Sexuality, Discord, And Love in James Baldwin's Another Country
James Baldwin is most well-known for his ability to blend the ideas of sexuality and race and place them in a contemporary context. One of the best examples of his ability is the novel, Another Country. Baldwin illustrates the New York City underworld, and the relationships between its members. Most importantly, Baldwin addresses the idea of bisexuality, both literally and metaphorically. He uses the suicide death of a character to explore the personalities of those close to the individual.
We, the readers, are introduced to relationships between a variety of different people. There are people of different races, creeds, social backgrounds, and lifestyles. Yet they all have many of the same tendencies regarding sex. Baldwin also explores the biases and prejudices of society, and how they are incorporated into the interracial relationships portrayed by the novel. Most importantly, Baldwin allows the reader to learn about the individuals' processes of self-exploration. Each prominent character learns something about him or her during the course of the book, and these lessons are reflective of human nature.
Throughout the book, Baldwin uses his main character, Rufus, to emphasize an innate bisexuality among human beings, and how it transcends race, gender, social status, and all other defining characteristics. Baldwin also addresses the action of sex, and its importance. Through his characters actions, he shows that sex is approached with yearning and pleasure, but also with some hesitancy. In most incidences of sexual conduct, there is some innate hesitancy in the characters, even the most gregarious of ones. Finally, Rufus, the most important figure of the story, serves as a catalyst for the events that transpire. He is not necessarily a figure, but rather a symbol of the fragility and discord in life.
While Baldwin addresses many issues, often intertwining them, his focus is on sexuality. The most vivid parts of the book deal with sex. He describes a scene involving Vivaldo and Ida, "He put his hands on her breasts, which were heavy and wide apart with reddish-brown nipples. Her large shoulders quivered a little, a pulse beat in her neck. She watched him with a face at once troubled and detached, calm, and at the same time, frightened" (174). Baldwin points out the sexual tension between the two. The sexual contact has brought them pleasure, but also apprehension. It is as if there is something forbidden about what they are doing, or as if their conscious is telling them not to. Baldwin is careful to always emphasize that sex has consequences -- if not physically, then mentally. It is not something that happens, and is instantly forgotten about.
Baldwin continues to emphasize this point later on in this sequence. He writes, "He felt that for the first time, his body presented itself to her as a mystery, and that, immediately, therefore, he Vivaldo, became totally mysterious in her eyes. She touched him for the first time with wonder and terror, realizing that she did not know how to caress him" (176). Again, we are sensing apprehension in the two's conduct. They are two very gregarious people who have had many sexual partners, but yet there is still this subtle caution about it. They are still anxious and uneasy with the situation. Baldwin is showing us that sex is not just an action, but there is something more symbolic to it. Not only that, but there is something innate about it.
Baldwin is not always obvious in his sexual descriptions. He often alludes to it subtly. Almost everything in the book can have sexual connotations. For example, Baldwin describes a scene where Ellis and Cass are dancing, "And she wondered about this as she watched them. Their dance, which was slow and should have been fluid, was awkward and dry and full of hesitations. She was holding him at bay, he could not lead her; yet, she was hold him fast" (359). The contact between the two can be seen as sexual. It is obvious in the storyline that there is sexual tension between the two. The way they are described dancing is the most interesting part, though.
Again, Baldwin is alluding to the caution surrounding sex. Their dance is awkward and full of hesitations. They have doubts, yet she is holding on very tightly to him. They are cautious, but yet they want to continue. The dance is something that brings them pleasure, but yet it something that cannot be down without a little second-guessing. This is not something pertaining particularly to Cass and Ellis, but rather all human beings. We are all instilled with this innate cautious surrounding sexual contact.
Baldwin uses the scenery of New York to emphasize and illustrate his themes. The environment is crucial to the storyline. One of the tools he constantly employs is that of darkness. Most of the books important sequences come at night. The dark is what brings the characters out, and produces the most important scenes in the story. Darkness is also sexual. In the beginning of the story, Mrs. Scott describes Ida, "She always been real afraid of the dark, you know? But, shucks, honey, many's the time Ida used to crawl out of her bed, middle of the night, and go running through this dark house to get in bed with Rufus. Look like she just felt safe with him. I don't know why, Rufus sure didn't payer her much mind" (139). The darkness in this scene has some ambiguity. Ida is scared of the dark, yet she is heavily involved in the nighttime scene displayed by Baldwin. For her, according to Mrs. Scott, sexual contact was a protection against the dark. It relieved her of her anxiety, yet it was also the source of some of this anxiety. Darkness, like sex, has innate affects on all the characters in the story.
As previously noted, Baldwin emphasizes the scenery. He shows us that there is something about New York that makes this story only applicable to its streets and its clubs. He notes that there is something sexual about it, "New York seemed very strange indeed. It might, almost, for strange barbarity of manner and custom, for the sense of danger and horror barely sleeping beneath the rough, gregarious surface, have been some impenetrably exotic city of the East" (230). He notes that New York's sexuality is not easily visible, but rather it is subtle. In this sense, it is almost that much more powerful and deep. The sexuality of the city -- the clubs, streets, and darkness -- is almost just as important as the characters. It is the setting that creates such unique relationships. Baldwin is emphasizing that only in New York can such themes as bisexuality, race, and social class be intertwined and expressed as they are in the novel.
One of the major themes that goes along with sexuality is that of seduction. Baldwin describes many scenes of seduction involving people of different races and sexual tendencies. Through them all, he points out that seduction is somewhat universal. It involves a balancing of the innate feelings to resist and give in. Baldwin describes one such scene, "...and he pulled her to him as roughly as he could. He had expected her to resist and she did, holding the glass between them and frantically trying to pull her body away from his body's touch,..., then she put her arms around his neck and clung to him, still shaking" (21). Again, we see that sexual contact is not something that Baldwin takes lightly. He distinguishes it from all other action. An individual may want to engage in it, but yet there is something that holds him or her back. There is this innate tendency to be cautious about it.
Along with seduction, we see the use of alcohol. Alcohol is common throughout the book as a means for relaxing and socializing. Baldwin describes one morning scene, "They were all a little drunk by the time lunch was over, having drunk with two bottles of champagne; and eventually they sat in the living room again as the sun began to grow fiery, preparing to go down" (158). There is an indirect relationship between alcohol and sex, and I think its importance should not be underestimated. Alcohol affects the hesitancy between the characters when pondering sexual encounters. In some instances it makes them more willing, and in others, it makes them more cautious. Baldwin could be suggesting that alcohol plays a crucial role in the thought process surrounding sex. Perhaps consent only stems from a delusional mind? Perhaps our innate caution surrounding physical touching would be stronger, or more present if we were always in a sober state of mind?
Another emphasis of Baldwin's is beauty. Beauty takes on many different shapes in the story. When in the context of sex, it deals primarily with the physical features of the characters. The most interesting and thought provoking part about beauty in this book is…