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U-High Midway

The Student News Site of University of Chicago Laboratory High School

U-High Midway

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Depicting queer desire, ‘Giovanni’s Room’ explores shame

Lila Coyne
“Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin expertly explores shame, purity, and queer desire as it recounts the love affair between two men in 1950s Paris. The novel serves as a cautionary tale, with its tragic ending revealed on the third page.

In the last conversation between two main characters, David holds Giovanni on their bed and tells him he is leaving. Giovanni begs him to stay. When he is rebuffed, he says to David, “You have never loved anyone. I am sure you never will! You love your purity.”

This scene is at the core of James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, “Giovanni’s Room.” Despite being published nearly 70 years ago, it remains a mainstay of queer literature for its exploration of the entanglement between desire, shame and purity, and is particularly relevant as Pride Month approaches.

“Giovanni’s Room” follows David, an American living in 1950s Paris, who falls in love with an Italian bartender, Giovanni, with whom he enters into an affair. The two are intensely attracted to each other, and while their relationship is initially a source of great joy to them, David’s shame catches up to him, and Giovanni’s life unravels in the wake of their romance.

“Giovanni’s Room” is a tragedy, one which, in classic style, declares its tragic ending from the first scene. On the third page of the novel, David reveals that Giovanni will soon be dead. He is set to be executed by guillotine for a crime unknown to the reader. 

This conceit of the novel creates a constant dread undercutting even its few hopeful moments. The knowledge of how this affair will end is never far from the reader’s mind. Yet, the true emotional intensity of the book lies in the small tragedies which unfold on every page.

While the writing flows swiftly and the prose is compelling, “Giovanni’s Room” is not an easy book. However, it is a necessary one. Baldwin’s great insight creates a tangible humanity in the characters. The reader will find their own guilt and desire on the page. “Giovanni’s Room” does what the best books do: it makes the particular universal. 

I’ve read the novel twice, both times in a single sitting. It is short, deeply impactful in its brevity. I have come away both times with a pit in my stomach, watching the violent demise of a relationship and feeling recognized by David’s inner turmoil. In Ancient Greek tragedies, characters often have fatal flaws. David’s fatal flaw is a combination of shame and the desire to be free of it, to be clean.

David’s inability to choose Giovanni over his own cleanliness creates the cautionary tale of the novel. “Giovanni’s Room” urges its reader to free themselves, if not from shame, then from the desire for purity. 

As said to David by another character, regarding Giovanni, “Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?” 

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About the Contributor
Lila Coyne
Lila Coyne, Reporter
Lila Coyne is a member of the Cass of 2027 and serves as a reporter. She began in the 2023-24 school year when she was in ninth grade. She is also a member of the Debate Team and the Renaissance Literary Board.

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