Country and Identity

At its heart, Giovanni’s Room is a story about the search for one’s identity by going on a journey to another country. David flees America to discover himself in Paris, Hella leaves David in Paris to go to Spain to contemplate her feelings for him, and Giovanni leaves his small village after his newborn child dies to start a new life for himself in Paris. All three main characters believe they will learn about themselves by fleeing from their home to another country, but all three end up worse off than they were in the beginning of the novel. Hella loses David’s love, David cannot bear the feelings of his sexuality, and Giovanni is sentenced to death. The quest to Paris to obtain love or peace, then, is ultimately flawed, and I believe that has something to do with the divide between American identity and European identity.

Throughout the novel, David is referred to as Giovanni’s “American friend” or simply “the American,” but Giovanni is never referred to as “the Italian” by anyone in Paris. Both are outsiders in the city, yet it is only David who is referred to as one because he is distinctly American. There is a disconnect between American and European culture that cannot be resolved despite David’s best efforts and I think that this disconnect also ties to David’s views of his sexuality, and even Hella’s view of hers. Giovanni is very open about loving other men and about his life in general. But David and Hella cannot shake traditional gender roles out of their lives in Paris. Hella wants a family and a house, and for a long time it seems like David wants the same thing; but David is gay, and thus cannot make Hella his wife in good conscience. However, it does seem like David genuinely desires a family life with steady income and some stability, and this also seems to be an Americanized lifestyle to David. Thus, he associates Europe with his queer identity and America with a straight identity that he wishes he could have, but cannot.

This is why when he comes to Paris, David is viewed as such an outsider; he appears to be merely visiting this life where he can be true to his own sexuality. Reality for him is where he is viewed as straight by everyone he knows, mainly his father and Hella. Giovanni sees David for who he actually is, even when David cannot, because he is not blinded by an American sense of purpose. Giovanni is an outsider in Paris, but never feels like one because he is not just visiting Paris to escape his former life. For a while, when he is loving David, Giovanni feels as if he is at home. But when Hella comes to Paris, thus bringing David back into an American mindset, Giovanni is made an outsider again, as he has no place in David’s traditional American future.

The different ideas of sexuality, country, and identity in Giovanni’s Room are very complex, and I do not want to generalize by saying Europe is a place where Giovanni and David can be openly gay and America is not. But Baldwin seems to believe that being an American in Paris exacerbates one’s own sense of their outsider status, thus making his sexual identity even harder to comprehend.

2 thoughts on “Country and Identity”

  1. Excellent points being made here. I have been thinking about how the Vatican recently came out with a statement reiterating what they have also preached: that they would not bless the union of persons of the same sex. This is not surprising or new, but it shows that the Church is still refusing to sway from its discriminatory stances. However, what was interesting about this event was the amount of protest the Vatican received from German Catholic theologians. A recent Bishop’s conference in Germany recently declared that homosexuality was a normal form of sexual predisposition. While Giovanni’s Room shows legal and cultural differences surrounding the approval of homosexuality, we are still seeing differing opinions of homosexuality within the Catholic Church in the present day. I wonder how this could impact gay Germans and the othering of queer individuals in various countries.

  2. Thanks for pointing out these connections—it’s an important point to underscore that Paris is the place where David can live his identity more openly than in America. I wonder how the concept of “home” fits into the geography of the novel. I agree that David is much more accustomed to being seen as straight, but he isn’t really at home since he feels like he always has to hide his relationships with men. But he isn’t at home living with Giovanni, either–his claustrophobic descriptions of Giovanni’s room underscore this discomfort. Throughout this book, I was left wondering what kind of home David wants—could he ever accept his sexuality enough to feel at home in a relationship with a man? If he continues to hide his identity, will he ever feel at home living as a straight person? The end of the novel left me with an unsettling sense of David’s continued homelessness.

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