Study Guide

Giovanni's Room Memory and the Past

By James Baldwin

Memory and the Past

My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past (1.1.1).

Here, David is introducing himself to the reader. What does he mean that his "face is like a face you have seen many times"? Why do people always have a tendency to compare new faces to the ones that they have seen before? How is David, even in his melodrama, trying to strike up a rapport with the reader?

My mother had been carried to the graveyard when I was five. I scarcely remember her at all, yet she figured in my nightmares, blind with worms, her hair as dry as metal and brittle as a twig, straining to press me against her body; the body so putrescent, so sickening soft, that it opened, as I clawed and cried, into a breach so enormous as to swallow me alive (1.1.24).

Why might David remember his mother in nightmares? Does David remember his mother more as an absence or as a presence? How does he both deny and confirm his mother's death by remembering her as a sickening corpse? What does his memory of her have to do with her? What does it have to do with death?

"Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden," Jacques said. And then: "I wonder why." (1.2.17)

What does Jacques mean by this? How might you characterize David's personal "garden of Eden"? How about Jacques? Why can't they stay in their own personal gardens? If they could, would the story still be a tragedy?

"You are – how old? Twenty-six or –seven? I am nearly twice that and, let me tell you, you are lucky. You are lucky that what is happening to you now is happening now and not when you are forty, or something like that, when there would be no hope for you and you would simply be destroyed." (1.3.66)

Clearly, as Jacques is giving David advice about what to do with Giovanni, he is speaking partially of himself. What is Jacques saying about himself through his advice to David? Why would he "simply be destroyed" if he fell in love when he were older? What would happen to Jacques if he were to meet someone at his age?

"That you must ask yourself," he told me, "and perhaps one day this morning will not be ashes in your mouth." (1.3.89)

The expression "ashes in your mouth" is commonly meant to refer to a bitter memory. Why do you think people describe such a memory as "ashes in your mouth"? Clearly, it relates to it being an unpleasant experience, but push the metaphor further. How does memory relate to sensation – to taste and smell? Why would a regret from the past be compared to ashes? Given what happens, do you think the morning is ashes in David's mouth or not?

I suppose they will come for him early in the morning, perhaps just before dawn, so that the last thing Giovanni will ever see will be that grey, lightless sky over Paris, beneath which we stumbled homeward together so many desperate and drunken mornings. (1.3.198)

OK, let's pick this line apart. First, David does not know where Giovanni is or what is going to happen to him. Yet he imagines Giovanni, on the day of his death, as looking up at the grey sky over Paris. Here he is imagining something in the future. Yet, when his thought falls from the sky back to the ground he is in the past – he is remembering the time that he and Giovanni spent together under that same grey sky. How does memory relate to imagination? Is it possible to have a memory of the future?

I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea, time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning. (2.1.1)

When people describe pleasant experiences, they often talk about how time flew. Here, David refers to time flowing. Why might he pick the image of flowing water? What in particular about David and Giovanni's experience in Paris would make it feel like time had been suspended? Hint: Where's Hella? When is she going to return? What are they both denying about the future?

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)

What role do rooms play in our lives? Why is it easy for us to associate memories with rooms? Why might it help for a memory to be contained within a room? What do all rooms have in common? What separates them? Check out "Setting" for more on this topic.

The newspaper told the unforgiving world how Giovanni repented, cried for mercy, called on God, wept that he had not meant to do it. And told us, too, in delicious detail, how he had done it: but not why. Why was too black for the newsprint to carry and too deep for Giovanni to tell. (2.5.31)

When the newspaper tells "how Giovanni repented, cried for mercy, called on God, wept that he had not meant to do it," it is making a show of presenting everything to the reader. The editors are trying to give the impression that this is the whole story, that it is uncensored, that they are not holding anything back. In effect, the newspapers make a show of giving all the grisly details in order to hide the fact that they are leaving out the most subtle and perhaps the most important details of the story. Is there anything wrong with this? Is this, as Hella says a moment later, the purpose that newspapers are meant to serve? How can David expect them to print what is "too deep for Giovanni to tell"?

They pull him to the door of his cell, the corridor stretches before him like the graveyard of his past, the prison spins around him. (2.5.138)

Here, as David imagines Giovanni going to his death, he refers to "the graveyard of his past." Why might one's past memories seem like graves? Why might one's memories feel particularly like a graveyard as one is headed to one's death? Is David talking about the graveyard of Giovanni's past or the graveyard of his own?