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Character in Giovanni's Room.
Personal values are thought to be a combination of experience and belief, or the mixture of what a person has come to believe through what they have learned and what they may have experienced. When the inner belief system and the experiences of the world are in conflict the person often is found to be in a state of confusion or ennui. "Deeply held values -- core values -- anchor every literary character's (and individual's) view of the world and the self. When core values come under attack, a character feels a compelling conflict and seeks to reduce the threat.... Understanding core values is the key to understanding character, which, in turn, leads to understanding conflict, plot, and the underlying design of a narrative" (Mckenna and Raabe 203). James Baldwin, in his book, Giovanni's Room, depicts a young man in conflict. Alienated from his own culture, he is faced with making a choice concerning his sexual identity. He feels he must conform to the norms of having a wife and family but is pulled toward sexual union with men, specifically an Italian bartender with whom he has an affair.
Michael Vlahos, a member of the state department, has stated that "Culture is the source of a people's reality. The way people think and behave at very sophisticated levels is driven by culture. Cultural differences are much more than skin or stereotype deep" (1). Baldwin utilizes the literary device of metaphor to depict the young man's conflict and to explore the need for secrecy. While it is true that metaphors enable individuals to communicate ideas surrounding complex and, or, intimate experiences, it is not altogether true that the experiences are difficult to describe without the use of metaphoric language because of linguistic and grammatical constraints. The use of metaphor enables the conceptual process of learning and understanding and is not limited by linguistic or grammatical constraints.
Often, there is a jump between metaphor as language and metaphor as reality. There are many different types of metaphors that are used in common context to the point of losing their distinction of metaphors and being connoted as direct identifiers. Just as metaphors are able to assist in the learning process, they are also helpful in experiencing the world. David's experiences with Giovanni's room are interpreted as metaphors meant to explore the themes of innocence, freedom and social conformity.
Robert Tomlinson believes that "the key to understanding the text's social and ideological dimensions was the parallel between sex and race" (140). This is not directly confronted in the book but may exist on an underlying level. The author, in an interview with Richard Goldstein stated, "if Americans can mature on the level of racism, then they have to mature on the level of sexuality.... I think Americans are terrified of feeling anything. And homophobia is simply an extreme example of the American terror of growing up" (178, quoted in Tomlinson 140). In this paper the issues of alienation and homosexuality are addressed as they pertain to the protagonist, David.
Confinement may be physical, social or emotional - or a combination of the three. The character of David in Giovanni's Room is concerned with the power of social control. What he finds is that control is found within the categorization of an 'us' and 'them', be it defined as good vs. bad, healthy or unhealthy, rational and irrational, heterosexual and homosexual and, or, black and white. The shape of subjectivity, however, became defined along associations with the dominant culture, leading to an 'us' that is predominately white and a 'them' that is understood to be 'other' in nature. For David, the duality is defined through sexuality and is confined within the room of his male lover.
In social terms, any deviation from "us" becomes a sign of abnormality. A delineation founded on sexuality generates feelings of inadequacy among people whose physical and intellectual experiences no longer fit the realities of 'reason' through the actions of social definition and control, leading to denigration and subjugation based on the realities of the body. It is not so much the actual danger that the individual represents, as much as his/her embodied difference.
David has made the choice in his reaction to the stresses of his life, but, in so doing, has also entered into a state of alienation imposed upon as well as destructive to himself. Interestingly, Baldwin defines David's choice as 'freedom'. David states, early in the novel, "Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom" (10). As an expatriate, David's circumstance mirrors that of the author's while writing the novel. Baldwin, however, considered himself more of an exile than an expatriate. This means that he was either banished by an 'other' or had chosen or self-exile due to hostile circumstances (Tomlinson 136).
Being an American does not provide David with the 'tools' he needs to deal with the new cultural arena into which he allows himself. Nicholas M. Evans explains that, "social proximity in and of itself does not provide the ability to perceive the "true" meaning of cultural experience. Nor does it ensure that the meanings a writer finds will cohere with audiences' modes of reception, leading to reader authentication of the writer's representation. Rather, specific cultural and historically contingent conditions shape both elements of the reputation-building process: the spokesperson, influenced by contemporary conventions of representation, constructs certain meanings about cultural experience, while audiences evaluate the "truth" of the meanings according to similar conventions" (147). The essence of his alienation is in terms of sexual preference.
He finds himself struggling through a welter of painful experiences in order to define himself as an 'us' or 'them'. The pain of alienation is assumed in both the experience of being an expatriate as well as his homosexual experiences. The reasons for becoming an expatriate were associated with his discontent, a disassociation with American cultural values that would allow the young man to experiment in the development of his character. David comments on this search for identity: "I think that if I had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home" (31).
Men of a certain age and experience, such as the position David finds himself, have an underlying need to take control of their lives, however, each time they attempt to do so the alienation or disassociation becomes greater. They resort to announcing submission to the cultural values, only to end by renouncing many of the things that they see as necessary for survival. David wants very much to conform to the values of home, house, wife and family. His proposal to Hella indicates this as his initial choice. However, the relationship that develops with Giovanni forces him to 'secret' himself away and to make choices. He finds that alienation from the American culture has not solved the question of identity for him.
The questions and issues are only driven inward and become more personal. In the book, Baldwin symbolizes the journey inward by the retreat into Giovanni's room. Here, David is able to explore the aspects of himself not socially condoned. "In order to find out what he is, to determine his being, the alienated subject must ask himself what the other person's words mean, what he expects of him,... He constantly lives in need of 'justification,' for fear that what he feels, says, or does, will be judged unacceptable by some criterion he dimly perceives but whose exact nature escapes him" (Chaitin 166). Such self-absorption, in this instance, leads not to recognition of the human potential inherent in the character, but to the existence of the potential of life to provide choices that can be made for the betterment of self, rather than the destruction.
William van Dusen Wishard, president of World Trends Research believes the meaning that is unconsciously used to sustain the inner life of the individual in earlier times is virtually gone for men living in the modern western world. Few men can be sustained by any primal source of life's highest value. "This breakup of inner images of wholeness is feeding a certain degree of anxiety and alienation. As a result, we now have a language of dysfunction that has entered the vocabulary only since the beginning of this century. 'Stressed,' 'paranoid,' 'repressed,' 'burned out,' 'mid-life crisis,' 'identity crisis' - they're all terms we think of as individual problems, but in fact they represent a deeper condition of our times" (1999, pp. 316).
An individual can choose to control an inner self and not allow these aspects to gain dominance, thus keeping the complete individual from the sight of society, however, those components continue to exist. "The outsider, unable to express himself, seeking a universal language as a mask of difference and a means of communication -- such are often the experiences of the American living…[continue]
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