James Baldwin grew up a neglected child. He was a black man in a white man's world -- gay man who was trying to make his mark in the world of literature. "You write of your experiences," James Baldwin once said. James Baldwin wrote to overcome the barriers in his life.
To better understand the thematic importance of Paris and the room in this book, we need to begin with the author. Baldwin, who was born at Harlem Hospital to an unmarried, 20-year-old woman, was teased as a child because he was small and effeminate. When he was three, his mother married David Baldwin, a laborer and Baptist preacher who was often violent and abusive to his family. At age 24, James Baldwin was scared and unhappy about the way blacks were treated in America. He had only $40 in his pocket, but he escaped to Paris where he did much of his writing. His passion for issues regarding race and sexually prompted him to write and publish more than 22 books of essays, fiction, poetry and drama.
James Baldwin wrote Giovanni's Room in 1956. This was his second novel and it addresses the theme of homosexuality in Paris. The book's main character David is in love with both a man and a woman and is dealing with his own inability to express and act upon his feelings. What better setting than Paris to deal with the central theme of love.
David is afraid of loving and being loved and questions the morality of homosexuality. "But I am a man," David cried, "a man." What do you think can happen between us?" Yet, he falls in love with Giovanni in Paris while Hella is traveling in Spain. Amid all of the inner turmoil that the central character suffers, Baldwin depicts the haunting grandeur of Paris. Emotionally charged, the book will surely make an impact almost at once.
Baldwin' candid look at sexual issues made him one of the first major American novelists in the 1950s to examine the taboo subject of sexual love between two men. Based on a time in his life when his sexuality was questionable, Baldwin wrote Giovanni's Room. Reality was interwoven with fiction throughout the book.
Paris is significant because James Baldwin stated in an interview with henry Louis gates Jr. that he went to Paris because his writing was inhibited by his role as a black man in America. He said, "I had to go somewhere where I could learn that is was possible for me to thrive as a writer." Of course, this now made Baldwin not only a black, gay writer but an expatriate as well. Paris because his haven and provided him with the backdrop for a novel that explores human emotion, particularly love and self-expression.
Baldwin wrote from the soul, which is why Giovanni's Room is such a haunting piece of literature. Just as occurs in the novel, Baldwin lost a close male friend, whom he had once loved. He also reflects about life and denies his true sexuality and falls prey to societal dictates and marries a woman. Dealing with his sexuality became an internal battle for the prolific writer. But through his characters, David and Giovanni, Baldwin was able to invent two men who represented the anguish and helplessness that he at times himself experienced. Baldwin explored a man who was denying his real feelings through David. Like David, he needed a way to cope with his fear of being gay and his inability to accept another man's love.
Giovanni, on the other hand was the antithesis of David. A man who was comfortable loving another man and expressing his feelings but still afraid to be hurt. "If you can not love me, I will die. Before you came I wanted to die, I have told you many times. It is cruel to have made me want to live only to make my death more bloody."
Giovanni's Room is at its core almost autobiographical. Baldwin's theme testifies throughout the book to his own inner turmoil. When David makes love to Giovanni, he keeps telling himself, "It's nothing, it's just the flesh."
Dirtiness is used symbolically the novel portraying what David felt about himself and his homosexual tendencies. More than likely, these were feelings that were shared by Baldwin. Combine this with the symbolism of a room, Giovanni's room, representing being trapped by homosexuality. Like human being, rooms come in a variety of shapes and colors. They are a natural place of expression that characterizes the person who lives there. It's easy to understand why Baldwin centered the theme of his novel on a room. For most of his life, Baldwin felt he was limited and often trapped, just like being in a room. Giovanni's room was small and claustrophobic and dirty. "What kind of life can we have in this room? - this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together anyway?"
Throughout the ages, sinful has always been associated with dirty. People are "stained" with sins or have "dirtied" their hands. The connection between dirt and sin is strongly suggested here. Giovanni's room is the scene of a crime against society and nature. Two men engaged in homosexuality, i.e. something dirty and sinful.
David and Giovanni both come to terms with their sexuality and in essence, they also speak for Baldwin. The words Giovanni speaks as David leaves him are emotionally charged and powerful. Words that Baldwin himself might have spoken. "You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying little moralities. And you - you are immoral. You are, by far, the most immoral man I have met in all my life. Look, look what you have done to me. Do you think you could have done this if I did not love you? Is this what you should do to love?" have never reached you,' said Giovanni. 'You have never really been here. I do not think you have ever lied to me, but I know you have never told me the truth - why? Sometimes you were here all day long and you read or you opened the window or you cooked something - and I watched you - and you never said anything- and you looked at me with such eyes, as though you did not see me. All day while I worked to make this room for you."
Irving Howe in "Black Boys and Native Sons" believes Baldwin's book focuses upon several young Americans adrift in Paris and dealing with the ideology of young love. Baldwin dealt with the problem of homosexuality when was considered an illness and segregation was the order of the day. Imagine, being both black and gay at a time when neither was acceptable. When most people stayed "in the closet." How appropriate that Baldwin's novel would examine social aspects amidst the confines of a small room.
In Baldwin's description of the room, there is a definite sense of being trapped:
And I stared at the room with the same, nervous, calculating extension of the intelligence and of all one's forces which occurs when gauging a mortal and unavoidable danger; at the silent walls of the room with its distant, archaic lovers trapped in an interminable rose garden"
Trapped as lovers, David feels in danger. The danger of discovering who he really is and breaking free of the confines of the room. The use of the word "interminable" with the imagery of a rose garden, a thing of beauty, demonstrates David (and Baldwin's) inner struggle. Good vs. evil. Beauty vs. The beast. But David is not trapped within the walls of a room; he is trapped within himself. He is unable to free himself enough to love and be loved. And from that he has no escape, even in the city of Paris.
Baldwin too felt trapped most of his life and escaped to Paris to find the freedom that he felt he could not enjoy in the United States. But like his character David, Baldwin must have experienced that feeling of entrapment. He was always ore comfortable being proclaimed as a Black American writer than a gay writer. He struggled all his life with his own sexuality and like David, he could not change nor accept what his feelings were. Which is why there is so much depth to his character David.
Throughout the book, there is a sense of hopelessness from the description of David's childhood to his realization that there is something different inside of him. He begins to experience guilt and frustration by this "different" feeling. Fate is leading him in a direction that will force him to make a choice. The room and Paris simultaneously become his haven and his hell as it did for Baldwin in his life.