Study Guide

Giovanni's Room Visions of America

By James Baldwin

Visions of America

His smile made me feel a little foolish. "Well," I said, "Paris is old, is many centuries. You feel, in Paris, all the time gone by. That isn't what you feel in New York-" He was smiling. I stopped.

"What do you feel in New York?" he asked.

"Perhaps you feel," I told him, "all the time to come. There's such power there, everything is in such movement. You can't help wondering – I can't help wondering – what it will all be like – many years from now." (1.2.90-92)

What about Paris might make one feel "all the time gone by"? What in New York might make one feel "all the time to come"? How do David's characterizations of America and Europe all describe the difference between him and Giovanni?

" The ocean is very wide," I said. "We have led different lives than you, things have happened to us there which have never happened here. Surely you can understand that this would make us a different people?"

"Ah! If it had only made you a different people!" he laughed. "But it seems to have turned you into another species. You are not, are you, on another planet? For I suppose that would explain everything." (1.2.96-97)

Why do you think that David and Giovanni begin their conversation by talking about the differences between Europeans and Americans? How are they speaking indirectly to each other by describing their countries? Can you find any basis for Giovanni's prejudices against Americans?

"The Americans are funny. You have a funny sense of time – or perhaps you have no sense of time at all, I can't tell. Time always sounds like a parade chez vous – a triumphant parade, like armies with banners entering a town. As though, with enough time, and that would not need to be so very much for Americans, n'est-ce pas?" and he smiled, giving me a mocking look, but I said nothing. "Well then," he continued, "as though with enough time and all that fearful energy and virtue you people have, everything will be settled, solved, put in its place. And when I say everything," he added, grimly, "I mean all the serious, dreadful things, like pain and death and love, in which you Americans do not believe." (1.2.101)

What does Giovanni mean when he says that Americans do not believe in "pain and death and love"? Think ahead to his relationship with David. How do these words come to have a different meaning after their time together comes to an end? Do David's problems with "pain and death and love" have anything to do with his being an American?

I finished my drink. "You people dumped all this merde on us," I said, sullenly, "and now you say we're barbaric because we stink." (1.2.114)

For the record, merde means "crap," essentially Exactly what "merde" might David be referring to? Why does he become sullen while Giovanni is able to keep his good humor throughout the conversation?

I ached abruptly, intolerably, with a longing to go home; not to that hotel, in one of the alleys of Paris, where the concierge barred the way with my unpaid bill; but home, home across the ocean, to things and people I knew and understood; to those things, those places, those people which I would always helplessly, and in whatever bitterness of spirit, love above all else. (1.3.128)

David has these thoughts as he is approaching Les Halles with Giovanni, Guillaume, and Jacques. Why would he be longing to go home at this exact moment? To what extent does his understanding relate to the cultural difference between France and America?

"If your countrymen think that privacy is a crime, so much the worse for your country." (2.1.46)

What does Giovanni mean that Americans think "privacy is a crime"? Is this an accurate characterization of American policies toward gay people in the 1950s? Is something more going on than two men exercising their right to privacy? If so, what?

When Giovanni wanted me to know that he was displeased with me, he said I was a "vrai americain"; conversely, when delighted with me, he said that I was not an American at all; and on both occasions he was striking, deep in me, a nerve which did not throb in him. And I resented this: resented being called an American (and resented resenting it) because it seemed to make me nothing more than that, whatever that was, and I resented being called not an American because it seemed to make me nothing. (2.2.12)

Why does Giovanni constantly harp on the fact that David is an American? Why doesn't David lash back and refer to Giovanni's Italian roots in the same way? If David is not an American, then what is he?

"Yet I also suspected that what I was seeing was but a part of the truth and perhaps not even the most important part; beneath these faces, these clothes, accents, rudenesses, was power and sorrow, both unadmitted, unrealized, the power of inventors, the sorrow of the disconnected" (2.2.13).

After judging the Americans that he sees in Paris, David has this sympathetic moment of realization. To what extent is he describing the Americans that he sees and to what extent is he just describing himself? Why might he hit on the phrase "the power of inventors"? What does this have to do with the fact that they are Americans?

"He waves his hand. 'I said we would not fight any more. The Americans have no sense of doom, none whatever. They do not recognize doom when they see it.' He produced a bottle from beneath the sink" (2.4.218).

Think about American and European history over the last century, specifically the World Wars. What makes Giovanni say that, "Americans have no sense of doom whatever?" How might the fact that America is isolated from the rest of Europe affect Americans' sense of doom?

"'Americans should never come to Europe,' she said, and tried to laugh and began to cry, 'it means they never can be happy again. What's the good of an American who isn't happy? Happiness was all we had.' And she fell forward into my arms, into my arms for the last time, sobbing" (2.5.119).

Why does the fact that Americans believe in their right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" make Hella's statement particularly poignant? Do Americans value happiness more than people from other cultures? Is there anything that they value more? What role does happiness play in American culture?