Study Guide

Giovanni's Room Guilt and Blame

By James Baldwin

Guilt and Blame

I repent now – for all the good it does – one particular lie among the many lies I've told, told, lived, and believed. This is the lie which I told to Giovanni, but never succeeded in making him believe, that I had never slept with a boy before. (1.1.6)

Each time that David tells a lie, it seems as if he is trying to hide from his guilt, to avoid it. And yet each lie seems to compound his guilt, to make him feel more guilty instead of less. Is there any way out? Why do you think that he didn't tell Giovanni about Joey?

Ellen spoke of my mother often, saying what a remarkable woman she had been but she made me uncomfortable. I felt that I had no right to be the son of such a mother. (1.1.27)

Why, at such a young age, might David already feel guilty? Is there any way Ellen could know the effect her praise of David's mother would have on David? If David's guilt is irrational does that make it any less valid?

It has come to me that this woman, a peasant from Italy, must resemble, in so many ways, the mother of Giovanni. I keep trying not to hear her howls of anguish, I keep trying not to see in her eyes what would surely be there if she knew that her son would be dead by morning, if she knew what I had done to her son. (1.3.166)

David imagines that the caretaker of his house in the south of France as Giovanni's Giovanni. Before Hella left she yelled at David for loving to be guilty. How is this an instance of David loving to be guilty? How would you describe David's projection of guilt onto the caretaker? Is it sentimental?

When she has gone back across the road, the night will be blacker and longer than ever. I have something to say to her – to her? – but of course it will never be said. I feel that I want to be forgiven, I want her to forgive me. But I do not know how to state my crime. My crime, in some odd way, is in being a man and she knows all about this already. It is terrible how naked she makes me feel, like a half grown boy, naked before his mother. (1.3.188)

Here, David is projecting his guilt onto the caretaker at the house. Who does David actually want to forgive him? Who could actually forgive him? How does the early death of David's mother relate to his feelings of guilt?

She wore the strangest smile I had ever seen. It was pained and vindictive and humiliated but she inexpertly smeared across this grimace a bright, girlish gaiety – as rigid as the skeleton beneath her flabby body. If fate ever allowed Sue to reach me, she would kill me with just that smile. (2.2.94)

Here, Sue is trying to conceal her pain from David by smiling at him. And yet the result is the opposite. Her smile actually makes him feel more guilty; it makes him even more aware of her pain. Why does Sue's effort to conceal her pain elicit this reaction in David? Why would he feel less guilty if she begged and pleaded with him?

And I also felt, standing so close to him, feeling such a passion to keep him from terror, that a decision – once again! – had been taken from my hands. For neither my father, nor Hella, was real at that moment. 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. (2.3.39)

Is David's "sensation of falling" a part of reality? What does it mean when people say that nothing feels real to them? What does it mean when David says it? What is preventing things from feeling real to him? What would have to change in order for them to feel real again?

No. It would help if I were able to feel guilty. But the end of innocence is also the end of guilt. (2.3.41)

What does David mean that, "the end of innocence is also the end of guilt"? When did his innocence end? How does guilt imply the presumption of innocence, the ultimate desire to be innocent?

I dropped my brick and went to him. In a moment I heard his fall. And at moments like this I felt that were merely enduring and committing the longer and lesser and more perpetual murder. (2.3.100)

How would you describe "the longer and lesser and more perpetual murder"? What does it mean for a murder to be "perpetual"? Does David feel guilty about leaving Giovanni or about not leaving him sooner? Should David feel guilty for these moments of false forgiveness? What would be the alternative?

Such a scandal always threatens, before its reverberations cease, to rock the very foundations of the state. It is necessary to find an explanation, a solution, and a victim with the utmost possible speed. (2.5.1)

Here is David's description of the government's reaction after Guillaume is found dead. Essentially what he's talking about is that the government needs a "scapegoat." Why does the fact that Guillaume is gay require the government to find a scapegoat? What is the government trying to hide by casting about for someone to blame?

"Don't shout," said Hella. "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)

Is Hella right that David loves to be guilty? If so, why does he love to be guilty? What would be the alternative to feeling guilty? Is guilt easier?