by James Baldwin
Renovating Giovanni's Room
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
In "What's Up With the Title?" we discuss how Giovanni's Room comes to serve as an embodied metaphor. What we mean is that any symbolic value the room takes on is linked to the fact that it is a real room and that a number of experiences actually took place in that room. So be sure to check out "What's Up with the Ending?" for more on that topic.
We're going to take a slightly different approach to the idea of "Giovanni's Room" in this section. Specifically: why does David narrow in on the room itself as a symbol?
Giovanni's room is only one of a number of rooms in the novel. David narrates the entire story from a room in his house in the south of France. There is also Joey's room back in Brooklyn, the room above Guillaume's bar where Giovanni kills Guillaume, and, in the end, Giovanni's prison cell. When you get down to it, a relatively small amount of the action takes place within Giovanni's room. And yet it takes on enormous significance. Why?
Well, because it's Giovanni's room. The room reminds David of Giovanni. At one point, he says, "I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni's room" (2.1.1). David's guilt and longing for Giovanni can easily make almost any room come to resemble Giovanni's. David notes how filthy the room was, how small and dirty, but it seems likely that the room itself was relatively ordinary and insignificant. Yet, because David had so many intense experiences with Giovanni there, he reads significance into the room itself.
Now imagine that the book was called "Giovanni's stopwatch." Imagine that every time David saw a stopwatch, it reminded him of Giovanni's stopwatch and he was overcome with guilt. While a regrettable problem, it's easy to see that it would not be as difficult as associating his guilt with Giovanni's room. Why? Because you can go many months without seeing a stopwatch, but it's hard to make it through a single day without spending time in a room.
Human beings live out the majority of their lives in rooms; they inhabit them, try to feel comfortable within them, seek ways of making them their own. If rooms come to seem uninhabitable then it's going to be pretty hard to get through a day. You might find yourself, like David, constantly fleeing from one room to another, hoping that the next will be different but always finding that it is the same.
Let's focus in on the fact that each room reminds David of Giovanni's room. That is, David's time in Giovanni's room is remembered; the story is one of memories. Throughout history, people attempting to acquire large memories have found that it is easiest to remember things if you associate them with a specific location. It seems that memory is extremely spatial, and that if you map the intangible thoughts floating around in your head to places in physical reality, it becomes much easier to call them to mind.
So, it is perfectly natural for David to think of Giovanni's room as a memory location. The room becomes like a box in which David files away all of his memories with Giovanni. But the memories are too emotionally charged. They refuse to be filed away so easily.
When Giovanni attempted to renovate his room, David thought, "Perhaps he was trying, with his own strength, to push back the encroaching walls, without, however, having the walls fall down" (2.2.45). Giovanni was using his room as a sanctuary. He wanted it to protect him from the outside world, from the past that followed him to Paris from Italy. In other words, he wanted the room to contain his messy life. The room failed him on both accounts. It couldn't keep his past out, but it could lock Giovanni in, and the room as container quickly became the room as prison cell – the walls seemed to be closing in on him.
David has the opposite problem. He also wants the room to contain his experience with Giovanni, but David is outside of it. Instead of thinking of the room as a sanctuary from his past, he might prefer to lock his past up within the room. And yet the experience refuses to stay within the four walls of Giovanni's room. It's like a box that has become overfull with emotionally painful memories – the walls come crashing down only to appear again wherever David goes. Like the man that has been in prison, in each new room, David sees the walls of Giovanni's room rising up to meet him.