Word Choice in Giovanni’s Room

         In Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin often uses very specific words and turns of phrase in order to make points about the content of the book within the structure of the writing itself.  A representative example of this is the paragraph that we turned to in class on page 39 where Baldwin uses the ungendered pronoun ‘it’ to describe a man for half of a page, and then reveals its gender in the final line of the paragraph: “He wore buckles on his shoes” (39).  The fact that Baldwin waits so long before bringing gender into the mix indicates to me that he wishes to portray gender as an afterthought — to make the statement that gender does not matter that much.  This ties in to the larger themes of the novel because it implies that gender does not matter in the question of love, which further implies that homosexual love is something that is perfectly fine. 

            Baldwin uses nouns and pronouns several times throughout the novel to make semantic subtle points.  In the middle of the novel, David says, “But I am not a housewife – men can never be housewives” (88).  A ‘housewife’ is defined by the OED as “a (typically married) woman whose main occupation is managing the general running of a household…” (OED).  Since the dictionary defines a housewife as a woman, Baldwin is technically correct — men can never be housewives by a function of the fact that they are men, and that goes against the definition.  However, I don’t think that Baldwin would write something in his novel just to make a point about a definition.  Therefore, I think that Baldwin means to make an implication about gender stereotyping here.  In saying that men can never be housewives, it is as if he is saying something like ‘men can never wear dresses’ — in that, I think he implies something much more related to the cultural connotations and expectations of gender, as opposed to the definition of a word.  Because it is the narrative voice of the novel, David, who provides the housewife assertion, as opposed to the direct author himself, we can infer a bit of subversiveness at Baldwin’s hand.  Baldwin challenges the reader not to take David’s assertion at face value, which brings up a more nuanced dialogue about gender roles and stereotypes.

            The final section I want to focus on is when David is thinking about Giovanni’s life in prison, on page 113.  This is a page with a lot of word repetition, but the word that is repeated the most is “wonder;” nearly every sentence in the paragraph begins with ‘I wonder.’  David says, “I wonder about the size of Giovanni’s cell.  I wonder if it is bigger than his room…I wonder if he is alone or with two or three others,” and the sentences continue like that for the rest of the page (113).  This repetition of the word seems to extend beyond the usual uncertainty that would be associated with the thoughts that run through one’s head when his lover is in jail.  Whether intentional or not, Baldwin’s repeated use of the word wonder extended in my mind beyond the situation and more into the implications of what it meant for David to be in a semi-clandestine homosexual relationship.  The uncertainty implied by the word ‘wonder’ seems representative of the uncertainty that is felt through most of the novel in the relationship between the two men.  The relationship is not something that is done out in the open, or confidently, or with absolute resolve — instead, it is something that happens mostly in Giovanni’s room.  Here, ‘wonder’ is a word that leads me to the same sense of ambiguity that is epitomized in the relationship.  Whether that is intentional on Baldwin’s part we will never know, but I think that his word choice has certainly led me there. [648]

– W


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