Giovanni’s Room Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1956

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social morality

Time of work: The late 1940’s

Locale: Brooklyn and New York, New York; southern France; and Paris

Characters DiscussedDavid

David, Giovanni’s Rooman American living in France. David is in his mid-to late twenties, and he is a selfish and self-deceiving man. The story is told through his recollections on the eve of the morning that Giovanni is to be executed for murder. As a boy, David had a mutually fulfilling sexual encounter with another boy, Joey, but felt ashamed and left early the next morning. He ignored Joey the rest of the summer. As a penniless young man living in Paris, he becomes involved with a woman, Hella Lincoln. He also becomes involved in another homosexual relationship, this time with Giovanni, an Italian bartender. David ends this relationship as cruelly as he did his first homosexual encounter, and he becomes engaged to Hella in an effort to deny his true sexuality. All of David’s actions ultimately become ruled by his homosexual desire or his desire to escape his homosexuality.

Giovanni

Giovanni, an Italian living in Paris. A passionate, good-looking homosexual whom David meets, Giovanni is attractive to–but is not attracted by–the men at the bar where he works. He is, however, attracted to David, whom he comes to love deeply. When David moves out on him, he searches frantically for him and is devastated to find that David has moved in with Hella and that he is denying that their relationship ever happened. Unemployed and broke, he becomes Jacques’s companion but leaves when Jacques stops giving him money. When he goes back to Guillaume’s bar to apply for his old job, Guillaume once again makes a pass at him, to which he submits. When Guillaume tells him afterward that he still cannot have his job back, Giovanni beats him in a fit of rage and kills him. Giovanni is arrested a week later. He pleads guilty to murder and is sentenced to death.

Hella Lincoln

Hella Lincoln, an American woman living in Paris who becomes David’s girlfriend. She is attractive but deeply concerned with trying to find her identity as a woman. She decides that the thing she most wants is to start a family. Although David and Hella’s relationship is fairly casual, Hella accepts David’s marriage proposal. Later, Hella feels used and enraged when David leaves her and she discovers him with another man. She leaves for the United States a few days later.

Jacques

Jacques, a wealthy American living in Paris. A middle-aged homosexual, Jacques is accustomed to buying sexual favors from young boys. He takes David out to the bar, where they meet Giovanni. While David is living with Giovanni, Jacques lends David money. After David leaves, Giovanni becomes Jacques’s companion and financially dependent on him, until Jacques stops giving him money.

David’s father

David’s father, a resident of Brooklyn, New York. After his first wife’s death, he reared David with the help of his sister, Ellen, though he did not get on well with her. He refuses to send David money until David promises to come home.

Guillaume

Guillaume, the owner of the bar at which Giovanni worked. Ugly and accustomed to having sex with young boys, Guillaume’s sexual harassment of Giovanni causes Giovanni to quit. He finally seduces Giovanni by hinting that he might get his job back but finally refuses to rehire him, causing Giovanni to kill him in a fit of violent rage.

Sue

Sue, a large, wealthy young American woman living in Paris. David, while trying to erase his memory of Giovanni, seduces her. She is largely aware of how he is using her.

Joey

Joey, a boy on Coney Island with whom David had a deeply and mutually fulfilling sexual encounter but ignored afterward.

BibliographyAdams, Stephen. “Giovanni’s Room: The Homosexual as Hero.” In James Baldwin: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Examines the novel in the context of Baldwin’s first four books, all of which reflect the troubled relationship between questions of personal identity and social survival. Suggests that Baldwin mourns the unrealized possibilities of homosexual love while celebrating its heroic and redeeming capacities.Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking, 1991. A good narrative biography, with detailed notes and bibliography.Fiedler, Leslie. “A Homosexual Dilemma.” In Critical Essays on James Baldwin, edited by Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. A critical response typical of some early reviews that found the novel a curiously melodramatic morality play. Still, Baldwin is seen as a religious writer who is to be congratulated for attempting a tragic theme, the loss of the last American innocence.Goldstein, Richard. “Go the Way Your Blood Beats.” In James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.Kenan, Randall. James Baldwin. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. James Baldwin. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. A part of the Twentieth Century Views series, this collection contains some important appraisals of Baldwin’s work and career by Langston Hughes, Eldridge Cleaver, and Sherley Anne Williams, among others.Macebuh, Stanley. James Baldwin: A Critical Study. New York: The Third Press, 1973. Claims the source of the novel is Baldwin’s religious imagination, not his psychosexual preoccupations. Macebuh asserts that the novel is less about homosexuality than it is about the implications of homosexuality in a world where the relationship between God and human beings is defined by terror.Porter, Horace A. Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989. Argues that the novel takes up Henry James’s theme of American innocence confronting European experience but explores new cultural territory, charting an alienation based not on class or race but on sexuality. Refutes the novel’s low critical standing, claiming it is significant in Baldwin’s literary development as well as in African American literature generally.Pratt, Louis H. James Baldwin. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Identifies four symmetrical episodes at the center of the novel that shape David’s struggle: David’s relationships with Joey and Giovanni, on the one hand, and his relationships with Sue and Hella on the other. From the first, he derives satisfaction and shame, from the second, acceptance and emptiness.Standley, Fred L., and Nancy V. Burt, eds. Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. A collection of contemporary reviews and essays covering Baldwin’s entire career.Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin. James Baldwin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. A study that examines in particular the links between Baldwin’s works and his life. Troupe, Quincy, ed. James Baldwin: The Legacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989. Equally divided between memoirs of the writer and discussions of his work. Includes a very useful bibliography.Weatherby, W. J. James Baldwin: Artist on Fire. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1989. An important biography written by one of Baldwin’s friends. Weatherby is, at times, too close to his subject to be objective.
Categories: Characters