When people think of the idea of a room in literature, the first thought that we have is of Virginia Woolf’s “Room of one’s own”. In this work the room became a symbol of freedom through economic independence, however, in the hands of James Baldwin the room gets transformed into a claustrophobic metaphor for restrictions that are imposed on us and even more significantly those we impose on ourselves.
In Baldwin’s best known work “Giovanni’s Room” we get a short yet devastatingly visceral depiction of relationships in the modern age particularly homosexual relationships and the stigma that surrounds them.
David an American living in Paris when he has a run-in with an Italian bartender Giovanni through a mutual acquaintance. David’s lifelong repression of his homosexuality is tested through this as they quickly fall into a physical relationship but when David’s girlfriend comes back from her trip to Spain, he falls back into old habits to escape the scorn of society.
The novel navigates masculinity and tries to express the damage that societal perceptions of femininity are damaging to men and women both through the dark and desolate prose that carries with it the constant air of tragedy. There is not a moment in the novel where the reader is at a doubt as to the inevitability of all of the characters having unhappy lives because of the way that society wants them to act.
The characters from David to Giovanni and Hella all seem to fight against the ties that bind them but soon find that the struggle is never-ending and that they would rather have the safety of societal acceptance.
The picture that the novel paints is a bleak one and it is in this bleakness that lies its greatest strengths and weakness. Baldwin deftly crafts the mood and conveys to the reader a profound sense of hopelessness however through the same device makes homosexuality in almost demonic. The flamboyant sexual predator that is Guillaume is a key example of this.
In creating the atmosphere that Baldwin desires, he also portrays homosexuality as almost a mental disability by making those who are homosexual, violent and callous. While it could be argued that this is again a statement on the internalization of the struggle that LGBT people have with society it none the less promotes the image of gay men as deviants.
While the novel is not free of fault it is without a doubt a powerful novella and one that traps the reader in its space. I wouldn’t really recommend this book to anyone looking for a pleasant read because it isn’t going to be that. In spite of its short length, Baldwin’s writing manages to stretch the events in a way that you feel every passing second and the dreariness that it entails but if you’re looking for a reflection of what it means to be an outsider in your own life then this is the book for you.