Father and Mother figures

David has a strained relationship with his dad, although his dad does not seem to know this. They are as close as acquaintances, and although David wishes for a deeper tie, he continues to hide himself from his father. After a car accident, David and his father share a tender moment, but David notes that it is fleeting and shallow: “For I understood, at the bottom of my heart, that we had never talked, that now we never would” (235). David puts significant weight into the activity of talking. He cannot “talk” to his father because he cannot communicate his true feelings, thoughts and desires to him. This is why, I will argue, Giovanni and Jacques step in as father figures. 

The joy of reading sections of the text with Giovanni and David is the dialogue. They are intellectual equals—they spar and joke and question each other. Giovanni is able to push David to question his mindset. During a rather philosophical conversation about time, David tries to suggest that people need time to make good decisions: “‘I guess people wait in order to make sure of what they feel'” (250). This sentiment, of course, mirrors David’s own choices thus far in his life. He has waited to learn to accept himself or be truthful of his identity. Giovanni responds in a way that prods this exact fear: “‘And when you have waited—has it made you sure?’ For this I could simply summon no answer” (250). David reaches a point with Giovanni where he feels stumped and finally begins to wonder if he might be wrong (at least his silence implies this). Because David defined a strong relationship between father and son as one where they can actually talk, I think that Giovanni fills in as a father in this moment. Their conversations digs deep immediately and pushes the other to see a new worldview. This is the intimacy David craved from his father and even acts as a sort of tough love. 

On the line of tough love, I want to briefly mention Jacques, who I think exemplifies this even more. Jacques is an advice giver. He takes David under his wing and, at least in some moments, tries to guide him along a better path than his own. He understands David’s shame and asks him to shed it for the sake of love: “‘Love him,’ said Jacques, with vehemence, ‘love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?'” (267). Jacques, too, is taking on a role that David’s own father never did. For one, he knows that David is homosexual, but he also actively guides David towards a better life. He does so often by bluntly pointing out David’s shame, but also suggests a new path going forward. This protective attitude and tough love resembles that of a father figure. 

Finally, David explicitly connects the caretaker to his mother, who passed when he was young. The caretaker is an older Italian woman who checks up on David and attends to his needs in a way that a mother would, or at least a very friendly neighbor. Before she leaves, David thinks to himself,  “I feel that I want to be forgiven, I want her to forgive me. But I do not know how to state my crime. My crime, in some odd way, is in being a man and she knows all about this already. It is terrible how naked she makes me feel, like a half grown boy, naked before his mother” (278). It seems that part of the reason David cannot forgive himself for his homosexuality is because he needs his mother, or a mother figure, to do so for him. He wants desperately to be forgiven, to no longer feel like a little boy, naked and scared and guilty. 

The inclusion of these pseudo-parental figures illuminates something larger about David. He lacks these strong relationships with his own parents, and this contributes to the shame and fear he has surrounding his sexuality. In many ways he resembles a child in the text, lashing out easily at those who make him scared and hiding everything he feels ashamed about. This childlike attitude might illuminate his character traits and actions more going forward and stunt his ability to fully accept himself.

One thought on “Father and Mother figures”

  1. I think your comment on all of David’s biological/pseudo parents explains a lot about his seemingly immature behavior. I’m curious if you noticed a particular perspective on women that David has. He feels emasculated and uncertain when confronted with many of the women in the novel, presumably because of the void of his mother gone. Baldwin writes the women’s descriptions as visceral: “her hair dry as metal and brittle as a twig…that body so putrescent, so sickening soft” (227); behind the counter sat one of those absolutely inimitable and indomitable ladies…they all have exactly the same, shrewd, vacant, all-registering eye” (261). David can’t even approach women without wondering whether or not his father had been “interfering” with them (231). In a novel in which the protagonist largely struggles with his homosexuality, I’m curious to explore how and where women fit, especially as it was something Baldwin took severe issue with in The Male Prison essay.

Comments are closed.