Giovanni’s Room Summary

James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room

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Giovanni’s Room Summary

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Giovanni’s Room is a novel written by James Baldwin in 1956. It is well known for bringing complex representations to the forefront of public conversation. These include both homosexuality and bisexuality, and were introduced to an audience that was primarily empathetic and artistic. This novel, among others, began the broader public discourse surrounding same-sex relationships and sexualities. The novel is divided into two parts. It flips back and forth between the present day, which is the night which precedes the day that Giovanni is set to be executed, and various flashbacks.

David is a young American man who is about the board a train from the South of France, back to Paris. He has just proposed to his girlfriend Hella, who had gone to Spain and is now returning to the United States. He is thinking about Giovanni, who is going to be guillotined the next morning.

David thinks back to the first homosexual experience he ever had. It was with a boy named Joey in Brooklyn. The two became bonded friends, and eventually had a sexual encounter during a sleepover. They kissed and had sex, but the next day, David feels conflicted. He leaves the sleepover, and from then on takes to bullying Joey to feel like more of a real man.

Now, David lives with his father and aunt, Ellen. David’s father drinks far too much, and Ellen never misses a chance to criticize him for setting a poor example for his son. David’s father is known to say that the only thing he wants in life is for David to become a real man. David soon develops a drinking problem as well, and gets in an accident while driving drunk. He convinces his father to let him skip college, then moves to France to find himself.

David spends a penniless year in Paris, then calls Jacques, a homosexual acquaintance of his, to ask for money. In present day, David and Jacques discuss Giovanni’s fate. They go to a gay bar, and meet the new bartender, Giovanni. David and Giovanni become friends. Jacques tells David not to be ashamed of love; they eat and drink together. Giovanni discusses his strange relationship with Guillaume, and later, David and Giovanni leave together to have sex.

In the present, David is told by a caretaker to get married, have children, and pray. He is moving out the next day, away from the South of France.

Part two begins with David moving in with Giovanni. They discuss Hella, and this conversation reveals typical Italian sexism. David reads a letter from his father, who wants him to return to America, but David doesn’t want to. David becomes convinced that others can “see” his gayness.

Hella sends words of her return, and David must separate from Giovanni. He wants to prove to himself that he isn’t gay, so he looks around for a woman to have sex with. He does so with Sue, but quickly doesn’t want to see her again. When he returns to Giovanni, he finds him hysterical, after being fired from Guillaume’s bar.

Hella arrives, and David leaves Giovanni alone without word for three days. He asks his father for money to help with the upcoming wedding. Hella dislikes Jacques’ mannerisms when they run into each other in a bookshop. David walks Hella back to the hotel, and then goes to Giovanni to talk. Giovanni is distressed, but David feels he can’t sacrifice his “manhood” to be with Giovanni. Giovanni and Jacques develop a relationship, and David becomes jealous and petty, criticizing Giovanni’s new fairy mannerisms.

Later, David encounters Yves. David is told that Giovanni and Jacques have split up, which means that he might be able to get his job back at Guillaume’s bar.

Suddenly the news breaks: Guillaume has been murdered, and Giovanni is being blamed in all of the newspapers. David thinks he knows exactly what happened. Giovanni must have asked for his job back, going so far as to offer his body in payment. They most likely had sex, but Guillaume made some excuse as to why he can’t hire Giovanni as a bartender anymore. Guillaume probably didn’t want to hire Giovanni because so much of his private life became public, and Giovanni likely killed Guillaume in a rage.

Giovanni tries to hide, but is quickly found by the police and sentenced to death for murder. Hella and David move away to the South of France. They discuss gender roles, and Hella explains her desire to live in a typical gender-conforming structure, beneath a man. David is fraught with guilt, and leaves Hella to go to Nice for a few days. He spends some time there with a sailor, and Hella discovers his homosexuality. She says she suspected it the whole time, and decides to leave for America. The book ends as David mulls over his imaginings of Giovanni’s execution and his feelings of guilt.