I was really struck by the motif of the ocean in Giovanni’s Room. Some version of the sea or the ocean or water is often used to describe David’s relationship to America and David’s relationship to Giovanni. I couldn’t help but track this repetition, considering how pervasive the way in which Baldwin uses it is.
David’s internalized homophobia makes him believe his sexuality is his original sin. It seems as if David, in escaping across the sea to another land, is escaping a proposed cleansing of his homosexuality. He is jumping from one land to the next, crossing the sea to get there. The water that separates the two countries is cleansing and baptismal. Geographically, David’s sexuality differs. In America, David’s home is his ideal of heterosexuality and conventionality. In France, where David (and James) flees, is where David can practice homosexuality. Despite avoiding the water, David can’t forget his home and the shame that discolors his self-concept. Home is not specific enough for David, it is relational to the sea: “across the ocean” (271). The ocean transcends the different sexualities, he wades deeper into the water as he experiments more with Giovanni. It is an alternate baptism; instead of washing away the original sin, he is submerged in it. In this way, Baldwin is subverting our Christianized ideal of baptism. David is “being led by Giovanni into deep and dangerous water” (250); his life with Giovanni occurs “beneath the sea” (281); life “occurs underwater,” David undergoes a “sea-change” (289); Giovanni drags David with him to “the bottom of the sea” (314). Baldwin exploits the qualities of water: its cleansing ability and its potential for depth and danger. The “dirt” of his sin is not washed away, despite Giovanni’s assurance that the “dirty water” the older gay men swim in will be easily washed away by him and David (256). He is being baptized by Giovanni, but the act is incomplete. He is submerged in the water, yet does not come up for air. This motif comes to exclusively symbolize suicide. David says, “I thought of the people before me who looked down at the river and gone to sleep beneath it” (304). All those who committed suicide by drowning exist in the between, an incomplete act of baptism, in which they are submerged in sin (as David acutely feels). Yet this is a shame that is not shared by the others. Specifically, Jacques encourages David not to get trapped within this perception of his dirty body because he will end up despising every inch of his flesh (267).
David soon develops a fear of water, because it is a reminder of his incomplete and subverted baptism. After sleeping with another woman in order to distract himself from the pull of Giovanni, David “hear[s] the water running” and becomes afraid to “go out into that night which had seemed to be calling [him] only a few moments before” (303). Giovanni tries to complicate David’s notion of water when he describes women as “like water…tempting…treacherous…bottomless…shallow…dirty” (285), yet it is Giovanni who represents all of these things for David. He is the possibility of simultaneous fulfillment and paralyzing shame, freedom and imprisonment, salvation and damnation.