The Reproductive Imperative in Giovanni’s Room

In Giovanni’s Room, there is a constant tug-of-war between David’s desire for Giovanni and David’s desire to “be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned” (Baldwin 305). This “insider status,” which Giovanni’s calls “la vie pratique” (287), is tied up with something that queer theoriests call “the reproductive imperative,” or society’s implicit mandate that individuals enter into a heterosexual marriage and have children. It is children that are the core of David’s tension, a motif which embodies Lee Edelman’s concept of “reproductive futurism.” All of this to say: Giovanni’s Room anticipated important conversations about how queer people fit into a society that holds children to be “the telos of the social order” (Edelman, No Future 11).

First, an explanation of some terms: reproductive futurism describes society’s obsession with procreation, resulting in political orders that hold the Child (or rather, the image of the Child) to be all-important, a moral trump card over everything else. This is why queer people are deemed “unnatural” and are villainized by society: because we (often) do not procreate, we represent “the side of those not ‘fighting for the children’” (No Future 3). Of course, I can talk about this for ages, and Edelman’s theories, deemed the “antisocial thesis” by some, are not universally accepted; still, the point remains that this tension between the queer person and procreation is a critical component of Giovanni’s Room. 

We see a tension between queer men and reproductive futures in multiple chapters. For example, Giovani notes that Guillaume, another gay man, “is a member of one of the best and oldest families in France. But maybe, then, he remembers that his name is going to die with him” (Baldwin 306). Implicit in this passage is the fact that Guillame, due to his sexuality, will never reproduce. He represents the end of his bloodline, a travesty in a society that values children over all-else. David himself sees women only for their value as bearers of children, precisely because he recognizes that society demands that he reproduce. He says things like “I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed” (305). This ‘renewal’ is undoubtedly procreation itself, and the woman is nothing more than a field to be plowed. It makes sense, then, that when Hella says “I want to start having babies,” David replies “I’ve always wanted that” (321). It is notable that Giovanni himself respects women “for their inside life,” a phrase which refers both to women as having different emotional lives and as having the ability to bear children (285). In short, Baldwin’s astute eye to society and the queer experience enabled him to anticipate conversations that are ongoing today, about how queer people fit into a global hegemony that not only demands heterosexual, biological reproduction, but literally murders those who do not comply with the reproductive imperative.