The tragedy of Giovanni's Room is inseparable from the fact that it is a love story. The characters in the novel cannot choose whom they love (it just happens), and the result is that they often experience love as a burden. They feel helpless before their love, and thus the people that they love also make them feel helpless. Romantic love gets stirred up with indifference and hatred and jealousy. Let's just say it's not your typical love story. No one lives happily ever after, nor is it clear that all characters want to do so.
Love is a burden for David because it is inseparable from sexual desire. David cannot choose who he is sexually attracted to, so he cannot choose who he loves.
David brings his desire for distance from his father to his relationship with Giovanni. He imagines love as being inseparable from a degree of "merciful distance," and it is Giovanni's failure to recognize this distance that forces David to leave.
Perhaps the main conflict in Giovanni's Room is that David wants to love women, but he's sexually attracted him to men. He attempts to have it both ways but, in this case, love follows desire, and he eventually has to admit that his feelings for his fiancée, Hella, are empty and unromantic. Giovanni's Room is known for its frank portrayal of same-sex love. Much of that frankness lies in revealing the complexities within male love, which portray it as not so different from a heterosexual relationship.
David's memories of his father's carousing behavior suggest that, from an early age, he thought of sexual desire as a necessary evil, a weakness opposed to real love and serious relationships.
David has a lot of ideas about what it means to be a man. He articulates some of them, and he leaves others implicit. His relationship with his father early on in the book begins to shape his ideas in ways that he does not even realize. One of David's problems in Giovanni's Room is that his idea of manhood is not flexible enough to adapt to his changing circumstances, specifically his romantic relationship with Giovanni.
David hopes to marry Hella because he believes that would confirm his masculinity; to David, being a man involves loving and desiring women.
On one level, what David is repressing is almost immediately apparent to the reader; he won't admit that he's gay. As one reads Giovanni's Room, it's remarkable how, when speaking about events, David can seem to be totally honest and direct. Yet when David speaks about David, he suddenly becomes evasive and short-spoken, a real master of self-deception. Over the course of the novel, we begin to wonder if David will ever be able to be honest with himself again.
David acts superior to the people he is romantically involved with because he wants to hide the fact that he feels unworthy of their love and affection.
Most of the main characters in Giovanni's Room are terrified of being alone. They are constantly rushing into one another's arms, looking for company. Yet, the desperate nature of their relationships tends to only increase their loneliness, and it is difficult for any of them to find a way out. What becomes clear as the novel goes on is that lies and deception lead to isolation, and that only honesty can bind people together.
The fact that David and Giovanni try to hide their loneliness from one another means that they cannot have an honest connection, and the result is that their loneliness only increases.
Though David seems to be afraid of being alone, he often appears most isolated when he is involved with other people.
Throughout Giovanni's Room, David tends to avoid making decisions. He is smart enough to realize, however, that not making a decision is just another way of making one. The problem is that he seems to always think that he has two false options, and that it doesn't matter which one he chooses. David would like to be able to choose who he is attracted to (he wishes he were attracted to women) and why, but he cannot and the result is that he regards his choices as insubstantial and unimportant.
David always uses the same metric to make decisions: he chooses the path of least resistance. In this sense, he never actually decides to leave Giovanni, he simply realizes that, for the time being, it would be easier to promise to marry Hella.
A very small part of Giovanni's Room takes place in America. Early on, David leaves America for France, simultaneously searching for himself and attempting to lose himself. In France, America begins to exist less as a place and more as an idea. David and Giovanni use contrasts between America and Europe to discuss their own differences and difficulties. When David and Hella begin to have problems, they often relate these problems to the fact that they are Americans. The visions of America in Giovanni's Room don't aim for accurate generalizations. They are deeply personal. (See "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" for more on America.)
Giovanni uses the fact that David is an American to pinpoint the key difference between him and David – Giovanni has a long and painful past whereas David is young, optimistic, and naïve.
David is put in an impossible position, given the nature of his desires and the conflicts within American cultural ideas – he is encouraged to pursue happiness, but same-sex love is not approved of in 1950s America.
Giovanni's Room is a book of memories. The narrative itself is simply David remembering the long confused series of experiences that constitute his life. Yet how he remembers things is very telling. What is clear is that he is trying to gain something from looking back over his life. David, in his remorse, feels that he is a prisoner of the past, and hopes that, by telling it to himself in the right way, he can free himself and go forward into the future.
Ever since his mother died, David has come to associate memories with death. The association leads him to view the act of remembering as fatalistic and intertwined with his own grief.
David remembers himself as being innocent, though there is no evidence in the story to suggest that he ever was. In his memory, then, his story is a fall from a state of innocence that never existed.
As David tells the story, it is sometimes hard to tell where the key moments of change were in his relationship with Giovanni. At many of the most obvious points – when the two of them first sleep together, when David agrees to marry Hella, when he goes to leave Giovanni – he claims that he had little or no control over his actions; things just happened, and there was nothing that he could do about it. Such a claim is very suspicious, and we have to read between the lines to try to discern when David's fatalism is valid and when it is just melodrama.
Giovanni's need to rush into relationships and to be in a constant state of activity is his own twist on passivity; he wants to ignore the fact that what he needs to do is reconcile himself to what happened to his child.
Though David claims to feel responsible for Giovanni's death, he selectively portrays events to make it seem as if he had no control over what happened; at the moments where he was passive, he claims that it was impossible for him to act.
Giovanni's Room is told in the past tense. A few pages in we already know how the story ends, and the novel is pervaded by the knowledge that it is too late to do anything. David, even by recounting events, is punishing himself, retracing his role in Giovanni's tragedy. The entire narrative is entwined with his guilt, and throughout David is trying to understand exactly why he feels guilty and whether or not there is a way out.
David's guilt originates in the fact that he feels unworthy of the love of other people. Yet, because he cannot admit this to himself, his guilt is a feeling without a cause; it casts about for false ways to justify itself.
David feels guilty because he wants to feel responsible. His guilt becomes most intense when there is nothing that he can do, and it's a way of attempting to gain power in a situation where he feels helpless.