A novel about a closeted American man living in Paris in the 1950s, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room underscores the many miseries of denying one’s true sexual orientation. In particular, David—the novel’s protagonist—denies that he’s attracted to men, and this denial causes him to resent people like Giovanni, whom he loves but can’t bring himself to fully embrace. As a result, he eventually leaves Giovanni for his girlfriend Hella, whom he deceives by pretending to be a heterosexual man. Before long, though, it becomes impossible for him to pose as a straight man, effectively alienating him from Hella. Because the damage has already been done to his relationship with Giovanni, though, David finds himself alone and miserable at the end of the novel. In this way, Baldwin illustrates the dangers of lying to oneself, ultimately suggesting that denial and self-deception hurt both the people who hide their true selves and the individuals with whom they’re dishonest.
David’s unwillingness to acknowledge his sexual orientation surfaces early in the novel, when he rehashes a short-lived boyhood romance. He explains that he spent the majority of his time one summer with a friend named Joey. During a sleepover, the boys kissed and engaged in various sexual activities, and though David enjoyed this, he was unable to face Joey the next morning. Unnerved, he left and spent the rest of the summer avoiding his friend, trying hard to pretend that what happened between them was a fluke rather than an indication of his true feelings. When school started, David spent time with a group of boys who bullied Joey, joining them in harassing his former friend. “And the sadder this made him, the nastier I became,” David remembers, making it clear that he’ll do seemingly anything to avoid processing his feelings. Rather than continuing his friendship with Joey and trying to understand the implications of his own sexual preferences, he resented Joey. When he saw the effect his behavior had on his poor friend, he was forced to recognize the gravity of his actions and thus recall the strong connection he and Joey once had. In response, he became even meaner, growing angrier at Joey for forcing him to think about something he was determined to forget. David’s aggression and repression of his true feelings shows just how eager he is to deny his attraction to other men, in addition to how this denial can turn into a form of misplaced resentment.
When David later forms a relationship with Giovanni and shares a room with him in Paris, he finds himself incapable of suppressing his true desires. However, he blames this on Giovanni, as though Giovanni created a sort of perversion in David rather than merely helping to bring David’s true desires to the surface. In other words, David begins to resent Giovanni when he realizes he can no longer hide the way he feels. “With this fearful intimation there opened in me a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots,” he muses. This idea solidifies the notion that David takes out his discomfort on anyone who forces him to recognize himself for who he really is. Because his feelings for Giovanni are so strong, he can’t maintain his image of himself as a heterosexual man, so he develops a hatred for the very man he loves. By framing his attraction to men as Giovanni’s fault, then, David once more tries to deceive himself, even as he simultaneously admits his true sexual orientation.
Blaming his insuppressible desires on Giovanni isn’t the only way David continues to deny his sexual identity. He also tries to deceive himself by the way he acts with Hella, his girlfriend who returns from vacation and interrupts his relationship with Giovanni. Although he clearly wants to end the relationship so he can be with Giovanni, he hopes Hella will be the one to call things off. After all, if he left Hella for Giovanni, this would be an undeniable sign that he’s romantically committed to a man. Unable to make this commitment, he tries to manipulate Hella into enacting his own will, hoping she’ll leave him if he acts aloof. If she leaves him, he knows he could pretend he had no choice but to continue seeing Giovanni. However, Hella doesn’t pick up on his reluctance to continue their relationship, so he’s forced to abruptly cut ties with Giovanni. In turn, Giovanni suffers because of David’s inability to own up to his true feelings. “You are not leaving me for her,” he argues. “You are leaving me for some other reason. You lie so much, you have come to believe all your own lies.” By saying this, Giovanni insists that David has thoroughly deluded himself, somehow tricking himself into believing that he loves Hella. In reality, David is only leaving Giovanni because he doesn’t have the courage to stay with him, since this would mean being truthful about his desire to be in a long-term relationship with a man. Because David can’t bring himself to admit this, he lies to both himself and to Giovanni, effectively pushing his lover away in order to protect his fragile self-image and façade as a heterosexual man.
The consequences of David’s lies bring themselves to bear on his relationship with Hella shortly after they leave Paris. Living a quiet life in the South of France, the couple develops a stilted dynamic because of David’s inability to be truthful about want he really wants. Although he says he wants to marry her and start a family, he withdraws and spends his time thinking about Giovanni. Finally, when Hella catches him having an affair with a sailor, she leaves him, saying that she’ll have trouble ever loving again because of how much she has invested herself in her relationship with David. Accordingly, readers see that David’s unwillingness to be honest with himself ultimately affects everyone he cares about, ruining his relationships and putting unjust burdens on the people closest to him. This, Baldwin intimates, is why it’s dangerous to deny one’s true feelings, as doing so only leads to a life of dishonesty, pain, and bitterness.
Sexual Orientation and Denial ThemeTracker
Sexual Orientation and Denial 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.
For I am—or I was—one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all—a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named—but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not.
“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.
“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.”
I saw myself, sharply, as a wanderer, an adventurer, rocking through the world, unanchored. I looked at Giovanni’s face, which did not help me. He belonged to this strange city, which did not belong to me. I began to see that, while what was happening to me was not so strange as it would have comforted me to believe, yet it was strange beyond belief. It was not really so strange, so unprecedented, though voices deep within me boomed, For shame! For shame! that I should be so abruptly, so hideously entangled with a boy; what was strange was that this was but one tiny aspect of the dreadful human tangle, occurring everywhere, without end, forever.
The beast which Giovanni had awakened in me would never go to sleep again; but one day I would not be with Giovanni any more. And would I then, like all the others, find myself turning and following all kinds of boys down God knows what dark avenues, into what dark places?
With this fearful intimation there opened in me a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.
When Giovanni wanted me to know that he was displeased with me, he said I was a “vrai americain”; conversely, when delighted, he said that I was not an American at all; and on both occasions he was striking, deep in me, a nerve which did not throb in him. And I resented this: resented being called an American (and resented resenting it) because it seemed to make me nothing more than that, whatever that was; and I resented being called not an American because it seemed to make me nothing.
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.”
“I wasn’t sure about that letter.” I was thinking, Perhaps I can get out of it without having to tell her anything. “You were sort of—offhand—I couldn’t be sure whether you were glad or sorry to be throwing in with me.”
“Oh,” she said, “but we’ve always been offhand, it’s the only way I could have said it. I was afraid of embarrassing you—don’t you understand that?”
“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?”
The body in the mirror forces me to turn and face it. And I look at my body, which is under sentence of death. It is lean, hard, and cold, the incarnation of a mystery. And I do not know what moves in this body, what this body is searching. It is trapped in my mirror as it is trapped in time and it hurries toward revelation.