by James Baldwin
Where It All Goes Down
Brooklyn, Paris, and the south of France
Place is important in Giovanni's Room. Each place has a different set of associations that makes it David's place, and not just a location that can be thumbed on a map.
Brooklyn and the Idea of Home
David's memories begin in Brooklyn. He announces that his family moved around quite a bit when he was young. They lived in San Francisco, which is where his mother died; then they moved to Seattle, to Manhattan, to Brooklyn. It's clear, then, that David's roots don't trace back to any one spot in American. Home is an idea for David; it's not a place.
Late in the book, David announces to Giovanni his plan to leave Paris. He says that he will have to go back to the United States one of these days, and Giovanni says, "Why, you will go home and then you will find that home is not home any more. Then you will really be in trouble. As long as you stay here, you can always think: One day I will go home" (2.3.72). Though Giovanni may just be spinning words, he strikes a chord with David. The only thing that Giovanni does not realize is that David knows that home will not be home; for him it never was.
Giovanni's statement also captures the odd relationship that David has with Paris. David's reply to Giovanni is, "Beautiful logic. You mean I have a home to go to as long as I don't go there" (2.3.73). Again, the two are bantering, but there's a great deal of truth in the idea. From Paris, David can imagine his home however he wants. It's like someone that takes consolation in the idea that they would find the meaning of life if only they took the time to search for it. Yet if the search were to begin, things would get gnarly, and David would have to acknowledge the reality that is his household: his confused father, his stepmother, and his overbearing aunt. For the meantime, though, all is well. Paris is the sanctuary from which David can imagine his home back in America however he likes.
Finding and Losing and Finding Oneself in Paris
When one thinks of a story set in Paris, one thinks of a city that is supposed to be vibrant and liberated. In the 1950s, James Baldwin moved to Paris to escape his status in America as one doubly oppressed: a gay black man.
When David left for Paris, he had not yet admitted that he was gay. He said that he was searching for himself, and, looking back, 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)
Paris is the city where David hopes to come to terms with himself and, whether he can admit it or not, that means coming to terms with his sexuality.
Reading Giovanni's Room, it is important to note the sharp and very real differences between New York and Paris in the 1950s. At one point, when David and Giovanni are arguing about Hella, Giovanni says that what they are doing is not a crime. David snaps back, "It is a crime – in my country, and, after all, I didn't grow up here, I grew up there" (2.1.45). Later, when Guillaume is slandering David to Giovanni's face, he says that David is doing things in France that he would never dare do at home.
In 1950s America, under President Eisenhower, if a person was found to be gay that was considered sufficient reason to fire him from his job. A decade earlier, at the end of World War II, a number of American soldiers were dishonorably discharged for the simple reason that they were gay. And aside from formal persecution, there was plenty of social alienation and discrimination. That's not to pretend that the French were perfectly open-minded. Yet what was clear was that gay men and women felt more accepted in France than in America.
It's important to recognize that the persecution David is in flight from (without even admitting it) is real. However, even when he crosses the Atlantic, the social prejudices and stigmas still restrict his action and prevent him from admitting his sexual orientation to himself. For this reason, Paris isn't just a city of cafés and soirées in Giovanni's Room; it is a city in which David struggles for his own liberation without quite being able to find it.
The House in the South: The Location of Reminiscence
When we first encounter David, he says, "I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life" (1.1.1). It is from this house, a bit drunk and completely alone, that David narrates the entire story of Giovanni's Room.
David brought Hella to the house in order to escape Paris. In "What's Up with the Title?" we discuss the idea of Giovanni's room as a private sanctuary for David and Giovanni. The house in the South is, in a way, a new sanctuary. It was intended to be for David and Hella what Giovanni's room was for David and Giovanni. Of course, like Giovanni's room, the house becomes the site of a tragedy because David has placed himself in it with someone that he is incapable of fully loving. Yet this time it is David, and not his lover, who is left alone.
As David wanders around the house, images from the past appear to him – his time with Joey in Brooklyn, Hella's face and Giovanni's. In a way, David is hardly even in this house in the south of France. It is like a memory portal, and everything in it only serves to remind him of something else. Since David came there in flight from the past, it seems that he came there in vain; the past has gathered all around him just as he noticed how Giovanni's room contained the garbage of "Giovanni's regurgitated life" (2.2.9).
The house might be seen as a failed sanctuary, a fortress barraged by the attacks of the past, the location of reminiscences both willing and unwilling. Part of the tragedy at the end of the book is that David is, once again, in flight, still looking for a place of peace, a place that he may never find.