by James Baldwin
The Naïve Accomplice to David's Self-Deception
Hella is, in Giovanni's scathing terms, "the short-haired moon-faced little girl" who thinks that she is in love with David (2.4.192). She is a young American from Minneapolis who initially came to Paris to study painting, but eventually gave up. She and David met in a bar at St. Germain de Pres and began a casual relationship, but then David unexpectedly proposed. When David first met Giovanni, Hella had gone away to Spain to think about his proposal.
Though the proposal scene itself isn't part of David's story, it's quite clear that it was completely off-the-cuff and that neither of them really knew whether or not to take it seriously. Hella, since ceasing her studies, was something of a cast-about in Paris and clearly didn't know what she wanted to do with her life. As she says when she comes back from Italy, "I felt so aimless – like a tennis ball, bouncing, bouncing – I began to wonder where I'd land" (2.5.19). At least superficially, David looked like a promising young man, a viable option, and a source of stability. In Hella's words, David looked like a reasonable place to land.
It's easy to take on Giovanni's prejudice toward Hella, to regard her as a naïve little girl who is in over her head. Because the reader knows so much more about David than she does, it's hard not to see her as somewhat clueless, oblivious to what is so obviously happening. When she lies in bed with David, she said, "But we, we have our love to keep us warm" (2.4.150). It's David who points out that many people have lain in bed before them and shared that thought. Given the fact that David is doing his best to hold off enormous disaster, her flirtation and pillow talk appears particularly childish.
Yet, we would argue that Hella is no more naïve than David is and that, if he had been more open with her in the beginning, there is no way she would have gotten herself embroiled in his difficult situation. As David retreats into guilt and remorse over what happened to Giovanni, Hella becomes increasingly desperate. She begs him, "Where are you? You've gone away somewhere and I can't find you. If you'd only let me reach you –" (2.5.83). It's clear that the growing distance isn't a result of Hella's failure. David seems incapable of connecting with anyone because he can't even be honest with himself.
Perhaps part of what attracted David to Hella in the first place was her youth and her naïveté. He observed that she was vulnerable, there for the taking, and that she would not prove too much of a challenge. If anything, Hella thwarts David's expectations and proves him wrong. As she begins to learn what's going on, it seems that, in just a few months, she becomes much older and wiser than David.
When David describes what happened between him and Hella, he portrays it in overly melodramatic terms that do as much to hide the reality of what took place between them as to reveal it. He says, "Much has been written of love turning to hatred, of the heart growing cold with the death of love. It is a remarkable process. It is far more terrible than anything I have ever read about it, more terrible than anything I will ever be able to say" (2.5.51). It may be a nice turn of phrase, but the reader, who by now knows not to trust David very much, recognizes that what is actually going on is that he's becoming indifferent to Hella because he is not sexually attracted to women. David might want to sound Shakespearean, but his high-flown rhetoric is really just another form of self-deception.
It is Hella's description that more accurately and poignantly captures what happens between them. She is also melodramatic and perhaps still naïve, but at the very least she seems to know it. She says, "That sordid little gangster has wrecked your life. I think he's wrecked mine too. Americans should never come to Europe. It means they never can be happy again. What's the good of an American who isn't happy? Happiness was all we had" (2.5.119). David tries to dismiss the words, but it is Hella's willingness to make herself vulnerable that allows her to be truthful about her emotions and to learn how to deal with them.
What she saw in David was a prospect of happiness that turned out to be a lie. And now she is even worse off than when she started, again like a "tennis ball, bouncing, bouncing," wondering where she is going to land (2.5.19).
The Burgeoning Young Woman
A minor sub-plot of Giovanni's Room is Hella's growing female consciousness. In a story peopled with men either openly gay or closeted, it's hard to carve out room for a female perspective. It's almost as if the absence of David's mother gestures toward a more general female absence in the book. Even when the women are there – Madame Clothilde, Sue, the caretaker – they're not really there because the men are too pre-occupied with one another. And yet it's the rare female voice in the book that provides a sense of perspective, that creates a vantage point outside of the men's affairs.
When Hella returns from Spain, she comes back full of ideas about what it means to be a woman and what she will have to do to realize her female identity. Her conclusion is that a woman must hitch herself to a man if she wants to realize her full potential, which she views as a sort of "humiliating necessity" (2.4.35). Yet Hella seems to have resigned herself to this "necessity," and she jokes about starting a family with David and sitting around the house complaining about how hard it is to be a woman. In the section above, we discussed how David might have been attracted to Hella because of her apparent naiveté. Well, it works both ways. Perhaps part of the reason that Hella was attracted to David was because he seemed like someone that she could push around and control.
While sharing her thoughts about womanhood, she says, "For a woman, I think a man is always a stranger. And there's something awful about being at the mercy of a stranger" (2.4.45). Given the fact that David is concealing his love affair with Giovanni, Hella's words are both insightful and prophetic. Yet she has made a decision to trust David, to resign herself to the fact that he will, to some degree, always be a stranger. If she were only a bit more cynical and hard-hearted, she might realize that her words resonate perfectly with her current situation.
When Hella learns that David has betrayed her on a number of levels, her response is, "If I stay here much longer, I'll forget what it's like to be a woman" (2.5.100). To the reader, it's a bit unclear what she means, aside from the obvious fact that she wants to live with a man who is actually attracted to her. Yet, it's sad that she already has to fear forgetting what it is like to be a woman when she is still just beginning to learn what that means.