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Dirty Masculinity: Setting and Social Convention in Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room

By Sophia Huang

In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), David embarks on a search to “find [himself]” (21). He assumes that the emotional turmoil and psychological ails he faces at home in America are the result of his geographical surroundings; in reality, they lie within his psychological landscape. He refuses, however, to confront the source of his troubles and flees to Paris in an attempt to evade strict American ideals of heterosexuality, masculinity, and moral cleanliness. Yet once in Paris, he balks at the city’s griminess and flamboyant displays of sexuality, failing to find solace. Baldwin utilizes David’s movement through physical spaces in Paris, from Guillaume’s bar, to Giovanni’s room, and finally his own room, to externalize David’s internal restlessness. During his initial visit to Guillaume’s bar, David’s negative attitude towards homosexuality is positioned as an American construct, contrasted against the pervasive homosexuality present in the bar and, more generally, within his Parisian social circle. As the novel progresses, and he moves into Giovanni’s room, a different portrait of David begins to emerge: one who dislikes being referred to as American and who engages in a homosexual affair despite being on the verge of engagement to his girlfriend, Hella. David, however, evades definitive characterization. He is perpetually suspended between a series of binary oppositions: America and France, heterosexuality and homosexuality, Hella and Giovanni. Rather than accepting this ambiguous state, he oscillates wildly between sides of the binary, destroying his relationships and rendering his search for self-identity unsuccessful. Although David attempts to achieve the sexual and psychological freedom associated with social ambiguity, his attachment to social binaries leaves him incapable of doing so. 

In contrast to David’s search for clarity, the dark and grimy setting of Guillaume’s bar creates a sense of disorder. David observes that the bar is “more than ordinarily crowded and noisy” (26), emphasizing his heightened sense of disorientation and discomfort in the dimly lit space. He also negatively associates the bar with a previous memory in which he had been accused of flirting with a soldier (27). Rather than embracing it as a place of liberation, David positions himself against the bar and its inhabitants. To him, the space is dirty, dark, and filled with sexual deviancy, while he remains clean and morally pure. David’s assumed superiority is evident to his peers, as Jacques mocks the “immaculate manhood which is [David’s] pride and joy” (30). The word “immaculate” refers to cleanliness and perfection, and evokes religious connotations as Roman Catholics use “immaculate” to describe freedom from sin. Jacque’s statement reveals that David’s fiercely protected sense of masculinity is precarious, and contingent upon a strict perception of morality that distinctly rejects homosexuality. David’s black and white thinking further generates anxiety once he realizes his attraction towards Giovanni as it threatens his sense of masculinity and self-worth. Furthermore, David is drawn to him, Giovanni is frequently called into the “dark crowded centre” (38) of the space to perform his duties as a bartender. Giovanni remains a part of the dark, dirty setting, to which David, the figure of immaculate whiteness, is diametrically opposed. 

David’s masculinity is further challenged by the cross-dressers present in Guillaume’s bar, whose femininity defies his desire for definitive social order.  He notes that “a man who wanted a woman would certainly rather be with a real one and a man who wanted a man would certainly not want one of them” (27). David’s thinking, which categorizes those around him into a gender binary, creates an association between sexual deviation and femininity in men. He describes the cross-dressers as “utterly grotesque” (33), as they challenge his limited view of masculinity. His comments also illuminate his concerns regarding the relationship between gender presentation and romantic or sexual prospects. He believes that attraction is only possible between “real” men or women, meaning those who perform heteronormative displays of masculinity and femininity in accordance with their biological gender. David’s assertive tone and repetition of the word “certain” while describing the cross-dresser further highlights his desire to enforce stability while navigating his tumultuous feelings. This desire for certainty re-emerges when he and Giovanni discuss the different ways Americans and Parisians view time. David states that Americans “wait in order to make sure of what they feel” (38), to which Giovanni responds with laughter. The imagery evoked by Giovanni’s “dangerous water” (38) expresses the uncertainty and fluidity threatening to erode David’s strict American sensibilities.  

As the setting shifts from the bar to Giovanni’s room, David is forced to confront both sides of the sexual and gender binaries with which he defines himself. The initial description of the room suggests that, just as the setting has changed, David’s perception of sexuality has begun to evolve. Notably, the language he employs to describe his emotions becomes more nuanced. He states that living with Giovanni initially “held a joy and amazement… Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish, and beneath that amazement was fear” (75), indicating a modicum of self-reflection. David’s comment regarding the pervasiveness of fear in Giovanni’s room astutely explains the cause of his discomfort. Giovanni’s room represents sets of paradoxical feelings and, while the familiar constructs of heteronormativity and gender once comforted David, they become sources of anxiety and imprisonment in Giovanni’s room. In Guillaume’s bar, there was only darkness, but Giovanni’s room, with its semi-transparent windows covered in “heavy white cleaning polish” (85), filters light until it fills the room “so faintly that [David] was worried about the time” (86). Elements that once appeared to be in strict opposition: darkness and light and night and day, slowly become ambiguous, reflecting David’s increasingly nuanced feelings towards Giovanni and, correspondingly, the Parisian ideals he once abhorred. In addition to affecting the light, the window also ominously distorts figures outside until they become “strange shapes”that “[seem] to threaten [David and Giovanni’s] safety” (86). Although David is capable of acknowledging the increasingly complex state of his relationship with Giovanni, he fails to confront the full extent of his emotions and ,therefore, fails to move beyond fear. 

David’s desire to restore order only exacerbates his feelings of confinement. David resents the mess in Giovanni’s room, “which was not the garbage of Paris” (87) but rather “Giovanni’s regurgitated life” (87). The room represents the possibility of intimacy, both physical and emotional. Nevertheless, David’s inability to fully reject his American heterosexual ideals creates a sense of anxiety that prevents him from accepting his relationship with Giovanni in its natural form. He assumes that Giovanni brought him to his room to “destroy it and give to Giovanni a new and better life.” (88) Rather than confronting the homosexual nature of his relationship, David resorts to casting himself as Giovanni’s “housewife,” introducing familiar constructs of traditional gender roles and American cleanliness into Giovanni’s room. Although he spoke disparagingly of the cross-dressers at Guillaume’s bar, David sacrifices his “immaculate” masculinity in a desperate attempt to bring order into Giovanni’s room. This act signifies both a rejection of Giovanni and the metaphorical grime of homosexuality. Paradoxically, David believes that he can only be happy in Giovanni’s room once he has changed it, but cleaning Giovanni’s room would mean destroying aspects of Giovanni’s character. The alternative, living in Giovanni’s unaltered room, is equally unattractive as it would render David increasingly claustrophobic. Evidently, the problem lies within David’s psychological state rather than his physical surroundings. His refusal to confront this fact prevents him from coming to terms with his own sexuality and ultimately prevents him from pursuing an emotionally fulfilling relationship with Giovanni. 

Alone in his room in the South of France, losing Giovanni forces David to view himself more critically through Giovanni’s Parisian libertine lens, symbolized by the room’s transparent window, rather than through the lens of American ideals. Unlike the darkness of the bar or the murkiness of Giovanni’s painted window, the transparent glass allows David to view himself without external factors distorting his self-image. In his essay The Price of the Ticket, Baldwin declares that, in order to progress, one must “go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it” (841). The transparency of the window and thus, Giovanni’s lens, exemplifies Baldwin’s search for the “truth,” as David thoroughly examines and subsequently questions the pillars of his self identity. When David initially views himself in the mirror, he sees the American ideal of masculinity, his “reflection is tall…his blond hair gleams…[His] ancestors conquered a continent” (1), but as the night progresses, the clarity of his perception and its corresponding American self-certainty become more ambiguous. Upon further examination, David looks into the window and sees “Giovanni’s face [swinging] before [him] like an unexpected lantern on a dark, dark night” (167). Shame had previously affected David’s point of view to the extent that he refused to come to terms with his own fluid sexuality and, therefore, could not find comfort in his relationship with Giovanni. Thus, while Giovanni was once associated with the darkness of the bar and the griminess of the room, he is now a source of light, suggesting that David no longer views him as a source of shame but rather, the solution to it. While David had previously placed himself and Giovanni on opposing sides of social binaries, viewing Giovanni in the mirror forces him to realize that aspects of Giovanni are also present in himself. This realization extends to the point that David believes his body to be interchangeable with Giovanni’s. When he imagines Giovanni’s death, he imagines himself being killed as well. David must reconcile himself with the fact that he is both a masculine American man, as well as someone who feels attraction towards both men and women. Giovanni’s lens allows David the freedom to view himself without shame, forcing David to confront his sexual fluidity in a manner that he was previously unable to accomplish. 

David arrives in Paris on a search for self-identity, but it is not until the end of the novel that he begins the process of self-assessment. Fleeing from America to Guillaume’s bar and subsequently to Giovanni’s room confuses his sense of identity. The characteristics of the setting, such as the darkness of Guillaume’s bar and the claustrophobia-inducing filth of Giovanni’s room, externalize David’s conflicting desires. The social constructs of gender and sexuality slowly crumble in David’s psychological landscape. His continued rebellion against rigid American ideals brings him joy in the form of his relationship with Giovanni. However, it also brings him anxiety as his sense of self becomes increasingly uncertain. Baldwin has stated that Giovanni’s Room is not particularly concerned with homosexuality, but rather the effects of fear on one’s ability to love (61). Throughout the novel, David believes that he could be happy with either Hella or Giovanni, but his failure to confront his own nuanced self-identity cripples the possibility of a romantic relationship with a partner of any gender. Ultimately, David is left alone in a state of ambiguity, both emotionally and physically. He is neither with a man nor a woman, but harbours differing levels of attraction to both, and rests on the cusp between Paris and American while waiting for his train home. In this state of loss and isolation, in which David can neither cling to an American nor French identity, Hella nor Giovanni, that he finally seeks to define himself outside the restrictions of social binaries. 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. Vintage International, 2013.

Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. New York: Library of America, 1998. 

Baldwin, James. James Baldwin: the Last Interview: and Other Conversations. Melville House, 2014.