Giovanni’s Room tells the story of a character struggling to fit simultaneously inside several contradictory identities, all of which fail to encompass the truth of his life. David is a straight man. David is also a gay man. David treats his multiple selves like characters to be played. He never reconciles the conflicts between these multiple selves, feeling that he has to choose one final self or jump back and forth between his disparate truths.
David is ostensibly a heterosexual man with a fiancé who he plans to eventually marry. He expresses constant conflict throughout the story about his future plans to marry Hella, even when he’s in bed with Giovanni. Marrying Hella is a sincere desire of David’s on one level. On another level, marrying Hella is fulfilling his father’s expectations for his life. There is also financial pressure for David to fulfill his heterosexual role; his father withholds support for him until he fulfills this part of his assigned identity.
David is also a gay man who has fallen in love with another gay man. It was almost love at first sight. There is no mistaking the deep connection between David and Giovanni. They shared passionate months together and even moved in together for most of the book. David describes the two of them walking through Paris at sunrise and expressing more wonder at one another than the surroundings. This is not a one-off relationship either, David has had many male and female sexual and romantic partners.
Because these conflicting ideas are never reconciled, David must bottle everything up until he loses control. He stumbles through life unable to take deliberate action precisely because he can not admit to the truth that many of his desires and experiences do not fit neatly into the categories he has given himself to choose between. Sociologists call this the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis; people see the world in terms of the language and ideas they have. If they don’t have words or ideas for something, then they are unable to perceive it. In David’s case, he has these two people he is trying to be at the same time. He is unaware of the possibility of reconciling these people into a single unified and honest self. If he lived in modern day San Francisco, there would be nothing strange at all about the desires and experiences he has. He might call it something like polyamory or free love, and go about his life happily and well-integrated.
In an article called “What is Sexual Orientation,” published in Hypatia, Robin Dembroff argues that neither of the two popular ideas about what sexual orientation is, holds up to scrutiny. The behavioral perspective tries to classify people based on what physical characteristics their partners have. The second framework depends on classifying people based on the conditions under which they experience attraction. I think this is a very concise rebuttal of the idea that either perspective could reasonably hold up in this story. If we classify David by his behavior, he is neither homosexual nor heterosexual. Likewise, there are little to no similarities in the way he experiences attraction to Giovanni and Hella.
In Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, the author argues that implicit in the idea of categorizing people by their sexual behaviors is the argument that there is some essential core truth behind these categories.
The prevailing assumption of the ontological integrity of the subject before the law might be understood as the contemporary trace of the state of nature hypothesis, that foundationalist fable constitutive of the juridical structures of classical liberalism. The performative invocation of a nonhistorical “before” becomes the foundational premise that guarantees a presocial ontology of persons who freely consent to be governed and, thereby, constitute the legitimacy of the social contract
In reality, we know from the work of Kinsey in the early twentieth century, just a few years after sexual orientation was invented by Hirschfeld, that almost no one fits into the categories of “homosexual” or “heterosexual.” The reality is much more complex and much less categorical. This work by Kinsey lends credence to the claim by Butler that if there is some essential truth of people, sexual orientation is not a reflection of that truth. Instead, people experience conflict in trying to limit their behavior to fit whatever category they are supposed to be. The categories are not a reflection of the person; the person rather chooses to attempt to become a reflection of the category.
From this perspective, Giovanni’s Room is a classic Hegalian Dialectic. We start with the thesis that David is heterosexual, then the antithesis that David is actually a homosexual, then we reach the synthesis that neither of these fits. Perhaps something greater and broader is the real truth? Could it be that — as many queer theorists have argued — these identities do not reflect any essential truth about people, and rather people try to live in a way which reflects their assigned or chosen identity? If the queer theorists are right, then David is really just a person trying to fit himself into a bunch of made up categories and ideas about how he should live. In a more honest world, there would be no conflict between loving Giovanni and loving Hella. In the words of Dossie Easton, author of The Ethical Slut, “There is enough of everything for everyone.” Imagine how much differently the story would have played out it everyone had been honest with one another. Maybe David would choose at some point to shift the primary locus of his attention from Giovanni to Hella. If everyone had been more honest about what they were doing, there would be no cause for conflict and murder and heartbreak and resentment. If these characters were armed with a broader sexual lexicon that acknowledged more than two non-overlapping categories of sexual orientation and identity, none of the conflicts in this story would have happened. Sexual orientation does not fall neatly into the separate categories or “homosexual” and “heterosexual” because these ideas do not reflect the truth about how people exist in the world. This point is illustrated wonderfully in Giovanni’s Room.