“Giovanni’s Room” Literature Capsule #1


Giovanni’s Room is a novel unlike many others; this careful creation boldly discusses subjects traditionally avoided by literature, resulting in an unmatched masterpiece.

The novel surrounds David, an American living in Paris during the 1950’s, as he struggles to live both morally and truthfully. Haunted by the image of his father, upon whom David reflects many of his own life decisions, the protagonist is faced with confronting love in its most abstract forms: to love a woman in security, to love another man in passion, to love so intensely the emotion becomes inseparable from hatred. A successful discussion of such a controversial and paradoxical concept is no easy feat, yet James Baldwin accomplishes this with mastery over language.

James Baldwin, the author of this novel, was a openly-gay African American activist. The author of various other novels (all of which I am eager to read), Baldwin explores the repressed natures of race, sexuality, and class within his works. In the case of Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin discusses sexuality in a light new to literature. In a society where all thoughts and actions are compared on a moral compass, the verdict being strictly right or wrong, Baldwin abandons societal expectations. His writing of a gay Paris, one in which same-sex relationships are not a crime, though they remain tainted by tradition, is an entirely new experience I am thankful to have had as a reader.

To a reader familiar with gay literature (for there is an entire world of this available, be it primarily through subtext), James Baldwin abandons subtlety, preferring to address the topic head-on. In a simple yet brilliant style of writing, Baldwin crafts a story unrelated to the readers that is received as deeply personal. In David’s encounter with a love masked by repulsion, the familiar system of right and wrong seems entirely irrelevant. What he must decide between- morality or honesty- seems to place David in a continual paradox; in truth, the entire novel is painful in this respect. For readers that relate with David’s struggle, the novel is a reflection on an experience often avoided by art. For those not familiar, the personal-narrative style in which this novel is structured will enlighten readers to the internal conflicts that seem to take over every aspect of the tormented protagonist’s life; by the end, David can hardly differentiate between the realities experienced in Giovanni’s room and the city outside the shameful walls.

Though often regarded as explicit, I prefer to label Giovanni’s Room as bold. The power this literature holds is immense, and I wholeheartedly believe any reader will absorb a valuable concept from the reading. I read the entire text in a day; I could not place it down so as to leave myself in anxious suspense. From the first chapter I was deeply familiar with David, to the extent of which I felt intrusive as a reader (I often say this of books I’m very fond of, for only exceptional authors can have his effect). The plot prompted by eager reading; the characters required my full sympathy; the ending forced tears I didn’t know I held on to. Though I pride myself on my ability to articulate reality, I am at a loss for words to describe the impact Baldwin’s novel had upon me- for, I am not practiced in reading raw, uncensored truth such as this text offered.

To note: while the novel is written in English, dialogue occasionally switches between English and French. Many of the phrases are translated in following statements, though some outside translation may be needed.