Study Guide

Giovanni's Room Choices

By James Baldwin


And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no-one to watch, no penalties attached – it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom. (1.1.4)

Why does David think that freedom is unbearable? Is it possible to make decisions when one is completely free? Does David prefer to have his decisions taken away from him or does he just want a few more restrictions?

And yet – when one begins to search for the crucial, the definitive moment, the moment which changed all others, one finds oneself pressing, in great pain, through a maze of false signals and abruptly locking doors. (1.1.22)

David is trying to pinpoint the moment where his flight began. Is there ever one "moment which changed all others"? What about David's situation is going to make it especially hard for him to find that moment, if there ever was one?

For I am – or I was – one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all – a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named – but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not. (1.1.75)

We don't know about you, but David's words – "a real decision makes one humble" – strike us as overwhelmingly true. Yet what about David's particular circumstances makes him hold such a view? Why does he speak in generalities instead of in relation to his own particular situation? How do we choose when we make particular statements and when we make general ones?

"To choose!" cried Giovanni, turning his face away from me and speaking, it appeared, to an invisible ally who had been eavesdropping on this conversation all along. "To choose!" He turned to me again. "Ah, you are really an American. J'adore votre enthousiasme!" (1.2.105)

Why does Giovanni mock David's belief in one's ability to choose? Is it fair for him to associate David's belief with his being an American? Do Americans over-estimate the power they have to choose the fate of their lives? If so, how so? If not, why not?

But I could not be certain, really, that it might not be I who was making a mistake, blindly misreading everything – and out necessities, then, too shameful to be uttered. I was in a box for I could see that, no matter how I turned, the hour of confession was upon me and could scarcely be averted; unless of course, I leaped out of the cab, which would be the most terrible confession of all. (1.3.18)

Reading this passage, we already know what is going to happen. For that reason, David's denial seems paper-thin. Perhaps, though, it is only the fact that things have become clarified in his memory. Perhaps at the time David actually had convinced himself that he didn't want to sleep with Giovanni. Does David have a choice other than going home with Giovanni or getting out of the cab? Is there any choice he could make that would deny or hide the fact that he is attracted to Giovanni?

Those evening were bitter. Giovanni knew that I was going to leave him but he did not dare accuse me for fear of being corroborated. I did not dare tell him. Hella was on her way back from Spain and my father had agreed to send me money, which I was not going to use to help Giovanni, who had done so much to help me. I was going to use it to escape his room. (2.1.4)

In the next quote, when David hears from Hella, he feels as if the "necessity of decision" has been taken from his hands. When does David make his decision to leave Giovanni? Does he ever make it? Why does he conceal the decision from Giovanni? What does he have to gain from waiting? How could he tell him if he were to tell him in the present?

I cannot say that I was frightened. Or, it would be better to say that I did not feel any fear – the way men who are shot do not, I am told, feel any pain for awhile. I felt a certain relief. It seemed that the necessity for decision had been taken from my hands. I told myself that we both had always known, Giovanni and myself, that our idyll could not last forever. (2.2.25)

What are David's choices in his current case? Well, he could stay with Giovanni. Or can he? He could go off and be married happily ever after with Hella. Or can he? He could leave them both and return home. Likely? Is it really possible for David to escape the "necessity for decision"? Hasn't he made a decision even by evading one?

Somewhere, at the very bottom of myself, I realized that I was doing something awful to her and it became a matter of my honor not to let this fact become too obvious. I tried to convey, through this grisly act of love, the intelligence, at least, that it was not her, not her flesh, that I despised – it would not be her I could not face when we became vertical again. (2.2.80)

David has made a choice. His choice is that he will sleep with Sue. Why is he sleeping with Sue? Well, from this passage, it seems like his decision to sleep with Sue has a lot to do with his own sexual repression and self-loathing. But he's already made the choice. Now that he realizes the motivations behind it, does he have a new array of choices before him or is he just stuck with his old decision?

I had hoped that when I saw her something instantaneous, definitive, would have happened to me, something to make me know where I should be and where I was. But nothing happened. I recognized her at once, before she saw me, she was wearing green, her hair was a little shorter, and her face was tan, and she wore the same brilliant smile. I loved her as much as ever and I still did not know how much that was. (2.4.2)

Compare this moment to others where David has to make a big decision. Is there wisdom in David's desire that something "definitive" will happen to him? Is there cowardice? How does he distinguish between when he must make decisions and when decisions are made for him? When does he actually make a decision?

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)

What is the choice that David wants to have but does not? Doesn't he want to be able to choose whom he is attracted to? How can he not want to be in love with Giovanni and yet still be in love with him? Since David is in love with Giovanni whether he admits it or not, do his choices even matter?