Study Guide

David in Giovanni's Room

By James Baldwin


Master of Self-Deception

David is, among other things, an unreliable narrator. Sometimes, when we think of unreliable narrators we think of people who aren't mentally stable (say Ed Norton in Fight Club) or people who are lying for a specific reason (think Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects). David's not unreliable in that way. In fact, it seems that he is doing every thing he can to tell the truth as he recounts his story. Yet his story is full of a thousand little lies and biased points of view. As he says to Hella before she storms out, there's nothing he can do. He's not trying to lie to other people, but he can't help it because he is lying to himself. Or, as he tells the reader very early on, "I am too various to be trusted" (1.1.5).

Throughout the story, it's easy to see how David is dishonest. He puts off telling Giovanni about Hella. He claims that the reason he doesn't stay with Giovanni is that it would be impossible for them to make a life together. He tells Giovanni that he will ask his father for money for the two of them, but he actually uses the money to get away from Giovanni. He lies to Hella about Giovanni repeatedly and tries to trick her into thinking that he is attracted to women.

Yet, David claims that all of these lies to other people grow out of the simple fact that he cannot be honest with himself. Part of his goal in telling the story, it seems, is to attempt to tell it honestly, not just to others but also to himself. One way to think of it is that the reader is David's latest lover. He's trying to open himself up and be honest with us, but the bottom line is that he wants us to love and pity him. The whole narrative is rife with self-deception and self-pity.

Let's take one example. After David leaves Joey, he talks about how he lied and told Joey that he had met a girl. He then makes a new group of friends and he and the friends are cruel to Joey. As he says, "The sadder this made him, the nastier I became" (1.1.20). David is admitting to something here. He's willing to admit that he was cruel, and to cast himself in an unfavorable light. The thing that he doesn't admit, though, is why he was cruel to Joey. Of course, it's implied by the context. David was ashamed of the fact that he was attracted to boys and he attempted to hide it by being cruel to the boy to whom he was attracted. Yet David never brings himself to say this. He never makes it explicit. The fact is there and both he and the reader know it but, at some level, he still fails to acknowledge it.

David realizes that he has a problem with self-honesty. Speaking of his decision to leave Brooklyn, he says,

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. 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)

What David realizes, which really is quite a brilliant idea, is that a search for self is also a flight from self. If you claim to be searching for yourself, then who are you in the meantime? If you're in flight from yourself, then where do you hope to go? We often use these terms to describe our relationship with ourselves, and yet when one struggles with them personally, it's not hard to see that they don't make a lot of sense.

In some ways, it seems that David's problem is that he is trying too hard to be honest. Instead, he ends up being clever and the truth falls between the cracks. When he recalls leaving Giovanni he says, "Then something opened in my brain, a secret, noiseless door swung open, frightening me: it had not occurred to me until that instant that, in fleeing from his body, I confirmed and perpetuated his body's power over me" (2.4.228).

But there's a lie embedded within the statement. David keeps referring to Giovanni's body. He's afraid of the power that Giovanni's body has over him. It's as if his relationship with Giovanni has been nothing but bodily lust, a carnal fantasy. The truth, which the reader knows, is that David loved Giovanni. The love may have originated with physical desire and, at some level, David may wish that he didn't love Giovanni, but he does. Yet he manages to hide this simple fact with the seeming sophistication of his statement. He tries to bring the reader's guard down by analyzing himself and yet he analyzes himself inaccurately, using his sharp insights to conceal the truth.

The result is that, even though the reader made sympathize with David, we have trouble actually getting a handle on him. It's hard to accept a character that can't accept himself, and the reader, like Giovanni and Hella, comes to feel like another one of David's frustrated lovers.

The Sad Young Amateur Philosopher

David runs into Jacques some time after Giovanni is sentenced. The two of them discuss the tragedy and both try to obscure their role in it. Jacques then bursts out with an unexpected statement. He says, "Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden. I wonder why" (1.2.17). The thought is at once naive and incredibly insightful, and David returns to it throughout the story as he tries to explain to himself what happened.

Recalling the moment from his house in the south of France, David's initial reaction is:

It takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare. (1.2.19)

The quote sounds right, but what exactly is David saying? Let's move through it more slowly and apply it to his particular case. David's Eden might be thought of as the time when he was sexually unaware, when he had friendships with boys but did not realize that he was attracted to them. The death of David's innocence, if traced to one specific moment, might be the time that he woke up next to Joey and realized that he was ashamed of what he had done. This is the moment where he had a choice between admitting to himself that he was attracted to men or attempting to deny it. Needless to say, he chose to deny it.

For David to think back on this moment is painful. It involves, as he so eloquently says, "the perpetually recurring death of [his] innocence." Yet if he pretends that it didn't happen then there are also bizarre consequences: "the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence." David hypothesizes that trying to deny his sexuality will simply lead him to hate those innocent times when he was happy and naive, to mock his younger, simpler self. We can see how he actually does this when he becomes cruel to Joey. Joey becomes the embodiment of his innocence and he disparages him for it.

Now neither of these seem like particularly good options. So why would David think that has to do both? Well, denial of the fall from innocence would be a sort of weakness. Yet forgetting the past also involves looking toward the future, accepting the fact that one is no longer innocent, getting on with one's life. Remembering can also be a form of weakness, as it induces self-pity and the failure to act. But remembering also involves self-honesty. What David needs to do is strike a balance between remembering his story and denying it, between accepting what happened and also choosing to go forward with his life.

If that's supposed to be a recipe for happiness, then it is no big surprise that David fails. David has the denial part down but, at least until the moment at his house in the south of France, he is not willing to remember who he is. David defends his lack of feeling when he takes advantage of Sue by saying, "The end of innocence is also the end of guilt" (2.3.41). In this scene, it seems that David has the exact same disparagement of innocence that he predicts for those who are in denial of their past. He thinks of himself as grown-up and mature and often this doesn't allow him to see just how vulnerable and childish he is.

We'll just throw out an idea to add to David's theory. You don't have to keep it, but we hope it's thought provoking in relation to the text:

Perhaps the reason that no one can stay in their Garden of Eden is that their Garden of Eden never existed. Nobody was ever really totally innocent and naive. They just remember themselves that way. The result is that people develop nostalgia for a time that never even existed. Even before David realized that he was attracted to boys, he already felt guilty about his mother's death and unworthy of being her son. Whatever caused that guilt might have more to do with David's neuroses than his sexuality. We'll get further into this in "The Child" section.

Body Issues

David is terrified of being alone and yet he's never really with other people because he cannot trust them. As we discussed in "The Master of Self Deception," David doesn't even trust himself. He's trapped inside his own head. In other words, the old cliché – Before you love others you have to love yourself – here turns out to be both very useful and very true.

David can only relate to himself. He doesn't want to face the problems of sex. He wants to jump right to the end of things and deal with the problem of love, but it doesn't make sense because he is not yet at peace with his own body.

Toward the very end of the tale, David says,

The body in the mirror forces me to turn and face it. And I look at my body, which is under sentence of death. It is lean, hard, and cold, the incarnation of a mystery. And I do not know what moves in this body, what this body is searching. It is trapped in my mirror as it is trapped in time and it hurries toward revelation. (2.5.145)

In a really bizarre and interesting way, David thinks of his body being opposed to his mind. He would like to be able to love women and to be sexually attracted to women, but that's simply not how his body works. When he leaves Joey, when he leaves Giovanni, when he tries to force himself to marry Hella, David is opposing his very nature, his very body.

It might be David's relationship with his body that makes him feel so disconnected, so withdrawn from what is going on around him. At one point, arguing with Giovanni, he says, "And yet even this was not as real as my despairing sense that nothing was real for me, nothing would ever be real for me again – unless, indeed, this sensation of falling was reality" (2.3.9). As with Giovanni's view of time, reality is like water. There is no getting out of it. And yet David feels that he is not a part of reality because he doesn't want to admit what being part of reality would entail.

When one considers the physical nature of David's denial, Giovanni's scathing accusation suddenly comes to make much more sense. While David stands cold and impassive, Giovanni screams,

You do not love anyone. You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will! You love your purity, you love your mirror – you are just like a little virgin, you walk around with your hands in front of you as though you had some precious metal, gold, silver, rubies maybe diamonds down there between your legs! (2.4.202)

For all of David's philosophizing about love, the fact is that love follows the tendency of things not so lofty and ethereal and seemingly divine. Before David can come to terms with romantic love, he has to come to terms with that thing "down there between [his] legs."

The Child

If David still seems like a mystery when you turn the last page of the book, go back and try reading the first chapter again. The first chapter might just seem like the first thing that happens in the story, but it's much more than that. We don't want to sound like Freud here, but it seems that David's problems have their origins in his childhood.

Let's work backward a bit here. Whenever we talk about David being in denial, it's easy to say that the reason he is in denial is that he is gay. David knows life is hard for gay men, hence he doesn't want to be one. Simple enough, right?

When observing David's relationship with his father, it's easy to see how his ideas about sex are affected and is shaped by their interactions. For one thing, after hearing his Aunt Ellen yell at his father for sleeping around, he suddenly comes to think of sex as dirty and imagines that there is something in his father (and in himself) to be despised.

For another, David feels oppressed by his father's desire to be buddies with him. He is disgusted when his father appears naked in front of him and says, "I wanted the merciful distance of father and son, which would have permitted me to love him" (1.1.54). There are different ways to interpret this desire for distance. Perhaps David already has a sense of his sexuality and fears it. The fear makes him desire space between himself and the main man in his life. Alternately, perhaps his father's behavior shaped David's attitudes toward men, gave him the peculiar desire to be close to them and far from them at once, a desire that he shows with Giovanni.

Now let's take a step further back into David's past. The first painful memory David has is that he lost his mother when he was five. He remembers having nightmares of his mother as a corpse, as a sort of pernicious (mean-spirited) absence. It's interesting that later on, when David feels lost or confused or alone, he often refers to a hole in his mind, a hole not so different from the one left there by his mother. Right after sleeping with Joey, 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). It's as if the absence of his mother has blown a hole of self-doubt in his brain, one that haunts him throughout his adult life.

There is something simpler, too. David feels guilty for his mother's death. When he recalls his Aunt Ellen praising her in excessive terms, he says, "I felt that I had no right to be the son of such a mother" (1.1.27). For some reason, David feels unworthy of his mother. It's as if the fact that she died is somehow a commentary on him, a judgment against him.

Though David wants to seem mature throughout the story, there are moments at which he feels very much like a small boy in need of his mother. Specifically, when the caretaker tries to console him, he says, "It is terrible how naked she makes me feel, like a half grown boy, naked before his mother" (1.3.188). David, in ways that have little or nothing to do with his sexuality, is constantly working out a guilt complex tied to his mother's absence, a horrible nagging sense that perhaps she died because she didn't love him enough or he didn't love her enough.

David's childhood problems constantly appear again in different guises. In a bizarre way, Jacques became a father figure for him. Giovanni and then the sailor in Nice became new Joey figures. His sense that sex is dirty was instilled in him by his Aunt Ellen. He looked to Hella and to the caretaker for a sense of stability, for a woman to mother him and take care of him. In their new forms, the problems are at once familiar and strange. Perhaps it is for this reason that, just before sleeping with Giovanni, David wishes to go home:

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)