Study Guide

Giovanni's Room Passivity

By James Baldwin

Passivity

I may be drunk by morning but that will not do any good. I shall take the train to Paris anyway. The train will be the same, the people, struggling for comfort and, even, dignity on the straight-backed, wooden, third-class seats will be the same, and I will be the same. (1.1.2)

What does David mean when he says that everything will be "the same"? Does David want things to stay the same or does he want them to change? Is David afraid of change? What would David have to do to bring about a change in his life?

I was already with Giovanni. I had asked her to marry me before she went away to Spain; and she laughed and I laughed but that, somehow, all the same, made it more serious for me, and I persisted; and then she said she would have to go away and think about it. (1.1.4)

Why do you think that David asked Hella to marry him? Why would the fact that they both laughed make it more serious for him? What was David trying to prove by proposing to Hella?

He did not come to see me. I would have been very happy to see him if he had, but the manner of my leavetaking had begun a constriction which neither of us knew how to arrest. (1.1.20)

Try to come up with some other ways to describe the "constriction" that David says took place between him and Joey. What would he have had to do to overcome the "constriction"? Did he really not know how to arrest it or did he just not want to?

"I don't believe in this nonsense about time. Time is just common, it's like water for a fish. Everybody's in this water, nobody gets out of it, or if he does the same thing happens to him that happens to the fish, he dies. And you know what happens in this water, time? The big fish eat the little fish. That's all. The big fish eat the little fish and the ocean doesn't care." (1.2.103)

Why do you think that Giovanni has such a fatalistic view of things? Do you think that he is a big fish or a little fish? What about David? Is Giovanni hiding something with his cynicism? If so, what is he hiding?

The measure the gram, the centimetre, these people, and they keep piling all the little scraps they save, one on top of the other, year in and year out, all in the stocking or under the bed – and what do they get out of all this measure? A country which is falling to pieces, measure by measure, before their eyes. (1.2.121)

Here is Giovanni's characterization of the French. What does he mean when he accuses the French of trying to measure everything? Is his more than a nice turn of phrase, or is there some truth in it? Forget the French. What is Giovanni saying about himself and his interest in David?

"Tell me," he said, "what is this thing about time? Why is it better to be late than early? People are always saying, we must wait, we must wait. What are they waiting for?" (1.2.134)

Indirectly, what is Giovanni trying to communicate to David. Why do people wait to make decisions? In the story, when is waiting a good thing and when is it a bad thing? How do the characters decide when to wait and when to make instinctual decisions? Given his past, why might Giovanni be particularly opposed to waiting?

"Confusion is a luxury which only the very, very young can possibly afford, and you are not that young any more." (1.2.163)

Is there any truth in Jacques's aphorism? As the story goes on, does it seem that David is taking Jacques's advice or ignoring it?

I ordered black coffee and a cognac, a large one. Giovanni was far from me, drinking marc between an old man who looked like a receptacle of all the world's dirt and disease and a young boy, a redhead, who would look like that man one day, if one could read, in the dullness of his eye, anything so real as a future. (1.3.59)

Here, David is imagining the futures of some of the young boys in the Les Halles neighborhood. Why might he take such a fatalistic view of the boys' lives? What does David's fatalism say about him?

"Maybe everything bad that happens to you makes you weaker," said Giovanni, as though he had not heard me, "and so you can stand less and less." Then, looking up at me, "No. The worst thing happened to me long ago and my life has been awful since that day. You are not going to leave me, are you?" (2.3.23)

Giovanni, like David, has been running from something for a long time. How does the fact that they are trying to conceal something from themselves affect all of their actions? How does it constrain their behavior? If Giovanni's life is "awful" as is, why does he go on with it? What would be the alternative?

I turned and held him in my arms staring above his head at the wall, at the man and woman on the wall who walked together among roses. He was sobbing, it would have been said, as though his heart would break. But I felt that it was my heart which was broken. Something had broken in me to make me so cold and so perfectly still and far away. (2.5.195)

What does David mean when he says that his heart is broken? How is this different than the way that the expression is commonly used? What keeps David from sympathizing with and reaching out to Giovanni?