Giovanni’s Room: Prison or Paradise?

“‘Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden,’ Jacques said. And then: ‘I wonder why.’
… I said nothing.”

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room, page 239.

There are undeniable parallels between Giovanni’s room and the metaphorical closet we invoke when referring to the “coming out” of a queer individual. We conceive of this closet as a dark and confining space that is dominated by feelings of fear, shame, and repression. Rightfully so, then, we usually understand a friend or family member’s coming out of the closet as a liberating experience– a celebratory moment indicating that our loved one feels sufficiently supported by others and secure enough to love and/or express him/her/themself as they please. However, if we read Giovanni’s room as an allusion to this closet, James Baldwin complicates this generally positive perception of coming out of the closet contrasted by the negative view of life in the closet. 

In one sense, Baldwin presents the closet (Giovanni’s room) as space that offers security for both David and Giovanni. On more than one occasion, David refers to the room as “home,” describing the “many drunken” mornings he “stumbled homeward” with Giovanni (279). David also recalls the “children playing outside the window” and “strange shares that loomed against it,” noting that “at such moments, Giovanni, working in the room, or lying in bed, would stiffen like a hunting dog and remain perfectly silent until whatever seemed to threaten our safety had moved away” (289). In both of these instances, Giovanni’s room functions as protection from the outside world. Here, Giovanni and David have some freedom, albeit distorted, to express their queer love for one another that is not acceptable elsewhere. 

Baldwin further inverts our perception of coming out of the closet in detailing David’s desire to not only escape Giovanni’s room, but this queer part of his identity altogether. David pleads with Hella: “When the money gets here, let’s take it and get out of Paris… I’ve been living in Giovanni’s room for months… and I just can’t stand it anymore. I have to get out of there, please” (331). In this same conversation, he describes Giovanni’s room as “stinking and dirty” (332). Through David’s desperate and disgusted tone, it is evident that he is not looking to leave Giovanni’s room to openly enter society as a queer man. In fact, it is quite the opposite; he wants to leave this part of himself behind and start “anew” with Hella. The closet in this story is claustrophobic and restrictive to David for very different reasons than we might assume, giving our preconceived notions of what it means to “come out.” If it is neither the outside world nor Giovanni’s room, then where can David find his Eden as a queer man? Does Baldwin believe there exists an Eden for him to exist fully in his queerness and manhood?