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Indy Study: Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

I have decided to experiment with a different form of writing for the next set of books I am examining. Instead of writing more general pieces, I am going to answer the same set of questions for each book after giving a brief synopsis. These questions were outlined in previous posts. I think these will then allow for a more insightful synthetic analysis of the works as a whole after I have read them all.

James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room is a tragic love story between two young men, one American and one Italian, living in Paris in mid-20th century (sidenote: I cannot believe no one is making this into a movie right now, given the success of Brokeback Mountain. The similarities between the stories are eerie). Giovanni's room serves as a metaphor for both the safe space where David and Giovanni can share their natural love for each other, as well as the severe claustrophobia that such a relationship represented at the time. The book critiques "traditional" American expectations of masculinity and femininity.

Does the focus on white characters make race more or less visible?
Race is essentially invisible in the novel. It is a sign of Baldwin's incredible skill as a writer in that, in a first-person novel, he was able to create a voice which naturalized whiteness to the point of invisibility. The only point in the book where David signals anything resembling whiteness and its inherent privilege is on the first page, "My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past" (7). Otherwise, particularly in his representation of "America," race is invisible. (Baldwin spoke of how the time he spent in Europe enabled him to escape many of the confines of race that he experienced in the U.S. His experiences in France likely contributed to his ability to make race invisible).

Are these books meant to be critical of their subject or are the lack of racial differences meant to allow the author to focus on other issues?
While there is definitely a critique of David, the book's narrator, within the book, the critique has nothing to do with his whiteness. Without a doubt, Baldwin's choice to set the novel in Paris allows him to focus on sexual politics as opposed to racial politics.

How does the fact that these works are written by black, rather than white, authors change my reading and understanding of the book?
I continually looked for a critique of a homogeneous conception of "American," but did not see it. Baldwin effectively naturalized race to deal primarily with sexuality. Being familiar with some of Baldwin's other work led me to highlight a couple passages whose psychological rationalities are very similar to Baldwin's appropriations of DuBois' concept of "double consciousness" in other works, particularly the "Autobiographical Notes," which opens Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin describes a type of double consciousness in his feeling for Giovanni, "there opened in me a hatred of Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished from the same roots" (111). He describes a similar paradoxical experience when being hailed as American: "I resented this: resented being called an American (and resented resenting it) because it seemed to make me nothing more than that, whatever that was; and I resented being called not an American because it seemed to make me nothing" (117).

How does writing at a time of drastic racial change effect how the author deals with issues in a homogeneously racialized world?

The book seems much more a product of Baldwin's expatriate experiences that it does a product of the majority of his life he spent in the United States.

Work Cited: Baldwin, James. Giovani's Room. New York: Dell Publishing, 1956.

Previous Independent Study Posts:

Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White Edited by David Roediger

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The Next Set of Books

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