Study Guide

Giovanni's Room Repression

By James Baldwin


I was ashamed. The very bed, in its sweet disorder, testified to vileness. I wondered what Joey's mother would say when she saw the sheets. Then I thought of my father, who had no one in the world but me, my mother having died when I was little. A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words. (1.1.19)

Notice, here, that David condemns himself. He begins spinning rumors about himself. What makes David do this? Is his guilt borne within himself or has it somehow been planted within him?

The incident with Joey had shaken me profoundly and its effect was to make me secretive and cruel. I could not discuss what had happened to me with anyone, I could not even admit it to myself; and, while I never thought about it, it remained, nevertheless, at the bottom of my mind, as still and as awful as a decomposing corpse. And it changed, it thickened, it soured the atmosphere of my mind. (1.1.51)

Why does guilt make David "secretive and cruel"? If he understood why he felt guilty is it possible that he would be more open about it? Does secrecy somehow prolong guilt and nourish it? David's narrative, the story we're reading, is a sort of confession. Do you think this sort of confession relieves guilt and allows for honesty?

And we got on quite well, really, for the vision I gave my father of my life was exactly the vision in which I myself most desperately needed to believe. (1.1.74)

What exactly is the image of himself that David gives to his father? In what ways does our public persona always conceal something about ourselves and leave it private? Is there any way to change the relationship between the public and the private self?

Perhaps everybody has a Garden of Eden, I don't know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or; it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare. (1.2.19)

In what sense does David speak of the "Garden of Eden" here? Is it the Biblical garden? Is it something that is real or only imagined? In what ways does the "Garden of Eden" relate to innocence? Is anyone ever really entirely innocent? Entirely experienced?

But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed. With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes. (1.3.138)

Why is everything in David screaming No? David hasn't once resisted the advances of Giovanni. How is it possible for him to deny the fact that he is attracted to Giovanni when all of his behavior confirms the opposite? Is there a right choice here? Should he listen to his body or his mind?

Giovanni liked to believe that he was hard-headed and that I was not and that he was teaching me the stony facts of life. It was very important for him to feel this: it was because he knew, unwillingly, at the very bottom of his heart, that I helplessly, at the very bottom of mine, resisted him with all my strength. (2.1.52)

Does Giovanni know that David is resisting him? Is it easy to tell, from David's behavior, that he is resisting Giovanni? What would happen if they put the resistance straight out on the table and discussed it? Is such a move even possible given the extent of David's repression?

"You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying little moralities. And you – you are immoral. You are, by far, the most immoral man I have met in my life." (2.4.202)

What does Giovanni mean by the "stink of love"? Is it only the fact that David is in a same-sex relationship that makes him think love is dirty? Is it possible that he would feel the same way in a heterosexual relationship? Does everyone have to acknowledge and come to terms with the "stink of love"?

"All this love you talk about – isn't it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the laborer and bring home the money and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through the door and lie with you at night and be your little girl." (2.4.209)

In their final fight, David has finally lashed back at Giovanni. As with Giovanni's accusations, David's say as much about himself as about Giovanni. What does David's outburst say about David? What does it say about Giovanni? What conditions would have to change for them to have an honest relationship? Are those conditions within their control or outside of it?

The body in the mirror forces me to turn and face it. And I look at my body, which is under sentence of death. It is lean, hard, and cold, the incarnation of a mystery. And I do not know what moves in this body, what this body is searching. It is trapped in my mirror as it is trapped in time and it hurries toward revelation. (2.5.145)

Is David's repression a physical act or a mental act? That is, does he seem to think that he is repressing something about his body or something about his mind? Does David feel comfortable in his body? Does he feel estranged from it? Why?