Study Guide

Giovanni's Room Men and Masculinity

By James Baldwin

Men and Masculinity

I was in the bed upstairs, asleep. It was quite late. I was suddenly awakened by the sound of my father's footfalls on the walk beneath my window. I could tell by the sound and the rhythm that he was a little drunk and I remember at that moment a certain disappointment, an unprecedented sorrow entered into me. I had seen him drunk many times and had never felt this way – on the contrary, my father sometimes had great charm when he was drunk – but that night, I suddenly felt that there was something in it, in him, to be despised. (1.1.30)

What expectations did David have of his father that were disappointed on this night? Did he know that he had them? Might he have been less disappointed if he was acutely aware of them? Why does David use the word despised? Do you think that he could explain his word choice if you asked him?

"A man," said Ellen, shortly, "is not the same thing as a bull. Good-night." (1.1.48)

What is Ellen trying to say to David's father? Is David's father really acting like a bull? To what extent do her prejudices about men affect David's later neuroses regarding his masculinity?

We were not like father and son, my father sometimes proudly said, we were like buddies. I think my father sometimes actually believed this. I never did. I did not want to be his buddy, I wanted to be his son. What passed between us as masculine candor exhausted and appalled me. (1.1.54)

What exactly is "masculine candor"? Why does David think that this candor should not exist between a father and a son? What about David's situation made such candor particularly unappealing?

I pretended not to see, although I exploited it, the lust not quite sleeping in his bright, bitter eyes and, by means of the rough, male candor with which I conveyed to him his case was hopeless, I compelled him, endlessly, to hope. (1.2.27)

As you read these lines, remember that this story is in the past tense. Meaning that it is remembered. David here gives a remarkably complex explanation of his behavior. How much of the explanation seems to have been part of his motivation at the time? How much of it has David put there only in hindsight? Exactly what role does "male candor" play in David's deception of Jacques?

"I was not suggesting that you jeopardize, even for a moment, that" he paused – "that immaculate manhood which is your pride and joy." (1.2.53)

When Jacques uses the word "immaculate" he is poking fun at David. Why does Jacques hang out with David if David claims not to be interested in men? Is Jacques trying to prove something to David? What does sexual preference have to do with masculinity according to David? According to Jacques?

She smiled a satisfied smile. "Men – not just babies like you, but old men, too – they always need a woman to tell the truth. Les hommes, ils sont impossible." (1.3.183)

Is David particularly susceptible to the caretaker's view at this moment? Where is the woman in the story who can tell David the truth? Does Hella ever act as a truth-teller?

"Oh, well," said Giovanni, "these absurd women running around today, full of ideas and nonsense, and thinking themselves equal to men – quelle rigolade! – they need to be beaten half to death so that they can find out who rules the world." (2.1.30)

At a glance, Giovanni's views on women seem despicable. Later, we learn about his traumatic past in Italy and get some hint into why he fears and despises women. Does the fact that we understand Giovanni's view make them any less despicable?

I was staring at him, though I did not know it, and wishing I were he. He seemed – somehow – younger than I had ever been, and blonder and more beautiful, and he wore his masculinity as unequivocally as he wore his skin. (2.2.19)

Here, David is watching a young sailor. There are a couple things going on. For one, it is clear that David is attracted to the sailor, who he describes as blonde and "beautiful." At the same time, David is jealous of the sailor because he would never describe himself. Thus David is simultaneously envious of the sailor for not being gay and, but also attracted to him. What does it mean for the sailor to be invested with both of these qualities? What does it suggest about how they co-exist within David?