Giovanni’s Room is a tragic classic gay literary novel written in 1956 and is quite a courageous novel for its time. The story takes place in Paris in the 1950s and follows an American man named David, who is desperately trying to suppress his sexuality and deal with his internalized homophobia.
He has a fiancé named Hella, who is off traveling in Spain. While in Paris, David begins a love affair with a handsome and passionate Italian bartender named Giovanni. He ends living with him in “Giovanni’s room,” leading to a catastrophic turn of events, mainly due to David’s inability to acknowledge or accept his true feelings for Giovanni.
David, the narrator of the story, is an extremely unlikeable character: he’s selfish, dishonest, cruel, extremely judgmental, self-loathing, self-deprecating, and feels next to nothing when he hurts those who love him. He hates himself and seems to hate anyone who cares for him, and though he claims to be happy at times, there is a shadow hanging over him, a claustrophobic feeling of despair. Yet, you can’t help but relate to him on some level, especially the shame and regret he experiences.
So what we have is a broken and complex young man struggling with his sexuality and the love triangle which he has created, creating a sort of self-made prison. Though David is mostly an unlikeable protagonist, your heart still breaks for him because of his deep self-loathing and shame, which seem to crush him and both of which, unfortunately, win out in this story leading to pain and loneliness, and terrible tragedy.
Yes, it is a grim, draining, and heart-wrenching story. Still, there are so many compelling messages and metaphors within the pages, all expressed in Baldwin’s beautiful and mesmerizing prose, almost like music. The incisive writing itself swept me away. Though it’s a short novel — coming in at only around 150 pages — it is as hauntingly beautiful as it is evocative and packs an all-mighty emotional punch in such a short span of pages.
Giovanni’s Room is an honest exploration of identity and sexuality and perhaps a reminder that love needs to be open, free, and without shame. This story was a clear example of how, when love has shame and guilt at its core, that love can quickly turn to hatred.