54 pages 1 hour read

James Baldwin

Giovanni's Room

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1956

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Summary and Study Guide


Giovanni’s Room, originally published in 1956, is a romantic tragedy written by author and activist James Baldwin. The book follows American protagonist David’s life and relationships in France during the 1950s. David tries to come to terms with his sexuality after falling in love with Giovanni, an Italian barman, but he also seeks the safety of his heterosexual relationship with another American expatriate, Hella. Due to the story’s depiction of diverse sexual orientations, the novel has been banned several times in America since its publication. This guide follows the first edition Vintage International trade paperback, published in 2013.

Plot Summary

The novel opens in the present-day of the 1950s in the South of France where the first-person narrator, David, drinks heavily to dull the pain of his recent losses. His fiancée, Hella, broke off their engagement to return to America, and his lover, Giovanni, is set to be executed in the morning for murdering his employer, Guillaume. From this frame narrative, David looks back at his youth in America and his recent years in France.

In Part 1, David recollects parts of his American childhood while living with his father and Aunt Ellen. David’s first sexual encounter with a boy, Joey, excites and frightens him deeply. His fears of persecution begin to outweigh his desires, and he aggressively pushes Joey away, rebelling with alcohol and women to keep his attraction a secret. David strains his relationships with his aunt and father, eventually moving out and away to France after a drunken accident and time in the army.

David’s account of France begins two years after his arrival. Without money or a place to stay, he meets with Jacques—an older gay man—and exploits his generosity. David follows Jacques to Guillaume’s gay bar where they meet the new barman, Giovanni. Jacques fails to attract the young Italian’s attention, but Giovanni and David form an instant connection. David worries about the intensity of his feelings, but he follows Giovanni to a new bar with Jacques and Guillaume. Jacques urges David to give in to his feelings, wanting his friend to enjoy what is left of his youth. David shares a meal with Giovanni, who tells him how he came to work for and endure Guillaume. The young men leave the bar for Giovanni’s small maid’s room where they become intimate.

In Part 2, David remembers the happiness of the relationship’s early days when he moved into the room, but he also reflects on the deep confusion surrounding his intense feelings for Giovanni. Giovanni brings David’s attraction to men into the light, and David finds it more difficult to hide his wandering eyes. David busies himself while Giovanni is at work, tidying up the dirty room and increasingly resenting his feminine role. He secretly writes to his father in America for money to move out of the room, his father refuses. David worries what Hella—his fiancée in Spain—will feel if she finds out about his and Giovanni’s relationship, and so becomes emotionally distant from Giovanni. Receiving a letter announcing Hella’s imminent return, David tries to reassert his attraction to women through a one-night stand with his acquaintance, Sue. However, David can only think of Giovanni and becomes even more frightened for his future.

Giovanni loses his job after Guillaume publicly accuses him of stealing, but he believes Guillaume fired him for refusing the older man’s sexual advances. David promises to stay with Giovanni, despite secretly planning to leave him for Hella. Giovanni starts renovating the room for David, but David wants to leave Paris altogether to avoid confrontation. When Hella returns, David silently leaves Giovanni to be with her and to solidify their marriage plans. The pair run into Jacques and Giovanni after three days. Hella is fascinated by Giovanni’s passionate worry for David, but David conceals the true depth of their relationship. David returns to the room to collect his things, which turns into an argument with Giovanni about David’s selfish lack of communication and love for anyone but himself.

Giovanni begins to spiral, not caring about living if he can’t be with David or return home to Italy. He becomes Jacques’s lover and eventually joins the other young men who do sex work for money. When Guillaume turns up dead, Giovanni is the primary suspect. David imagines Giovanni killed Guillaume after the man used him for sex, but the newspapers gloss over Guillaume’s connections to Paris’s queer community (which David once calls “le milieu,” slang for “the underworld”). After the courts sentence Giovanni to execution by beheading, David and Hella move to the South of France. Ridden with guilt and sadness for Giovanni, David’s relationship with Hella deteriorates. He has a brief affair with a sailor in Nice. Hella finds him at a gay bar and decides to leave for America, furious with David’s lies.

In the present, David imagines Giovanni in prison and prays for salvation. He leaves the southern rental house the morning of Giovanni’s execution, with the memory of his lover’s face burned in his memory.