Queerness & the Roles We Play

As I finished reading Giovanni’s Room, I reflected on David’s fixation on how homosexuality is perceived by the general public and by himself. There are moments in the narrative where David does not seem to be experiencing his own life, but rather observing it passively, as if watching a play. It is also obvious that there is a disconnect between what he thinks and what he feels, which leads him to lead a life devoid of authenticity. I wanted to look deeper into how Baldwin portrays this dissonance in David’s character, and to examine how David’s inability to “act out,” as it were, the role he wants to play, leads him further into isolation. David’s first sexual encounter with someone of the same sex happened when he was in America, and when he was still very young. In the description of the night he and Joey shared, it is described as a night of purity and joy, perhaps the only moment in the novel to do so: “we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love” (225). This was short-lived, however, since the moment that snapped David back to reality is when he remembered that “Joey is a boy,” and that filled him with fear. He immediately thinks of how others would perceive what had happened, (“I wondered what Joey’s mother would say when she saw the sheets. Then I thought of my father…) rather than how he had felt. In the shame that others might have placed on him, he made his decision to do what he thought was right, even though it did not feel right.

Additionally, I also feel like David’s identity is inextricably tied to the fact that he is an American living in France. His American identity is brought up often by the people with whom he keeps company, and is also a large part of any conversation he has with Giovanni. I think this is the reason why he observes the fluidity of gender and sexuality in Paris as something abnormal, since he was not exposed to it back in America, where he formed the majority of his identity as a man and his perceptions on masculinity. David is still holding on to what he considers to be “normal” in a society where he is the one with ‘abnormal’ (“queer for women”) preferences. When Giovanni asks why David won’t tell Hella about them, David reminds Giovanni that “people have very dirty words for — for this situation… Besides, it is a crime — in my country and, after all, I didn’t grow up here, I grew up there” (286), as if the laws of another country would reach him here across the ocean.

David often feels like he is being observed like a “zoo animal,” but at the same time he engages in the same act of judging others based on his own prejudices and stereotypes. When he, Giovanni, Jacques, and Guillaume leave for breakfast one morning, he observes how “everybody, without seeming to, is looking at us and [he] is beginning to feel like a part of a travelling circus” (262). The quote that made me want to write a blog post about this is on page 263: Guillame’s suggestion had the effect — but subtly, as though a wind had blown over everything or a light been imperceptibly intensified — of creating among the people at the bar, a troupe, who would no play various roles in a play they knew very well.” I could not help but think that this motion — of people settling into roles which they knew very well, roles that they knew they could (and to some extent, should) play — highlighted the inner turmoil that David feels throughout the novel, since it is his inability to do so that leads to Giovanni’s death and to his despair.