Forbidden Love: The Shame and Desire in Giovanni’s Room

During a week full of chaos, both at Blake and throughout the country, reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was an intriguing escape. Not only are we transported to Paris in the 1950s, we are transported to a world that is not very accepting of LGBTQ+ people. Told from the perspective of David, a twenty-something American in Paris, we are submerged into the inner struggles of his romantic desires.

David’s love and attraction for Giovanni is faced with mid-twentieth century views of who love should be between — that being a man and a woman. David shares these same views as well, or at least wants to, desperately wishing that he could just fall in love with a woman and start a conventional family with her and have his “manhood unquestioned” (104). However, if he did this, he would know that part of him would always want to be with Giovanni. David thinks to himself after the demise of his relationship with him, “No matter how it seems now, I must confess: I loved him. I do not think that I will ever love anyone like that again” (112).

These Western romantic expectations are contradicted by two feelings: shame and desire. David tries to juggle these feelings by testing the waters. When David is loosely involved with Hella, he starts a relationship with Giovanni. When he is living with Giovanni, he sleeps with an American girl named Sue. He sleeps with Sue because he knows that Hella is coming back, and wants to see if he can be with a woman again after being with Giovanni.

While David is able to have sex with Sue, thinking to himself, “I relized that my performance with Sue was succeeding even too well” (100), he does not enjoy it. This goes beyond not being attracted to her, but not being emotionally connected with her. He realizes in this moment that he will probably feel the same way with Hella as well, thinking that “[Sue] increased [the terror], she made it more real than it had been before” (100). David knows that when Hella comes back, he will be able to have sex with her, but that he will always wish that it was with Giovanni instead — a thought that truly horrifys him.

While it may be easy to criticize David for not accepting the fact that he loves Giovanni and does not want to be with women anymore, we should understand that David is a product of his time — a time that was extremely unaccepting of people who identified as LGBTQ+. Something else to consider is that Giovanni’s Room is not a book that was written in the present but takes places in the past. Baldwin wrote the story in the 1950s and it takes place in the 1950s, which means that it is bound to have the prejudices of that time.

I’m curious to see where the rest of the story takes us, especially with the return of Hella looming near. Will David leave Giovanni for her, or will he accept his desires and stay with Giovanni for the time being? We know that the story doesn’t have a happily ever after, but I’m curious to see if David will deny the norms of the time and follow his heart instead.


“No Known Restrictions: Portrait of James Baldwin by Carl Van Vechten, 1955 (LOC)” by is marked with CC PDM 1.0

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