid of genuine emotion—seems somewhat harmless.
However, it soon becomes clear that Giovanni and David’s relationships with Guillaume and Jacques aren’t truly as safe as they might seem. When Giovanni and David start living together in earnest, Giovanni stops submitting to Guillaume’s sexual advances, at which point Guillaume accuses him of being unfair, suggesting that he has led him on in order to benefit from their relationship. This, of course, is true, but it has always been the unspoken contract of their relational dynamic, and the only reason Guillaume brings it up is because he wants to guilt Giovanni into having sex with him. Suddenly, then, Guillaume’s desire to get what he wants looms larger than anything else, which is why he goes downstairs, fires Giovanni in front of everyone, and accuses him of stealing money. This, it’s worth noting, is a severe reaction that deeply influences Giovanni’s entire life, to an extent that Giovanni himself would never be able to affect Guillaume. Nothing, it’s easy to see, will happen to Guillaume if Giovanni refuses to submit to his sexual desires—his life won’t change at all, other than his lustful fantasies going unfulfilled. Giovanni, on the other hand, stands to lose his financial ability to survive. Worse, Guillaume’s decision to publicly accuse Giovanni of stealing hurts the young man’s reputation, thereby hindering his ability to find another job. In this regard, then, it’s overwhelmingly clear that Guillaume has an inordinate amount of power over Giovanni’s entire life.
Because Guillaume so thoroughly derails Giovanni’s life, Giovanni eventually returns to him with his tail between his legs, having sex with him in order to get his job back. Afterward, though, Guillaume smugly informs him that he can’t hire him again, meaning that he has taken advantage of Giovanni without making it possible for Giovanni to do the same to him. Because of this, Giovanni kills him. The fact that their relationship originally seems harmless but ultimately leads to murder underlines the volatile nature of relationships founded upon exploitation. While it may seem safe to take part in mutually manipulative relations, Baldwin implies that such exploitative dynamics can be quite dangerous. In this regard, the author suggests that these kinds of interactions aren’t always as equal as they may seem, and often lead to desperation and anger.
Money, Sex, and Exploitation ThemeTracker
Money, Sex, and Exploitation Quotes in Giovanni’s Room
As long as I was there the world could see and he could believe that he was out with me, his friend, he was not there out of desperation, he was not at the mercy of whatever adventurer chance, cruelty, or the laws of actual and emotional poverty might throw his way.
“If that was his sister looking so good. I’d invite her to have a drink with us. I don’t spend money on men.”
I could see Jacques struggling not to say that I didn’t have any objection to allowing men to spend money on me; I watched his brief struggle with a slight smile, for I knew he couldn’t say it; then he said, with that cheery, brave smile of his:
“I was not suggesting that you jeopardize, even for a moment, that’—he paused—‘that immaculate manhood which is your pride and joy. I only suggested that you invite him because he will almost certainly refuse if I invite him.”
“There’s been no confusion,” I snapped. “Don’t you go getting confused, either.”
“I think I can safely say,” said Jacques, “that I have scarcely ever been less confused than I am at this moment.” He had stopped smiling; he gave me a look which was dry, bitter, and impersonal. “And, at the risk of losing forever your so remarkably candid friendship, let me tell you something. Confusion is a luxury which only the very, very young can possibly afford, and you are not that young anymore.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “Let’s have another drink.”
I felt that I had better get drunk.
As for the boys at the bar, they were each invisibly preening, having already calculated how much money he and his copain would need for the next few days, having already appraised Guillaume to within a decimal of that figure, and having already estimated how long Guillaume, as a fountainhead, would last, and also how long they would be able to endure him. […] There was also Jacques, who might turn out to be a bonus, or merely a consolation prize.
“I mean you could have been fair to me by despising me a little less.”
“I’m sorry. But I think, since you bring it up, that a lot of your life is despicable.”
“I could say the same about yours,” said Jacques. “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.”
“Love him,” said Jacques, with vehemence, “love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last, since you are both men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas! in the dark. And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty—they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better—forever—if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.” He paused, watching me, and then looked down to his cognac. “You play it safe long enough,” he said, in a different tone, “and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever—like me.”