Being Pigeonholed in Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
By Santiago Eastman Herrera
When I first read Giovanni’s Room, I was living in a one-room apartment in a building full of old people who spoke a different language than I did. I was sitting on my bed, which took up a quarter of the room, and I had devoured the novel in one go. I’m not going to wax poetic about how the novel changed my life or something like that, but it did do something for me that I would have never expected: it made me look at books, novels—literature—differently. (This was before I had started my degree in English Literature but well after my time as a mechanical engineering major.) And the more I read about people’s reactions to the novel, the more I’m convinced it did something to all of us. The novel touched a deep part of our souls and shook us to our core. And I’ve been obsessed with James Baldwin ever since.
Even before the novel was published in 1956, Giovanni’s Room was highly controversial—for a variety of reasons. The first publisher Baldwin sent the manuscript to, Alfred A. Knopf, was surprised when they read it. The head editor quickly rejected the draft, stating it had “so few credible characters and would do nothing to serve Baldwin’s reputation as an author” (Als et al. “Giovanni's Room Revisited”). (The manuscript’s rejection had nothing to do with the subject matter either, they made sure to say) Instead of listening, though, Baldwin sent it to other companies until it was eventually published by Dial Press. But why did a novel that would eventually become one of the most celebrated in English literary history create such a negative reaction?
To start with, James Baldwin had already established a bit of reputation for himself through various essays published in magazines. People knew him as a black author, a poor African American who lived in a post-Harlem Renaissance (but pre-Civil Rights movement) New York. They knew him as a man who wasn’t afraid to say (or write) what many in the deeply divided country were thinking. In a way, because the main character of Giovanni’s Room was a white American man in Paris, Knopf was asking: “What right do you have to write about these things?” –a question Baldwin would fight his entire life.
Early critics of Giovanni’s Room were split in two: they either didn’t like it because the main characters, David and Giovanni, were explicitly shown in a same-sex relationship, or because David was white. 63 years after the novel’s publication, this still makes me wonder: why was there so much initial opposition? Why was there so much controversy over David just being an average American man?
The answer? Baldwin was black. Plain and simple. In the same way people don’t question why white male authors always write white male characters, they did question and even demand something of Baldwin that he refused to do. As a black man, they reasoned, Baldwin should be writing black characters, performing his blackness for the segregated masses. Baldwin refused. By portraying his characters as white men, he rejected being pigeonholed into being just a “black” author, or a “gay” author, or even a “straight” one. In multiple interviews, he went so far as to say there was no room in the novel for race, for strained relations based on skin color. He wanted to focus on David and Giovanni’s relationship, and in such a tight story, he couldn’t tackle the behemoth of the damage American puritanism had done on homosexual attraction with the heavy weight of racism looming over their heads (Als et al. “Giovanni's Room Revisited”).
In his own way, Baldwin does still focus on a type of “othering” that his characters are subjected to, except it was on his terms. David grapples with what society wants from him versus what he wants for himself throughout the whole novel. Does he go with the light, with Hella and a traditional family model? Or does he go with the endless possibilities of the darkness, the constant new discoveries with Giovanni and the night? David can’t decide, and so, loses everything.
There’s plenty of symbolism in the novel, but one of the most striking examples is the painting on the wall of Giovanni’s room. The painting shows a man and a woman “perpetually walking together, hemmed in by roses” (Baldwin 86), which was discovered after Giovanni ripped off the overlaid wallpaper. The man and woman loom over the two men as they struggle to understand each other. They watch as first David, and then Giovanni, try to fit themselves into roles they were never meant to play. And then they watch the whole relationship fall apart.
Just as the tightening noose of heteronormative oppression gets ever closer to David through Hella, so too does the painting remind him of his indecision. Giovanni’s room is dark, with only one window with soaped-up panes instead of curtains for privacy and trash all over. When the boys go out, it’s in the early mornings or at night, before or after Giovanni’s shifts as a bartender. Their lives are always shrouded in a darkness of some kind, and it only worsens when Hella comes to Paris.
“Even at my most candid, even when I tried hardest to give myself to him as he gave himself to me, I was holding something back” (Baldwin 78).
The entire novel, David is at odds with his own masculinity and what society says it should be like. A huge part of the reason David can’t come to terms with Giovanni is because he doesn’t think an actual long-term relationship with him is possible. For the few months they’re together, David hesitates to open himself up to the possibility. For him, it was a time of stasis, of anxiously waiting, a time of self-reflection the likes of which he hadn’t had since his childhood friend Joey—and that terrified him.
Toni Morrison, a close friend of Baldwin’s, once said that the two of them often talked about the white gaze, the “little white man” (Schappell “The Art of Fiction”) sitting on their shoulders while they wrote, trying to get them to explain black culture to white people. For many, Giovanni’s room was seen as a cop-out for Baldwin, a way to avoid the issue entirely by letting the little white man tell him things he had no business writing. But I believe the story is bigger than that.
This type of marginalizing, this attempt at sticking people in boxes and never letting them out, often only reinforces the very things they strained against to begin with. To me, this novel is a personal triumph for Baldwin, as it shows he had the capacity to think outside of his station, to dream of a world where race was only a word, and he could instead focus on demonstrating the tragedy of a love not pursued. Baldwin, when talking about his novel, reflected that it was “not so much about homosexuality, it is what happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody” (Als et al. “Giovanni's Room Revisited”).
Baldwin, James. Giovanni's Room. The Dial Press, 1965.
Als, Hilton, et al. “'Giovanni's Room' Revisited.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Sept. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/05/t-magazine/james-baldwin-giovannis-room.html.
Schappell, Elissa, and Claudia Brodsky Lacour. “The Art of Fiction No. 134.” The Paris Review, The Paris Review, 1993, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1888/the-art-of-fiction-no-134-toni-
Cole, Teju. “Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin's ‘Stranger in the Village.’” The New Yorker, 19 Aug. 2014, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/black-body-re-reading-james-baldwins-stranger-village.