As I read Giovanni’s Room, I could not quite put my finger on what Baldwin’s intentions were regarding Hella or his portrayal of women generally. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, he constructed well-rounded female characters and seemed to demonstrate an understanding of the difficulties women face regarding sexual relationships, childbirth, and motherhood. As a result, I had high expectations for his treatment of Hella in Giovanni’s Room, and I was puzzled to read Giovanni’s speech about women to David at the beginning of Part Two. Giovanni, probably due to jealousy, inquires about Hella and makes a number of broad generalizations about womenー what they want, who they are, and so on.
“Nobody likes to travel, especially not women” (283).
“Women are just a little more trouble than I can afford right now” (284).
“There is no need, thank heaven, to have an opinion about women. Women are like water. They are tempting like that, and they can be that treacherous, and they can seem to be that bottomless, you know?ーand they can be that shallow. And that dirty” (285). He goes on to say he possibly doesn’t really like women, but he still asserts he respects them… and that he used to beat them. All the while, he refers to Hella, a grown woman, as a “silly little girl” (285). When David defends Hella and her intelligence and complexity, Giovanni, who has never met her, describes her as a flighty busybody. Giovanni displayed absolutely no respect for women or for Hella during that entire interaction. Perhaps Baldwin wanted to display his jealousy, but the point of this scene still nags at me. I found it difficult to continue sympathizing with Giovanni after this part of the story.
Finally, we meet Hella, and she gives her own speech about women. She explains to David how humiliating it is to be a single woman and having “to be at the mercy of some gross, unshaven stranger before you can begin to be yourself” (322). Here, Baldwin seems to understand that unmarried women during this time were sized up constantly by those around them, only being free once married, though that kind of freedom pales in comparison to that of a man. While Hella dislikes these constraints, she works within their confines to carve out a life for herself. Baldwin restores dignity to Hella’s character after Giovanni’s diatribe about her.
I tend toward the conclusion that Baldwin is showing us all the complexities of Giovanni’s dynamic with David. His jealousy and the tension between the normative relationship of Hella and David and the same-sex one between David and Giovanni. I also recognize that this is a story of what it’s like to be a man, not a woman.
One thought on “Women in Giovanni’s Room”
Dude, I wrote my blog post about almost the exact same thing! It’s really interesting how you approached Hella’s characterization. It felt to me like she was intentionally left as a sort of personality-less blank slate onto which David could project all his desires for a heterosexual relationship and traditional ideas of femininity and masculinity; however, I like how you highlight that she isn’t particularly enthused about her role in the patriarchy, but accepts that she must operate from within the system nonetheless. You really emphasized an almost imperceptible detail which somewhat develops and redeems her in my eyes!
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