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Themes of Guilt and Sexuality in James Balwin’s Giovanni’s Room

2253 words (9 pages) Essay in Literature

18/05/20 Literature Reference this

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James Baldwin, a black gay man, began his writing experience when young. His step father wanted him to follow his steps in becoming a Pastor, his family was very religious, but he often found himself reading in a library. When he became more of age, he met Richard Wright, who was his role model for literature, Richard managed to get him into a fellowship, which he quit soon after. Baldwin departed the United States shortly for Paris, he longed to go far from the “American Society.” America in the 1950’s was fighting for Civil Rights, and there was a plethora of homophobia, though there were “Gay Organizations” such as The Mattachine Society, they were still oppressed (Martin Meeker 1). James Baldwin being Black and gay  did not gain many admirers  when trying to make himself known. Many writers where leaving for Europe for further influence in their writing, and Baldwin chose Paris to broaden his context. He began to embrace his sexuality, and included it in his writing, and he wrote the feverous novel of Giovanni’s Room. Motivated by his own experience in discovering his sexuality, James Baldwin sought to meticulously incorporate the Americanized view of homosexuality, and guilt; Baldwin’s intent to express himself developed the issues of masculinity, self-acceptance, guilt, and ambiguity. 

 Baldwin’s main concentrate for the novel is Homosexuality. David, the narrator, has a hard time accepting the fact he is gay, leading to his burdensome self-acceptance and self-loathing. David never embraces it. His first same sex sexual encounter was with his close friend Joey, subsequently David began to repress the desire for a mans body. This is a constant internal conflict through the novel, there is    “a cavern opened in [his] mind, black, full of rumor […]” (Baldwin 9) where he believes that that desire is monstrous, every time he feels lust for a man he naturally creates hatred for himself and the desire that ignites. That is reason for creating the “rumors” in his own head; Baldwin has David’s focus revolve around the fact that being a gay is not right, it is immoral. James Baldwin then mentions the Garden of Eden listing some of the characters lustful preferences, yet the Garden is a representation of “little hope, longevity, and a relation to the external” (Stewart 35) hence why Jacques, his only friend in Paris, said “nobody can stay in the Garden of Eden.” Baldwin then replies that there is a  “perpetually recurring death of [one’s] innocence” (Baldwin 27), where he feels that one cannot  be eternally innocent. Referring back to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, “Innocence was lost due to the appetite for discovery and knowledge — it was considered a sin” (Carroll 2-3).  Essentially, Baldwin was making a connection between innocence and the Garden; the Garden of Eden is a paradise, but shorty afterward one will “see the flaming sword” (Baldwin 27), and one would preserve one’s innocence by avoiding any sort of discovery/curiosity ( in this case homosexuality, or the sexual encounter David had with Joey when young)  this way the “flaming sword” would never appear.

 As conveyed, David (and in essence Baldwin) acknowledged that being a gay man leads to negative incidents, causing the spark of that self hatred and inability to accept and embrace the way he is. An ambiguous part was a conversation between Giovanni and David, “People are always saying, we must wait, […], What are they waiting for? […] I guess people wait in order to make sure of what they feel” (Baldwin 41). Initially, Giovanni was speaking about waiting to become friends, but I conceived that he realized that David was a stubborn man and was a master in self deception. David’s ignorance for the way he feels towards men makes him believe that it is time that will change him and his desires; he needs to make sure he is attracted to men. The slightest possibility of time progressing may save him from himself, from his ‘monstrous’ self.

 Though there was obvious self acceptance issues in the narrators life, he was also feeling that way because of masculinity. Masculinity seems to be the basis on how and why he sees homosexuals the way he does, and how he despises the way feels attracted towards them. In the gay bar he refers to them as “les folles” which mean ‘the crazy’. Baldwin may have stated that this novel disregards race, but allegedly “black individuals were seen as homosexuals, and white individuals were seen as heterosexuals” (Armengol 2012). I found this analysis to make sense, this is evidently proving to the reader why the main character, a white male, is having a difficult experience with self-acceptance. David wants to be a man, he does not want to be treated in a feminine way — Baldwin proves this in the argument David had about not wanting the stay in Giovanni’s claustrophobic room cleaning until he gets home from work. Jacques also referred to David’s masculinity as “immaculate manhood, which is your pride and joy(Baldwin 33), but even Jacques knew himself that was a lie.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

 I began to notice a pattern pertaining to guilt throughout the novel, it was as if with being gay followed guilt. James Baldwin had the Amin characters experience some sort of guilt — all being gay. The “incident” that had occurred “with Joey had shaken [him] up profoundly and its effect was to make [him] secretive and cruel” (Baldwin 17) David found that the only way to cope with it was drinking (and when younger the bullying of Joey). The drinking dilemma he had led to a car accident, an accident in which I believe was an attempt to end his life; David was fully aware that he was in no shape to drive a car, he was “almost too drunk to walk and had no business driving” (Baldwin 17). He also felt guilty for not feeling guilty when Giovanni was going to prison for execution, though he claimed to be immune to the feeling  “It would help if I were able to feel guilty. But the end of innocence is also the end of guilt” (Baldwin 122), meaning, as best explained by Dr. N, “All this explicit inevitability, which the narrator flaunts, serves as an implicit disclaimer meant to assuage his sense of guilt in regards to both his contribution to his Giovanni’s downfall, but also to his succumbing to homoerotic desire” (Dragulescu 36). At the end of the novel, Hella confesses she knew about his type of desires and realizes he is “guilty (you are), how [he] loves to be guilty” (Baldwin 179). There was a certain ambiguity in this: he may ‘love’ to feel guilt, because in feeling guilt he would  not have to admit to himself or anyone that he is a homosexual, this is why David asked Hella to marry him; but also ‘Loved’ ( affectionate type ) to be guiltily, he knew where thing were going to end, yet still led on a relationship with Giovanni. David was a masochist and very deceitful. When he did realize and admitted that he was gay, there was a sort of remorseful sentiment towards Jacques, for at first he held him accountable for the death of Giovanni, yet it was Jacques who helped him accept the fact that he was attracted to men.

 Jacques is a very flamboyant individual who did not appreciate being turned down by other men ( young men ), Guillaume being the same way. The encounter between Giovanni and David was presumably set up by Jacques, a new relationship where James Baldwin had Jacques end up being vicarious with.  He uses them both in that way because his love life is a sad, lifeless, and shameful one, every encounter with a young man feels as if  “there is no affection in them, and no joy. It’s like putting an electric plug in a dead socket” (Baldwin 61). Jacques also feels culpable for the initial downfall of Giovanni, when he had the chance to genuinely help him, but he did not, he “didn’t give him the money. If [he’d] known — [he] would have given him everything [he] had” ( Baldwin 26 ). Almost all the main characters ( who were men )  participated in Giovannis’ path to death.

 Guillaume is a transparent character, he became an envious person when Giovannis and Davids relationship began, which was a factor to the awful cause of his death. Baldwin established the beginning of Giovanni’s deterioration when Guillaume fired him from the job; he was upset, and seeing Giovanni working seemed some what humiliating ( only because when they first met Guillaume tried to seduce Giovanni, but they ended up making a deal: no relationship will guarantee Giovanni’s hard work in the bar ), and the best way to get back at him for turning him down in the past was to create a scene and fire him. This was a proper time to force David into making his decision of whether staying or leaving Giovanni concrete. Yet, when Guillaume felt sorry for letting go of Giovanni, he decided to give him the job back, but only if he submitted to sexual intercourse with him, which led Giovanni to murder him. Baldwin appears to  always have something tragic happen to the homosexuals of this novel. Jacques find no pleasure in having intercourse with whom he aspires, David is self loathing and acts like a heterosexual, when he is dying to accept that he is gay ( readers know more about David because it is in First person Limited ), Giovanni ends up doing opium, stealing, and committing murder, and Guillaume dies. Everything began to fall apart, as everything would soon become clearer. 

 Giovanni’s Room is a reflection of Baldwin’s reaction towards how sexuality is seen, and how he may have felt when in the United States. This was a gateway in expressing how society reacts to ‘his type’, and this was what pushed him to establish the dominating theme of homosexuality in the novel — it was made to seem like a burden which is where the guilt lays. Being gay while feeling guilty brought about smaller factors that contributed to the self hatred: masculinity, race, self acceptance ambiguity and guilt.

MLA Citations

  • Armengol, J. (2012). In the Dark Room: Homosexuality and/as Blackness in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 37(3), pp.671-693
  • Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York, N.Y: Delta Trade Paperbacks, 2000. Print
  • Carroll, Grace C., “The Queer Innocence of James Baldwin in Giovanni’s Room” (2017). University Honors Theses. Paper 511.
  • 10.15760/honors.516
  • Dragulescu, Luminitia. “Into the Room and Out of the Closet: (Homo)Sexuality and Commodification in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.” Gender Roomours II: Gender and Space, Beate Neumeier, 2006, 33-34, http://www.genderforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/200616_GenderRoomoursII.pdf#page=36
  • Meeker, Martin. “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 10 no. 1, 2001, pp. 78-116. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/sex.2001.0015
  • Stewart, Jon. “James Baldwin: Poetic Experimentation” in a Chaotic World.”Kierkegaard’s Influence on Literature, Criticism, and Art: The …, Volume 4, Nigel Hatton, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013, 35, https://books.google.com/books?id=eoQ4tADHpzEC&pg=PA35&lpg=PA35&dq=perpetually+recurring+death+of+innocence&source=bl&ots=CMcQlDZEFZ&sig=ACfU3U3-MAqcgoEVz18W3PbpxSg00ivLrQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiQr__A793jAhXFp1kKHUuDB1AQ6AEwBXoECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
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