Since the novel is written in the first person, the "tone" is a question of how David portrays himself and the events of his life. As David confesses to his role in the death of Giovanni, the question is: will he go hard on himself or easy?
Before Hella leaves, she says, "I'll soon be gone. Then you can shout it to those hills out there, shout it to the peasants, how guilty you are, how you love to be guilty!" (2.5.110). Her accusation, though borne out of anger, might hold some degree of truth. David does seem, to an extent, to be basking in his guilt.
When he comes to decisive turning points in the story, he often confesses to exactly how he felt at the time. The confession has to do with sentiments as much as actions. For example, when David first sleeps with Giovanni, he recalls his sensation as they lay down on the bed: "With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes" (2.5.138). After Giovanni confesses to what happened in Italy, David holds him but says, "Something had broken in me to make me so cold and so perfectly still and far away" (2.4.195). The point is that, in each of these key moments in the confession, David sympathizes with his former self instead of condemning it. He is trying to tell what happened, not to judge.
By doing so, David often allows himself to be swept up by the emotions of the past in a wave of nostalgia. Even as he meditates on Giovanni's execution, he says,
I suppose they will come for him early in the morning, perhaps just before dawn, so that the last thing Giovanni will ever see will be that grey, lightless sky over Paris, beneath which we stumbled homeward together so many desperate and drunken mornings. (1.3.198)
When David's thoughts first go up to the sky, it is the grey sky of the morning of Giovanni's execution. Yet when they come back down to earth, his thoughts are of his memories wandering through the streets of Paris with his lover. The story may be a confession, but it is not one that is going to deny the pleasures of the past.
There's this thing about tragedy. It's called hamartia. It comes from the Ancient Greek, and gets worked out by Aristotle in his Poetics. Hamartia is what is commonly known as the "tragic flaw." The idea is that the main character will make some fatal mistake, some wrong turn in judgment, and the result will be a tragedy. There's a bit of debate as to whether or not this mistake is the result of a personal defect – say, pride – in which case the "tragic flaw" would be the defect itself and not the mistake.
Let's ask a question: what is David's tragic flaw? His flaw probably has to do with dishonesty, with lying both to himself and others. If David were straightforward with Giovanni and Hella from the start, it seems likely that the tragedy would be averted.
What the story is, strictly speaking, is David attempting to get the record straight. He's confessing to everything that happened and trying to present his role directly as possible. Yet here's another question: even on the last page of the book, has David admitted that he's gay?
We'll argue that he has. The reason that he has is bound up with the fact that his confession is also a romance – a tale of forbidden love. Toward the end of the novel, when Hella tells David that she loves him, he says, "Ah! I loved Giovanni–" (2.5.21). Of course, in the context, Hella can take it as platonic love, nothing sexual. Later, when she guesses that it is still Giovanni that is bothering him, David, against his will, exclaims, "He was so beautiful" (2.5.64). Within the story itself, he tiptoes around the exact nature of his love for Giovanni, but looking at the book as a whole, one can't deny that it is a romance.
And that is, in a way, the entire confession: David loved Giovanni.
Giovanni's room is a place. It's a sanctuary. It's the one spot where David and Giovanni feel free to act out their desires hidden from the judging eyes of the world. Yet, the longer that David is there, the more it begins to feel like a prison. As the story goes on, we find out that the room has, in a way, been serving as a prison cell for Giovanni for a long time.
It is not surprising that the room takes on significance for the reader since it holds such significance for the two main characters. Giovanni and David begin to associate all sorts of emotions and ideas with the room and the result is that it ceases to just be a literal room. Giovanni's room is raised to a figurative level. It becomes a metaphor for the dream of David and Giovanni's life together and, later, for the impossibility of realizing the dream.
Several times in the novel, Giovanni resolves to renovate the room. David observes that the room is an utter mess, that its garbage is the refuse of Giovanni's wasted life. Toward the close of the novel, when things are not going well between them, Giovanni tries to carve a bookcase into the wall. He pulls away plaster and brick, and David senses that it's like he is trying to enlarge the room whose walls seem to be closing in on him.
The room, then, is what we might call an embodied metaphor. It takes on metaphorical connotations, but it is a real room and almost all of its metaphorical value is linked to experiences that actually take place in that room.
But here's an interesting and slightly complicated twist: the figurative does not simply steal its significance from the literal. As the tragedy progresses, one begins to learn that the process works both ways. For example, the idea of the room as Giovanni's prison cell ceases to be just an idea and Giovanni's cell becomes a literal reality.
In short, the title focuses us in on a nuanced and complicated metaphor that lies at the heart of the book. It forces us to ask the questions: what is the relationship between the literal and the figurative? What is the relationship between the real and the imagined?
The end of this book is sad. Here are a few reasons why.
Throughout the book, we've been shuttling back and forth between the present tense (David, alone in his room in the south of France) and the past (David with Giovanni and then with Hella). In the first case, David is doing relatively little. He's drinking and feeling depressed and talking with the caretaker. The second case is where we learn what happened.
What happened is tragic. Though we didn't know the details in the beginning, David announces that today is the day that Giovanni will be executed. After that, no matter what happened, the story has the air of tragedy: we know that things are going to end badly.
Now at the close of the book, very little has changed except that we, the reader, now know David's story. Giovanni is going to be executed, or perhaps already has been. Hella has left David and it is unclear if she'll ever be able to have a normal relationship again. What's so sad is that all this has already happened. David is left alone, drinking and tormenting himself, but there is nothing that he can do.
Where does that leave us? Quite simply, it leaves us wondering whether or not David is going to be OK. He has been forced to admit that he is gay; the fact that he couldn't before has had disastrous consequences. What we now want to know is whether or not he can ever be happy again, whether he can ever lift the sense of guilt from his shoulders.
Of course, the story is told by David in the present tense. David doesn't know whether or not he will be all right, so what he gives us is a last scene, and if we're curious about David's fate, we have to scour the details of the scene for hints.
To recap, here's the scene: we see David walking out to meet the bus. He says, "the morning weighs on my shoulders with the dreadful weight of hope" (2.5.150). A moment later, David decides to tear up Jacques's letter telling him when Giovanni will be executed without even opening it. He scatters the pieces to the wind.
We see that David may feel absolutely awful, but he is not entirely without hope, and he is willing to try to overcome his guilt about Giovanni by tearing up the envelope. The last detail, though, is that the wind blows some of the pieces of the envelope back against him. The physical detail leaves us very uncertain as to David's fate. Though he has not completely given up, it is not clear whether or not he will escape his guilt.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"I am the man; I suffered, I was there."
The epigraph comes from Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman's famous poetry collection, first published in 1855. Like Giovanni's Room, Whitman's book was controversial and quickly became labeled as indecent. To this day, Leaves of Grass is famous for its unstinting praise of the body, the senses, and human sexuality at a time when such praise was considered immoral.
Giovanni's Room was published in 1956, almost exactly one century after Leaves of Grass. It committed a similar offense against the sensibilities of its time by depicting same-sex love in great detail. Just as Whitman refused to denounce the body, Baldwin refused to condemn same-sex love or to couch the terms in which he described it.
Whitman's quote itself, short as it is, brings up a number of themes and ideas that are very central to Baldwin's book. First, "I am the man." Different notions of manhood, of what it means to be a man, run through the pages of Giovanni's Room. Whereas Whitman may have been making a relatively straightforward statement, for Baldwin the cultural norms surrounding the idea of masculinity made it a complex idea, one open to different interpretations.
The rest of the quote, "I suffered, I was there," summarizes, in two clipped phrases, much of Giovanni's Room. David, narrating the story alone from his house in the south of France, is in a state of mental anguish. In his relationship with Giovanni, Giovanni would often accuse him of being unfeeling. It was Giovanni who was the great sufferer, who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.
As we get David's retrospective, however, we see that David was also suffering in their relationship, that it was not easy for him to drop Giovanni and return to Hella. As keen readers, though, we want to interrogate the text, to challenge David's ideas about what happened and what he felt. One question we might ask, then, is: did David really suffer much as things happened, or is he now projecting his suffering back into the past, to the times when he thinks that he should have felt it?
The last bit of the epigraph – "I was there" – might be seen to be entangled with David's sense of guilt over what happened to Giovanni. David was there, the entire time. He bore witness to Giovanni's suffering, and did relatively little to help him out of it. His acknowledgment of his presence brings up all the typical guilt questions along the lines of woulda-coulda-shoulda, and forces David to ask himself exactly what his role was in Giovanni's death.
Let's just start by taking a sentence as an example. Shortly before going to Giovanni's apartment in Nation, David says,
I ached abruptly, intolerably, with a longing to go home; not that hotel, in one of the alleys of Paris, where the concierge barred the way with my unpaid bill; but home, home across the ocean, to things and people I knew and understood; to those things, those places, those people which I would always helplessly, and in whatever bitterness of spirit, love above all else. (1.3.128)
At first glance, this appears to be what is called a "loose" sentence in which the main idea – David's longing to go home – is located at the beginning, and everything else is largely ornamental. Yet, as the sentence moves on, we see David clarifying and expanding upon his initial idea. The reason he wants to go home is to find "things and people I knew and understood." By the time the sentence reaches its conclusion, it has regained momentum, built up enough steam to re-make the main idea, or perhaps to create a new one.
At the end of the sentence, we learn that the reason he wants to go home is because there he will find "those people which I would always helplessly, and in whatever bitterness of spirit, love above all else." Love. Notice how this word, which could have popped up so much earlier in the sentence, keeps getting pressed beneath the surface until the very end, so that by the time it does emerge it comes up like a revelation that the reader already knew was there.
On the one hand, the idea of love is simply clarifying the main idea of the sentence: it is a reason why David wants to go back home. Yet, on the other, he here presents an entirely new idea: it is possible to love someone helplessly, against one's will. It's as if we can no more choose the ones we love than we can choose our height or the color of our eyes.
This sentence, like so many others in the book, unfolds. One idea rolls into another and then another, and perhaps they all add up to one single idea, big and beautiful and full of contradictions. Looking at the sentence, one realizes that the entire story unfolds in the same way. It's as if David has cleared out an excavation site for his past and he is digging, digging clause after clause, against his own repression, in an effort to see the truth.
We only use one example because James Baldwin is a veritable master of the sentence. You can find more ideas in one of Baldwin's sentences than you can find in some novels.
In short, there are not a lot of symbols in realist fiction, especially in character driven realist fiction told by a first person narrator. One of the assumptions of the realist novelist is that symbols don't just exist in the world; symbols are created by people and they only gain significance as more men and women come to see them as symbols. So Giovanni's room becomes a symbol because David perceives it as a symbol. America becomes a symbol because Giovanni says things to David indirectly by talking about his homeland.
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.
When David first leaves Brooklyn, he says,
Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced. I think now that if I 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. (1.1.76)
What is key here is that David's sense of self is bound up with the fact that he is an American. He claims, half in jest, that he left America because he was searching for himself. Of course, the search for self is not a physical one and might as easily have been conducted alone in his room in Brooklyn. Yet David feels the need to move, to physically enact his mental search, even if he suspects that he is not so much searching for himself as attempting to lose himself.
The latter possibility, that David is actually in flight, is something that often gets left out of soul-searching narratives. Americans are famously (and, in Europe, notoriously) known for their optimism, their sense that everything will work out in the end, that history is moving forward in one progressive direction.
In their first conversation, Giovanni mocks this American ideal. David says that, in contrast to Paris, in New York, you feel "all the time to come" (1.2.92). Giovanni seems to regard American optimism as twinned with naïveté, as a result of the fact that it is a young nation. He jokes about how time sounds like "a triumphant parade" for Americans, and they think that with enough time, "everything will be settled, solved, put in its place." Then, in a scathing indictment of America, Giovanni says, "And when I say everything, I mean all the serious, dreadful things, like pain and death and love, in which you Americans do not believe" (1.2.101). It's not lost on the keen reader that this accusation closely resembles the one that Giovanni later makes when David leaves him; his ideas about America and his ideas about David are intertwined.
There is some difference between Europe and America that Giovanni has hit on, even if he has exaggerated it. For one thing, Europe has a much longer history than modern America. Of course, America also has a history that begins well before 1492, but the textbooks are just a wee bit biased. Yet this bias affects the way that we think, and in relation to European nations, America is quite young.
It is also an isolated nation, and neither Canada nor Mexico has posed a significant military threat for a long time. As recently as 60 years ago (and, in the book, ten years ago), Europe found itself ravaged by the most destructive war in world history. And the war unfolded in major European cities and on a European landscape. As awful as the World Wars were for Americans, imagine how much worse they would have been if battles were waged in the fields of Ohio and Arkansas, if cities like New York and Philadelphia were taken captive.
It's for these reasons that an Italian like Giovanni might think that Americans are naïve, that they are optimistic only because they can afford to be, because they don't know what it's like to have their nation taken over by a fascist leader. Yet the national talk is also extremely personal. When Giovanni makes comments about America, he is also, indirectly, making comments about David. When David responds and defends America, he is also defending himself.
The vision of America presented in the book, then, is one that is bound up in David and Giovanni's relationship. For David, America is the place of his youth, the place of people he loves and understands. Yet he would not have left it if he thought that his identity was not something else too, that he was not completely hemmed in by the fact that he was an American. As David says when Giovanni coyly refers to his nationality:
I resented being called an American (and resented resenting it) because it seemed to make me nothing more than that, whatever that was; and I resented being called not an American because it seemed to make me nothing. (2.2.12)
America, like his sexuality, is the identity from which David flees and yet he can't help the fact that it is an identity that defines him. Giovanni perceives this, but he picks on David because he thinks that David, like his nation, is young and naïve and inexperienced. When we learn about Giovanni's horrific past in Italy, we begin to understand why he can't take things quite so lightly as David does.
As Giovanni says quite succinctly, "The Americans have no sense of doom, none whatever" (2.2.218). America, then, functions not just as a physical place but also as a symbol of youth and innocence and naïveté, of a past from which David wants to escape and to which he longs to return.
Giovanni's Room is told by a man named David, from a house in the south of France. There are few novels better suited to the verb "unfolds" than Giovanni's Room; David's narration moves more or less linearly, but at times he will tell events out of order or break into discussions of his present state. The result is that we know what happens by the fifth paragraph of the story. The mystery is how it happened.
There are a couple of those magical fictional assumptions underlying the way that David narrates the story. For one, he speaks in the present tense despite the fact that he is alone and wandering about the house. To whom is he speaking? Where are the words coming from, if he's not sitting there writing them down? For another, despite the fact that he is remembering things, David will often narrate them in great detail, as if he remembered exactly how it happened. At other points, he will break into a series of perhaps statements, but it seems odd that he never requires these for the most dramatic points in the story, even if he was not there.
In his final fight with Hella, David tells her that he wasn't lying to her. As he says, "I was lying to myself" (2.5.107). As a reader, your ears should perk up with this line. You might even make a face and groan a little because what David is admitting here, to the reader as much as to Hella, is that he's not a reliable narrator. It's not that David would intentionally distort events; in fact, it's clear that he is making an enormous effort to be honest about them. It's just that he can't help but infuse them with his own point of view. Since David is a master of repression, his point of view is especially suspect.
Let's close with a question: why is David telling this story? In a way, of course, Giovanni's Room is a long confession. David confesses to his role in Giovanni's death, and he confesses to the fact that he led Hella directly into a dead-end marriage. But to whom is David confessing? We'll throw out the idea that David is actually confessing to himself, that he is telling this story to no one as much as himself (the reader is just granted a window). The point is that even the telling of the story is a part of David's search for himself. By trying to narrate his life in an honest way, David is trying to find out who he really is.
In David's first reminiscences, he is a young man in Brooklyn trying to come to terms with the death of his mother and with his own sexuality. After a brief romantic fling with a boy named Joey, David feels that he is beginning to outgrow his house. He leaves for Paris at the age of seventeen, uncertain whether he is running from or searching for himself.
The night that David meets Giovanni, he tries to be coy and indirect, but he actually shows almost no resistance as Giovanni leads him back to his room. David has already proposed to his girlfriend Hella, now in Spain, and the tryst with Giovanni cannot but end badly. Yet he manages to keep the inevitable end concealed from himself, and he and Giovanni fall into dizzy-eyed love, willing to forget about the world for the sake of each other.
At some point, David tells Giovanni about Hella and her imminent return. The idea of Hella seems to follow him around like a shadow, but Giovanni refuses to believe that the arrival of his fiancée will make any difference. Meanwhile, Guillaume, feeling that his advances toward Giovanni have been thwarted, fires him in despicable fashion, accusing him of being both a bastard and a thief. Giovanni is desperate and feels that David is the only source of stability and hope in his life. When David hears that Hella has arrived, and leaves without telling Giovanni, it is clear that things are going to turn ugly.
After three days, David and Hella encounter Jacques and Giovanni in a bookstore. Giovanni makes a scene, but David manages to shield the situation from Hella. The next evening, he returns to Giovanni's room to end things, but he has no idea how hard it will be. Giovanni is in tears. He curses David and accuses him of never having loved anyone, and he reveals a secret from his past in Italy that explains why he is in such a desperate state. When David leaves, it seems that Giovanni is caught in a whirlpool of despair, which is confirmed a few weeks later when Guillaume is found dead in his bar.
Giovanni pleads guilty to murdering Guillaume, and he is sentenced to death. David is overcome with guilt and remorse for his former lover. Hella can understand his grief, but doesn't know the reasons for its intensity. After a fight, she follows David and finds him flirting with a sailor at a bar. She leaves him alone in his guilt, and it seems as if Giovanni's death has become David's own. The end of the novel is not without a degree of hope, but there is no rebirth here, just a limp gesture toward the impossibility of knowing the future.
It is David's first reminiscence that sets the stage for everything else that will happen in the novel. We learn that he grew up without a mother, and that his relationship with his father was strained. Perhaps the key event here is David's fling with a boy named Joey. Though he likes Joey, he refuses to accept the consequences of what that means. From this point on, David becomes distant from his family and perhaps also from himself. Both running from and searching for something, he decides to leave Brooklyn for Paris.
Before Giovanni, David is a tease. He lets Jacques, an older gay man, buy him drinks, loan him money, and fawn over him, but David never goes any further. Though he hangs out with a bunch of gay men, he acts as though he's really interested in women. In fact, we learn that he has a girlfriend named Hella that he proposed to before she went to Spain. The attraction between Giovanni and David is so intense, though, that it consumes him. He cannot help but get entangled with Giovanni, and the result is that, as he waits for Hella to return, his situation is ripe with conflict.
The complication is inevitable. Sooner or later, Hella is going to come back from Spain. David knows this and tells Giovanni, but in a way they both continue their relationship in a state of denial. Giovanni seems to harbor a secret belief that David could never actually leave him, and that the two of them might make a life together. Shortly before Hella returns, Guillaume fires Giovanni. Giovanni is desperate and entirely dependent on David, so that when Hella does return and accept David's proposal of marriage, the love triangle is set and it is fit to explode.
After a tense encounter in a bookstore, David knows that he will have to return to Giovanni's apartment and announce his plans to leave him. Yet he has no idea how difficult that will turn out to be. He finds Giovanni in tears. Giovanni screams at him, calls him a liar, and accuses him of never having loved anyone. Giovanni also reveals a terrible secret from his past that has driven him into his current situation of desperation and despair. David listens the entire time, feeling strangely numb, yet it seems clear that Giovanni is finished.
As David tries to make a life with Hella, he also makes an effort to keep tabs on Giovanni. It is apparent that things are not going well for him. First, he lets himself be seduced and taken care of by Jacques, and then he begins hanging out with the poor street-boys that he used to despise. The dreadful question both David and the reader have is: what will happen to Giovanni? The question is answered a week later, when Guillaume is found strangled in his office.
Up until this point in the story, the downward spiral has been Giovanni's. David has been standing on the periphery, doing everything that he can to keep in control of his own life. But when he learns that Giovanni will be executed, guilt overwhelms him. At the same time, he begins to admit that he does not love his fiancé, that he is not even attracted to her. Eventually he goes out carousing for men, and when Hella finds him it is clear that their life together is finished. David has been caught in Giovanni's downward spiral, which he might have helped to produce in the first place.
The novel ends as it began, with David alone in the house in the south of France that he and Hella were supposed to share. He has now confessed everything that happened, and he is about to leave the south, to head back to Paris and, perhaps, one day, to America. The only concern now is whether or not David will ever be able to overcome his guilt and come to terms with his own sexuality. The ending is deeply ambiguous, but tormented as he is, David is not without a sense of hope.
One could argue that the point of no return for David came when he decided to sleep with Joey. Yet, after that, David still convinced himself that he could escape the fact that he was gay. He went all the way to Paris under the pretext of finding himself when all he really wanted to do was to escape himself. He gets away with the charade for a while. He even proposes to a girl, Hella. But when David meets Giovanni in Guillaume's bar everything changes. He keeps telling himself that there has been some sort of misunderstanding, but when he finally sleeps with Giovanni he feels nothing but relief. By then, the cat's out of the bag and it's only a question of how things will resolve themselves.
Here we've passed the point of no return: David has already decided to sleep with Giovanni. Yet somehow David and Giovanni continue to function in a sort of dream state where they imagine that things will just work themselves out. David often refers to Giovanni's room as a sanctuary, a place where time does not seem to operate. When Hella arrives, David simply abandons Giovanni and begins to try to make a life with Hella. The entire time the reader knows that conflict is forthcoming, but it's not clear exactly how things will resolve themselves.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where the tragedy of Giovanni's Room begins. For David, perhaps it began as far back as when he abandoned his boyhood love Joey. Perhaps it began with the death of his mother. For Giovanni, the tragedy began when his wife gave birth to a still-born child. Within the timeframe of the story, though, there still seems to be a prospect of happiness up until David and Giovanni's falling out. As David sees it, he has to leave Giovanni. Yet, after he does, he keeps tabs on him out of worry. He can tell that Giovanni is falling down the social ladder, but things don't really take a decisive turn until Guillaume winds up dead and Giovanni goes to trial. From then on, David's life is a downward spiral of despair, and one tragedy follows closely on the heels of another until the very end of the book.