Queer Guilt and the Corruption of Innocence

The two protagonists in Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room struggle with their queer identity and experience shame over their attraction to men. However, John’s anxiety is focused on his own moral salvation, while David’s sexuality impacts the men he interacts with and is culpable for any loss of their innocence. The Church portrays homosexuality as a temptation and fears gay individuals will lead the young and naïve into a life of wickedness. However, despite John’s feelings toward Elisha, we don’t see any signs that he fears he will corrupt Elisha. Elisha is older, bigger, and stronger than John, and could never be considered vulnerable to John in any way. Elisha is put in a position of high authority and is described as steadfast in his faith and incorruptible. John does not worry about his impact on Elisha’s holiness and only “wonders if he would ever be holy like Elisha was holy” (11).

John sees Elisha’s religious determination when he is reprimanded for walking with Ella Mae and John wonders, “Had he sinned? Had he been tempted?” as if such a notion was impossible (15). After the physical interaction between the pair, Elisha asks “I didn’t hurt you none did I?” showing that John is the weaker of the two and Elisha does not have to fear him physically (51). The sin John wrestles with is masturbation– an independent act that leaves only his salvation at risk.

This changes in Giovanni’s Room and we are introduced to themes of corruption and the queer guilt of hurting someone else. While John only masturbates to the images of men, David engages in sexual acts and we see the impact this has on his struggle with homosexuality. After his first sexual encounter with a man, he only feels shame when he sees “[Joey] looked like a baby” (225). While John holds no power over Elisha, David is very aware of the power he has over Joey: “I was suddenly afraid. Perhaps it was because he looked so innocent lying there, with such perfect trust; perhaps it was because he was so much smaller than me; my own body suddenly seemed gross and crushing” (225).

David feels his sexuality is monstrous, not specifically because he fears going to hell as John does, but because he fears the power and the mystery of his body and Joey’s. Baldwin opens his novel up to many queer spaces and many queer characters; some are described as wicked and some are seen as innocent. David reflects on this innocence and says, “It’s true that nobody stays in the garden of Eden” (239). I’m curious to see this theme of innocence continues with the rich older men that take advantage of the younger men and their financial vulnerability and the crime Giovanni will eventually be found guilty of.