Study Guide

Giovanni's Room Themes

  • Love

    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.

    Questions About Love

    1. What are some of the different types of love in the book? How does David's love for his father differ from his love for Giovanni, and how does his love for Giovanni differ from his love for Hella?
    2. Is Giovanni right that David doesn't love anyone? Is it possible to love others if you don't love yourself?
    3. What is the relationship between sex and love in the book? Do David's sexual interests follow his romantic ones, or is it the other way around?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    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.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. When does David seem at peace with his sexuality? When does he seem ashamed of it? When he is ashamed, why is he ashamed and how does this shame express itself?
    2. How does David's father express his sexuality? What effects might this have on David's way of thinking about his own sexuality?
    3. Consider the communities that David is a part of in Paris. How are these communities shaped by certain ideas about sexuality and sexual desire?
    4. How are Hella's ideas about femininity shaped by David's own confused sexual identity?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Men and Masculinity

    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.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. How does David's relationship with father shape his ideas about masculinity? Is the influence of his father for good or for ill?
    2. What role does sexual desire play in notions of masculinity? If David admitted that he was gay, what would that mean for his understanding of his own masculinity?
    3. Why does David seem to fear and be opposed to male candor? How does male candor differ from male love?

    Chew on This

    David hopes to marry Hella because he believes that would confirm his masculinity; to David, being a man involves loving and desiring women.

  • Repression

    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.

    Questions About Repression

    1. What is Giovanni repressing? How does this affect and shape his behavior in the book?
    2. When does David's repression begin? What is he repressing? Does it change throughout the novel?
    3. Does the fact that David is lying to himself make his lies to other people any more forgivable?
    4. After Guillaume is murdered, why do you think that the French government is so eager to find a culprit. What might they be hiding from themselves?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Isolation

    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.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. How is David isolated not only from others but also from himself? What does it mean to be isolated from oneself?
    2. What role does David's sexuality play in his isolation from other people?
    3. Does David seem sensitive to other people's loneliness? When does he recognize it? What leads him to recognize it? Does he do anything about it?
    4. In what ways is Hella isolated throughout the novel? How does she deal with her isolation and attempt to overcome it? Is this different from the way that the male characters deal with it?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Choices

    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.

    Questions About Choices

    1. How free are the characters in Giovanni's Room? What factors constrain and control their behavior? Why does David think that freedom is unbearable?
    2. How does David explain the moments where decisions actually get made? Does he believe that it is possible to pinpoint where one makes a decision?
    3. What is the relationship between choice and humility in the novel? Does it seem accurate or does David seem to be portraying the relationship in a certain way for his own ends?
    4. What is the basic choice that David has to make, the one that underlies all others?
    5. What choice does David want to be able to make despite the fact that such a choice is impossible?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Visions of America

    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.)

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. Why does Giovanni constantly pick on David for being an American? What role does the short nature of American history play in Giovanni's prejudices against Americans?
    2. How do David and Giovanni use discussions of their respective nationalities to flirt with one another? Why do you think that they choose nationalism as the subject through which they will flirt?
    3. How important is American policy toward gay individuals in shaping David's view of America? Is Giovanni's characterization – that Americans think privacy is a crime – an accurate one?
    4. How does David and Hella's pursuit of happiness relate to the fact that they are Americans?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Memory and the Past

    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.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What is the relationship between memory and repression in the novel?
    2. How would you characterize David's "garden of Eden" (1.2.17)? Did he ever really have one? If he never really had one, why might it still seem like he did?
    3. When does time seem to move most quickly in David's memory? When does it move most slowly? Can you tell why the passage of time speeds up and slows down in his mind?
    4. What is the relationship between Giovanni's room and David's memories of Giovanni? What role do places in general play in David's memory? What about rooms in particular?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Passivity

    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.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. What are Giovanni and David trying to hide with their cynicism and their sense of fatalism?
    2. Is David's re-telling of events from his house in the south of France another case of passivity? Or is David trying to change something by telling the story to himself, to take an active role in the tragedy that is his life?
    3. What is the relationship between passivity and emotion? Is passivity just a failure to act or is it related to certain emotional states that make it impossible to act?
    4. How is Giovanni's constant need to move forward itself a form of passivity? What is the role of inertia in the story?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Guilt and Blame

    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.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. When does David first begin to feel guilty and why?
    2. What is the relationship between guilt and responsibility in the novel? Who is responsible for the tragedy? Who feels guilty?
    3. After Giovanni is convicted, to what extent is David's guilt real and justified, and to what extent is it sentimental and imagined?
    4. What is the relationship between guilt and blame? How does David's guilt relate to the media's need to find a scapegoat for Guillaume's murder? How does David make himself a scapegoat and why?

    Chew on This

    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.