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Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's Room


by James Baldwin

Giovanni's Room Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary

  • David, an American, is standing at the window of his house in the south of France. He drinks and watches night fall.
  • He thinks that he may be drunk in the morning, but he will take the train to Paris. He imagines the gloomy ride through the countryside, and thinks that everything will be the same as before, "only I will be stiller" (1.1.2).
  • David and his girl, Hella, rented the house in the south of France a few months ago. She is now on a boat back to America.
  • He remembers meeting her at a bar on St. Germain des Pres (a popular street in Paris), and they became involved. David asked her to marry him before she went away to Spain. He was already entangled with Giovanni at the time, and she took it as a joke anyway, though she began to think seriously about the proposal after going to Spain.
  • David told Hella that he loved her just before she left, and now he wonders if he actually meant it. He thinks his feelings were largely a result of the wonderful nights they would spend together in bed, and the sense that the world had no hold on either of them.
  • He thinks the last fact is the reason they were destined for tragedy, "for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom" (1.1.4).
  • While in Spain, Hella decided that she wanted to marry him. He realized, though, that one can't choose one's loves and that he was not a man to be trusted.
  • David looks back on the time when life was nothing but a series of zestful love affairs, and he laments the fact that things will never be that way again.
  • He thinks, "People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted" (1.1.5).
  • If this were not true, then Hella would not be sailing back to America, and perhaps it would not be the eve of his friend Giovanni's execution by guillotine.
  • David says, "I repent now – for all the good it does – one particular lie among the many lies I've told, told, lived, and believed" (1.1.6).
  • The big lie that David told Giovanni was that he had never slept with a man before. The truth was he had, and in a way he finds it fantastic that he has been running from this fact for so long only to face it once again.
  • Note for reader: In the book, this is an extended flashback, narrated in past tense. Here we render it in the present tense.
  • David meets Joey when he is in his teens, and for a while they are best friends.
  • During summer vacation, David goes to stay at Joey's house in Brooklyn for a few days. The two of them go to the beach together and whistle at the girls, though in truth they are terrified of having the girls acknowledge them.
  • David thinks that the tension between them begins in the shower when they are stinging each other with their towels.
  • Later, they go to the movies and wander the hot Brooklyn streets together. Joey is making wisecracks, and David feels very fond of him.
  • When they get back, the two of them undress and go to bed. David falls asleep for a while, but Joey wakes him up because Joey thinks that a bedbug has bitten him.
  • David teases him and grabs his hand playfully, but then something changes between the two of them and David can feel his heart thumping loudly in his chest.
  • They kiss and begin to make love.
  • At his house in the south of France, David remembers how tender and terrified he felt, and says that "It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find" (1.1.18).
  • When he wakes up the next morning, he sits on the bed and admires Joey's naked body and thinks about touching him.
  • Then something changes, and David begins to see how much smaller Joey is than him, and above all, he realizes that Joey is a boy.
  • David begins to feel ashamed. He thinks of what other people will say, what Joey's parents will do if they find them, what his father will think.
  • He says, "A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words" (1.1.19).
  • David showers, makes breakfast, and leaves. Part of him wishes that Joey will protest, but he doesn't. David avoids Joey for the rest of the summer, and when they see each other at school he makes up a lie about a girl that he's begun dating.
  • Later, David begins to hang out with an older crowd that is very mean to Joey. He says, "The sadder it made him, the nastier I became" (1.1.20).
  • Joey moves away not long after, and David thinks that his experience with Joey is what began his flight, the same flight that has now brought him to this darkening window in the south of France.
  • In truth, though, there is no knowing what began his flight from himself. As he says, "when one begins the search for the crucial, the definitive moment, the moment which changed all others, one finds oneself pressing, in great pain, through a maze of false signals and abruptly locking doors" (1.1.22).
  • David remembers that his mother died when he was young.
  • His family lived in San Francisco, and then Seattle, and then Manhattan. Later, they moved to Brooklyn, and that is when David set out on his own. When he came to France, his father and his new wife had moved out to Connecticut.
  • Note to reader: Back to extended flashback.
  • His mother dies when he is five, which leaves only himself, his father, and his unmarried aunt.
  • When David is little, he has nightmares about his mother's corpse. He is always ashamed to tell his aunt about them, though, because he thinks it would be disrespectful to his mother.
  • His aunt assumes he is grieving. He says, "And I may have been, but if that is so, then I am grieving still" (1.1.24).
  • David's aunt and father fight constantly, and he thinks that it is because his mother's presence still inhabits their old house.
  • He remembers finding his father reading the paper. David desperately tries to get attention, which is often so difficult that he begins to cry.
  • His father is a very calm man, slow to anger, but when he does become angry it is powerful and violent.
  • David's aunt is named Ellen. She constantly knits and reads, and occasionally she plays cards with his father.
  • The best times are when they have cocktail parties. His father is very sociable, and walks around pouring everyone drinks, treating the men like his brothers, and flirting with the women.
  • Ellen, by contrast, is stiff and tense. David remembers watching her flirt with the men and thinking that she could squeeze her cocktail glass so tight that it would break into shards. He is terrified of her.
  • There is a picture of David's mother that is constantly looking over the room. His father rarely speaks of her, but Ellen speaks of her often and praises her.
  • Her praise makes David feel "that I had no right to be the son of such a mother" (1.1.27).
  • Later, when David's father is about to remarry, David tries to get him to speak of his mother. He does, but he simply praises her the way that Ellen does.
  • David remembers a fight between Ellen and his father when he was thirteen.
  • Note to reader: We're still in flashback mode here.
  • David is in bed and his father comes home drunk. He remembers for the first time thinking, "there was something in it, in him, to be despised" (1.1.30).
  • Ellen scolds his father for coming home drunk and for being out with women. She tells him that David is growing up and that he has to think of the effect he is having on his son.
  • His father becomes angry, and refuses to argue about his private life with Ellen.
  • For his part, David feels as if Ellen is disrespecting him, that whatever happens between him and his father is their business.
  • The truth is that he has never thought about his father's women, "But from that evening, I thought about them all the time. I could scarcely ever face a woman without wondering whether or not my father had, in Ellen's phrase, been 'interfering' with her" (1.1.44).
  • As he walks up the stairs, David's father says to Ellen that all he wants is for David to grow up to be a man.
  • Ellen retorts that a man "is not the same thing as a bull" (1.1.48).
  • David remembers that from that night on he hated both his father and Ellen, and ironically this hatred allowed all of Ellen's prophecies to come true.
  • She had predicted that there would come a time when no one could rule David, and that's exactly what happened. It happened after Joey.
  • Note to reader: Still in flashback mode.
  • Soon David takes the place of his father. Now it is David who comes home drunk and argues with Ellen. His father takes it lightly, but he is frightened. Perhaps his father imagined that they would become closer once David grew up. The truth is that they are growing apart.
  • David says, "I was beginning to judge him. And the very harshness of this judgment, which broke my heart, revealed, though I could not have said it then, how much I had loved him, how that love, along with my innocence, was dying" (1.1.53).
  • What happens is that David and his father go into league against Ellen and become like buddies. His father thinks this is great, but David doesn't want a buddy, he wants a father. He is offended when his father appears naked in front of him. He "wanted the merciful distance of father and son, which would have permitted me to love him" (1.1.54).
  • One night, David is driving back from a party drunk and he loses control of his car and smashes into a pole.
  • David comes in and out of consciousness at the hospital and screams for his mother.
  • When he finally wakes up, his father is standing before him. His father approaches "And he looked very old. I wanted to cry" (1.1.57).
  • As David begins to speak, he realizes that he is in pain and becomes frightened.
  • His father scolds him for driving drunk, and he begins apologizing profusely, gradually realizing that he is apologizing for more than just driving drunk, that he doesn't even know what he is apologizing for.
  • His father just tells him to be careful, and David responds "Daddy" and begins to cry (1.1.66).
  • David says, "My father's face changed. It became terribly old and at the same time absolutely, helplessly young. I remember being absolutely astonished, at the still, cold center of the storm which was occurring in me, to realize that my father had been suffering, was suffering still" (1.1.67).
  • His father begs him not to cry, and tells him that David's behavior is his father's fault. He asks if David has anything against him, and David says no.
  • His father says that he did the best he could, and assures David that he will be back on his feet soon.
  • When David returns home, he realizes that he and his father will never really speak again. His father urges him to go to college. He decides not to and to get a job, but he announces his decision so slyly that his father feels like he is the one who has come up with the idea.
  • Note to reader: We're back to the "present" tense in the south of France. David is remembering the events we have been narrating.
  • David remembers that, in spite of the fact that he was avoiding his father, "we got on quite well, really, for the vision I gave my father of my life was exactly the vision in which I myself most desperately needed to believe" (1.1.74).
  • He remembers how he prided himself on his willpower, on his ability to make hard decisions. He thinks, though, that "decisions are not really decisions at all – a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named" (1.1.75).
  • David realizes that, as he lay in Joey's bed, his decision was that he was never going to let himself be afraid again. He took flight.
  • Now, alone in his house in the south of France, he's weary of the constant motion and the ennui (boredom). He thinks that perhaps he has just been trying to find himself all this time.
  • But as he says, "I think now that if I had 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. But again, I think I knew, at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France" (1.1.76).

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