In Giovanni’s Room, David runs from his identity as an American while simultaneously using it to formulate superficial understandings of himself. By leaving the United States for France, he feels as if he can be somewhat more open about his sexual orientation, though it soon becomes clear that this has little to do with France and everything to do with his sense that he can outrun his problems. To that end, he decides he must leave Paris soon, as he begins to feel uncomfortable about his relationship with Giovanni, clearly hoping that traveling to Spain or some other part of France will solve everything. However, relocating doesn’t make him feel any better about his decision to choose Hella over Giovanni. In this way, Baldwin communicates the idea that, although traveling to new places might afford a person certain freedoms and a sense of anonymity, it’s impossible to outrun one’s emotional demons.
David has a strange relationship with his national identity. Because he knows his father would disapprove of his gay or bisexual lifestyle (however repressed it may be), he sees Paris as an escape from external judgment, since he can essentially hide from his father by living in a different country. His belief that moving to France gives him new freedoms is made evident by the fact that he frequents public spaces in Paris that openly cater to gay men and “les folles” (a French slang term for crossdressers or trans women), something he would never do in the United States for fear of being labeled as a gay man himself. In this regard, he relinquishes his American identity in order to allow himself a small amount of freedom, taking liberties he wouldn’t otherwise dare to take. In turn, readers see that traveling to Paris has—to a certain extent—helped him run from various social mores that make it harder for him to be the person he wants to be.
At the same time, though, David can’t quite let go of his American identity. This is made apparent by the way he responds to Giovanni’s comments about his inherent Americanness. When Giovanni is angry at him, he explains, he calls him a true American, but when he’s pleased with him, he says that David isn’t like most Americans. “And I resented this,” David notes, “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.” On one hand, David doesn’t want to be reduced to a single category, especially since this particular category is exactly what he has tried to escape by coming to Paris in the first place. On the other hand, though, he dislikes the idea of belonging to no category at all, since this means that he has nothing to define him and must therefore find his own way to present himself. And given that he’s constantly at war with himself regarding his sexual identity, he’s daunted by the idea of having to define himself, a process that would inevitably require him to come to terms with his sexual orientation. Accordingly, he seeks refuge in the very thing he wants to escape, hoping that leaning into his American identity will help him avoid any actual soul-searching.
Regardless of how David identifies with his home country, it’s overwhelmingly clear that he thinks traveling to new places will help him flee his problems. For example, when Giovanni and David’s relationship suffers a blow after Giovanni is fired from his job, David begins to worry about what will happen to them when Hella returns to Paris. To solve this problem, he suggests that he and Giovanni leave Paris for a short while, though it’s worth pointing out that this would do nothing to actually change their circumstances, since David isn’t suggesting that he and Giovanni should elope forever. (This, of course, would require David to make a commitment to Giovanni that he’s unwilling to make). Rather, David simply wants to leave Paris because he suddenly associates it with his unfortunate predicament. “I’m sick of this city,” he proclaims, later adding that “everything you put your hands on here comes to pieces in your hands.” By saying this, he reveals his deluded belief that Paris itself is the root of his misery. In reality, though, his own inability to accept his attraction to men is what causes his strife, but he chooses to believe that he can outrun such problems simply by keeping in constant motion. This, it seems, is exactly what must have led him to Paris in the first place.
Inevitably, David’s attempt to escape his problems is unsuccessful, and he ends up leading a miserable existence in the South of France at the end of the novel. In fact, he is perhaps even more tormented than before, since he has left Paris, Giovanni, and everything that once made him happy in life. Simply put, he realizes he can’t outrun his own demons, finally understanding that he will feel the same no matter where he goes or with which country he identifies. This aligns with a thought that occurs to him when he reflects upon all that has happened to him—namely, that “home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” This sentiment illustrates not just the lasting influence of a person’s national identity, but the futility of trying to escape fundamental truths about oneself. According to this worldview, then, traveling and running from one’s problems only provides temporary relief, not long-lasting happiness.
Travel, Identity, and Emotional Escape ThemeTracker
Travel, Identity, and Emotional Escape Quotes in Giovanni’s Room
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.
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.