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The theme of individual responsibility as it is presented in Giovanni’s Room

Updated: Jan 6

This article looks at how the theme of individual responsibility presented in Giovanni's Room. The focus will be to show how the form of the novel impacts the development of the individual responsibility's theme. To doing so, it is important to show that Giovanni's Room is a novel with multiple themes and the theme of individual responsibility can deeply be understand through understanding other themes in the story. In addition it will be shown that how the above-mentioned theme is woven all the way through the story, through the characters' actions, interaction and motivation, and how the author is trying to convey it through the characters and events of the story. This essay will show some evidence and digging in to the patterns to build the bridge between the evidence that will lay out the interpretation.

To go further with the theme of Individual Responsibility in this essay, one should first understand the meaning of Individuality and responsibility. Based on Merriam-Webster dictionary individuality defines as: "total character peculiar to and distinguishing an individual from others". And, Responsibility defines as: "a duty or task that you are required or expected to do or something that you should do because it is morally right, legally required". Some of the main things which make individual distinguished from others are their gender, sexuality or their sexual orientation, ethnicity, and social class. In this short novel by James Baldwin, he explores deeply to show how it is to an individual to be struggling with sexuality, nationality and social class. In one hand we can see the differences between characters like David, Giovanni, Hella, Jacques, Guillaume and others in term of their gender, their sexual desire or sexual orientation, and in other hand reader can perceive the societies' expectation of them based on their of their individuality. In other words the reader can comprehend the relationship and entanglement between responsibility and individuality.

From the very beginning of the novel, before reader begins to read the book, the title "Giovanni's Room", could indicate as a metaphor for coming out of the closet and as the reader begin to read the novel, the reader can see the struggle and difficulty of coming out of the closet or coming out of the room and how everyday expectations surpass greatly one's deep desire. The novel's protagonists, David and Giovanni are immigrants (non-French), homosexual and from lower or middle class.

In this short novel, the writer did a great job with mix up the individuality and all its aspects with sexuality, race, and desire and societies expectation. The individual's identity is based on all over mentioned aspects. The novel begins by anticipating Giovanni's execution and then through a flashback recounts the events that lead to the execution. . The novel begins at the end and through the rest of the novel we can know how the story unfolds. The novel focus on the social-psychological pressures that characters face in order to fit into the societies expectation. One of the social-psychological pressures that characters like Giovanni, David and Guillaume faced was homophobia; an unreasonable fear which society had against homosexuality made it very difficult for all of these characters but for Giovanni the degree of difficulty was higher. David as an individual who could fit the socialites' expectation had opportunity to free himself from the stigma and pressure that society puts on his shoulder and save him from drowning. David's decision to leave Giovanni and marry with Hella, shows the struggle he faced to make this decision and shows how societies expectation made him irresponsible toward Giovanni. If the writer of this story wants to convey the message that the human selfhood, independency of social and familial constrains is important, the reader realizes that David has been incapable of doing this and has failed to accomplish this important task. Thus his failure to face his true individuality makes him to fail to face his responsibility to Giovanni, to Hella and to himself as well and makes not only himself unhappy but also destroy the life and happiness of Giovanni and Hella.

Another main point which can be analyzed is contradiction between desire and individual responsibility. On one hand Davids sexual desire in in contradiction with societies' expectation or the responsibility he has toward the society, and in other hand his sexual desire is in contrast with his responsibility toward his best friend or his love of life Giovanni. This is an extremely complex problem which he faces in the novel moment by moment.

As we can read from the novel David is the first-person narrator of the novel. The first word of the first line of the novel begins with the word "I", which immediately tells us that this novel is written from a first person narrative perspective. The narrator is a blonde American who moves to Paris; Here we can interpret another point. Even though the writer is black and his previous works was related to black people we can see that there is no black character in this novel. Even though in this book there are no black characters at all, but this can be interpreted with this fact that in 1950s when this book was written people were outraged already about the facts as homosexuality. The writer who considered as back or "Negro" writers they expected to write about "Negro"s. The writer was already marked by his race. But the writer wanted to point out the important social issues not based on the marks he had as a black writer but just as a writer. Thus the writer, from the first-person narrator; a blonde American tells a story about homosexuality and homophobia and individual responsibility. The narrator has a sensuous relationship with Giovanni in his girlfriend Hella's absence. Hella meets David in France and then goes to Spain to contemplate David's marriage proposal. She returns to David and accept his proposal but abandons him when she discovers his homosexuality. Here David cannot meet Hellas expectation and in the same time cannot fill his responsibility toward Hella.

On the other hand we read that Giovanni; the poor Italian bartender falls in love with David, but David leave him when her fiancé turn back to him. Giovanni shattered when David leaves him for Hella. He falls into the trap of depression and unpleasant events. And finally he faces execution for murdering his ex-employer Guillame, In this part we see how David's irresponsibility toward Giovanna destroys his life totally. In David's narrative about his memories in past we can see the same irresponsibility he had toward Joey; a boy from Brooklyn with whom David had his first homosexual experience. One can interpret David's individual irresponsibility related to his relation with his father and his father's role in his upbringing. The father cannot ot bear to acknowledge that they are not close and feels guilty he may have failed to raise his son.

The most individual responsibility one can have is regarding self. One must have responsible to him/herself. But David fails to show responsibility toward himself as well. David can interpret as a self-estrangement who seems to be unable to love himself or anyone. The novel shows David's desire for men and in the same time his internalized homophobia. It is not just the people around him who are homophobic. David internalized homophobic deeply. He is constantly threatened by the loss of masculinity. Thus he tries to deny his true desire. David is unable to confront himself. He cannot face his sexuality. Thus he will never be able fully love anyone because of this simple reason that he hasn't fully accepted himself. He is facing the lack of self knowledge and intimacy with others, whether it be Hella or Giovanni. There is lot of love and loss in this novel, but most we experience the loss and disability to love. David is a gay man and in the same time he hates his own homosexuality or hides it. He is ashamed of his individuality. He lacks intimacy. As Morten Haugerud Says:

"With so much potential resistance to intimacy, one interesting way to view this novel in its totality is actually as an act of intimacy, of opening up and of reaching out. Precisely because David was not able to allow himself to be intimate with Giovanni, and rather let his shame lead the way, the act of narrating this story becomes in and of itself a testimony to what happens when you internalize other people’s expectations of you and feel ashamed when you realize that your truest, deepest nature goes against these very expectations. In this way, Giovanni’s Room becomes an act of forgiveness, a prayer and a confession. When Hella towards the end says: “‘But Little boys – ! . . . I’ll never again, as long as I live, know what they want. And now I know they’ll never tell me. I don’t think they know how’” (165), she is also pointing towards the fact that in such a society, with limited possibilities for self-expression for men, then as perhaps now, there is not a language available for them to fully express their emotions. In such a way, this book is also an attempt a giving a voice to these little boys." (Morten Haugerud, page 51)

Giovannis room makes points that what constitute individuality, identity, responsibility and love or loss. In this short novel, the writer did a great job with mix up the individuality and all its aspects with sexuality, race, and desire and societies expectation. The novel reminds us to think deeply about the question that who we are as an individual. Are we defined by our nationality, gender, sexuality, ethnicity or culture? Giovanni's room seems to suggest that we are not individuals with just one identity or individuality only. We are created by several social- cultural forces such as nationality, gender, social class, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, and all of these forces took gather together to constitute one's identity, individuality and responsibility. Then it leads us to ask who the other is and what is their individuality or responsibility? Can we say other is everything that we are not? No. If we look at other people we can see that we have more in common with them than we admit. This novel requires us to think about what is the construction of self as an individual and construction of others as individuals as well. What is our responsibility toward self or toward others? The novel suggests how we accept the notion of ourselves and our individuality. Are we ashamed of our individuality or not. Is the shame come from the society’s norms and morality? Is the shame thrust about us from the society or from our inner values? How we take away the shame and take our responsibility both to others and to self.


Haugerud, Morten. "Quelle Honte: The Anatomy of Shame in James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room." MA thesis, University of Oslo, 2019. (Links to an external site.).

Merriam-Webster dictionary

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