A Brief Note on Symbols in Realistic Fiction
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.
Renovating Giovanni's Room
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.
American, Born and Bred
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.