Study Guide

Giovanni's Room Isolation

By James Baldwin


People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine. (1.1.5)

What does David mean when he says that he is "various"? How is David various? What events in David's past have made him such a mysterious man, so hard to pin down? Why does this condemn him to loneliness?

We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened, I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. (1.1.18)

Even as David and Joey embrace each other, how does their fear keep both of them very alone and far apart? Do you think David sensed at the time that their relationship was "doomed" or do you think this is something he is layering on from his vantage point in the past?

What happened was that, all unconscious of what this ennui meant, I wearied of the motion, wearied of the joyless seas of alcohol, wearied of the blunt, bluff, hearty, and totally meaningless friendships, wearied of wandering through the forests of desperate women, wearied of the work which fed me only in the most brutally literal sense. (1.1.76)

What changes in David's circumstances have made him recognize his "ennui" (boredom), his "meaningless friendships"? Why does the women's "desperation" make David himself feel lonely?

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 home. But again, I think I knew, at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I went to France. (1.1.76)

In a very real way, David is more isolated from himself than from anyone else in the novel. What does it mean to be isolated from oneself? For that matter, what does it mean to be searching for oneself or running from oneself? If you're searching for yourself then who are you in the meantime? If you're running from yourself, then where do you put your feet in the starting blocks? How do you know which way to run?

He looked at me and I saw in his face again something which I have fleetingly seen there during these hours: under his beauty and his bravado, terror, and a terrible desire to please; dreadfully moving, and it made me want, in anguish, to reach out and comfort him. (1.3.123)

How can one tell the difference between someone that is outgoing and sincere and someone with a "terrible desire to please"? How does David tell the difference? What does it mean to see something in someone's face? Doesn't that make it seem as if everything happens in a moment? In reality, it's more likely that he has had a hint of Giovanni's anguish for a long time. Why, then, would he just attribute this to a moment?

And it made them furious that the dead center of their lives was, in this instance, none of their business. It made them feel their poverty again, through the narcotics of chatter, and dreams of conquest, and mutual contempt. (2.1.6)

How can the "dead center" of these men's lives be none of their business? Remember that David here assumes that his relationship with Giovanni constituted the dead center of these men's lives. Is this not just an act of egotism? Is David saying something about the men or about himself?

I wrote to Hella, telling her nothing, or I wrote to my father asking for money. And no matter what I was doing, another me sat in my belly, absolutely cold with terror over the question of my life. (2.1.54)

How is David hiding from himself by writing off letters to his father and Hella? Do his father and Hella know anything about David, really? Could they help him if he asked them to? Why doesn't he?

All his movements, even to the lighting of a cigarette, were stealthy, wherever his eyes focused one saw wall rise up. His face, the color of his face, brought to mind darkness and dampness, I felt that if once cut him his flesh would be the flesh of mushrooms. (2.3.43)

David is here describing a man that he once met who had been in prison. As he describes it, the man is still locked inside of his memory; he constantly acts as if he were still in that prison. Note how rich the description is. Is it possible to give a description of someone else's behavior that is this rich and still have it be accurate? What is David's preoccupation with the man? How does David also feel that he is locked in the prison of his memories?

"And do you think I did not know when you made love to me, you made love to no one? No one! Or everyone – but not me, certainly. I am nothing to you, nothing, and you bring me fever but no delight." (2.4.184)

What does Giovanni mean that David made love to no one? Is it possible to connect with other people if you are not comfortable with yourself? Can you become comfortable with yourself through other people? Given their awful situation, who is hurt more – David or Giovanni?

I was looking for some whisper, or promise, of any possible salvation. But it seemed to me that morning that my ancient self had been dreaming the most dangerous dream of all. (2.4.237)

What do you think "the most dangerous dream of all" is? Our speculation is that it has something to do with being able to escape oneself, with being able to just ignore the parts of oneself that one does not like. Does this fit? Expand on the idea or argue against us.