No question the narrative of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is a tragedy; David falls victim to the cruel hands of time, heartbreak, and isolation as a result of his preservation of his pride and his performance in the Male Prison/Panopticon. On his troubling journey toward self-realization, David has a major hand in the psychological and emotional damaging of both Giovanni and Hella. I found the conclusion of Giovanni’s Room to be incredibly powerful, and I felt that the work could be read as a cautionary tale of sorts.
I would hope that the text is not misconstrued as a denunciation of Americans’ willing exploration of their true identities, or their breaking from their social performance under the surveillance of the panopticon. I don’t think that Baldwin is suggesting that American’s should live in blissful ignorance lest they die by their own curiosities (a sentiment that Hella would fully endorse, given her “Americans should never come to Europe” monologue). I do, however, think that Baldwin is warning us a slower, but much more final death. Giovanni’s Room, to me, serves as a cautionary tale against one’s reversion into social comfort, ignorance, and complacency at the expense of one’s truth.
The slow destruction of each of David’s close relationships speaks to this slow death about which Baldwin warns us. When David decides to throw himself into her to escape his feelings toward Giovanni (though I do believe that David did also really love Hella), he leaves a vital part of himself to die. David reverts into the comfort of his performance in the panopticon, smothering the side of himself that he found in his life with Giovanni so that he might buy more time for the side of him that stays with Hella. But both sides die, all the same in the end. David is left all alone, the love of his life dead and the woman he loved broken and gone. Baldwin warns us of the silent danger social performance in the panopticon…seems no matter what, we die in jail.