James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room participates in a cross-racial call and response with Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, illuminating both shared cultural influences and differences of race and sexuality. David’s struggle between the social force of compulsory heterosexuality and the personal force of individual desire plays out on a broader structural level as Baldwin’s gay plot is drawn toward the magnetically forceful heterosexual love triangle in Hemingway’s tale. Hemingway and Baldwin address gender normativity and sexual inadequacy from a particular American perspective that must grapple with an unattainable vision of the normal and with the crippling American myth of self-determination.

In the wake of a world war, an American-born author moved to Paris to join a flourishing literary community and five years later published a novel about a community of expatriates living in Paris and traveling in Spain. The narrator-protagonist is an American man suffering from sexual issues; after excessive drinking in cafes and some painful romantic encounters, he attempts to accept his life as it is. This is a description both of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), and, as I hope to show, pairing the texts helps illuminate the latter text’s ambivalent but revealing relationship with the former.1 At the heart of that relationship is how Giovanni’s Room amplifies a central concern of The Sun Also Rises: the cultural compulsion to pursue an American ideal—white, straight, potent, and self-possessed—that is both impossible to ignore and impossible to meet.

Connecting Baldwin to Hemingway might well seem like an unlikely move. In one account of his own influences, Baldwin insists, “My models—my private models—are not Hemingway, not Faulkner, not Dos Passos, or indeed any American writer. I model myself on jazz musicians, dancers, a couple of whores and a few junkies” (quoted in Pratt 1978, 17–18). And biographical differences make this an unlikely critical pairing anyway. As D. Quentin Miller remarks, “Baldwin and Hemingway had markedly differing life stories: one black, urban, poor, and overtly bisexual, the other white, most comfortable in rural settings, relatively well off, and overtly heterosexual” (2012, 120). More broadly, Gary Edward Holcomb and Charles Scruggs (2012) argue that claiming Hemingway as a major influence for African American writers clashes with much of contemporary African American literary studies. In “Hemingway and the Black Renaissance,” building on arguments by Houston Baker (1987) and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1988), they consider whether “black literary modernism developed independently from a majority modernism (or modernisms)” (Holcomb and Scruggs 2012, 6–7) and “black literary arts issue from an ancestry different from that of western, textually oriented writing” (7). In this view, the African American literary tradition operates primarily through a closed system of call and response.2

At the same time, in the 1930s and 1940s it would have been very difficult not to have been influenced by Hemingway; “He, even more than Faulkner and Fitzgerald,” Scruggs writes, “was considered the greatest living writer of prose fiction” (2012, 55). Hemingway’s influence on Baldwin in particular is apparent, as in some of Baldwin’s titles (such as Another Country and “The New Lost Generation”) and at the end of “Autobiographical Notes”: “I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done” (Baldwin [1955] 1984, 9). Indeed, in a statement to his agent Baldwin explicitly connects the two novels: “There was also something in [Giovanni’s Room] of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises though his own generation wasn’t even so well defined as to be considered ‘lost,’ and he also wanted his texture more dense, his pain more awful, his resolution less despairing” (quoted in Weatherby 1989, 122). Baldwin was particularly drawn to his predecessor’s view of pain. In a 1962 essay, “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” Baldwin suggests that the greatness of previous American writers lies in “the American way of looking on the world, as a place to be corrected, and in which innocence is inexplicably lost,” a condition that causes the “almost inexpressible pain which lends such force to some of the early Hemingway stories—including ‘The Killers’ and to the marvelous fishing sequence in The Sun Also Rises” (2010, 30). So detached from the African American literary tradition, Hemingway thus nevertheless loomed large in Baldwin’s literary landscape, because of the particularly American manner in which his work represents the agony of believing that the world can somehow “be corrected” through a force of will. Giovanni’s Room explores the folly of this faith by animating it to an extreme degree.

Building on the work of Baker and Gates, African American literary scholarship has begun to trace Hemingway’s impact on black writers like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Claude McKay, Baldwin, and others, offering a terminology to describe the complexities of cross-racial literary influence. Ed Pavlić (2000), for example, traces Baldwin’s relationship to another inescapable white literary predecessor. Building especially on Gates’s argument in The Signifying Monkey, Pavlić argues that while Gates’s term “unmotivated Signifying” is often used to describe respectful repetitions within the African American literary tradition, “motivated Signifying” often denotes an “oppositional and parodic” mode of cross-racial repetitions (2000, 516).3 Pavlić offers “syndetic homage” as a third mode allowing for “cross-racial resonances which do not deny racial dissonance but move beyond ‘profound difference’ and generate at least the beginning of a call and response discussion in the place where racial and cultural traditions meet” (517). For Hemingway and Baldwin, racial and cultural traditions meet around questions of gender identification and sexual orientation.

It is easy to imagine Hemingway inspiring motivated Signification. The Sun Also Rises presents reductive images of blackness, like the drummer at Zelli’s whom Jake describes as “all teeth and lips” (Hemingway 1926 [2006], 69)4 and whose singing and shouting Hemingway suppresses with ellipses. In the next scene, Bill Gorton describes a Vienna prize fight in which an “awful noble looking nigger” (77) defeated a white boy, inciting race violence. Though the victor is a dignified character, Bill’s storytelling abstracts him into a racial signifier by using the word “nigger” sixteen times in the space of one page. It would come as little surprise if texts in the African American literary tradition reacted with oppositional parody. Toni Morrison writes in Playing in the Dark that Hemingway is useful to her project because of how absolutely removed he and his texts are from the African American experience or literary tradition; he “has no need, desire, or awareness of them either as readers of his work or as people existing anywhere other than in his imaginative (and imaginatively lived) world” (1992, 69). And yet, Giovanni’s Room, with its utter absence of blackness, might appear to outdo Hemingway’s detachment. Michel Fabre suggests Baldwin’s expatriation to Paris allowed him to differentiate between his identity as a black man and as an American, and that in Giovanni’s Room Baldwin separates these parts of himself into two characters, for “it is easy to translate Giovanni’s image into a symbol of the Negro, thus making of David the puritan face of Baldwin himself as an American” (1991, 205). For Jean Méral, “James Baldwin chooses to make all his characters white, in order to remove any possible racial interference” (1989, 223) with the story’s treatment of homosexuality. But even in Baldwin’s all-white Paris, it will not prove quite that simple to separate race from sexuality.

The representation of homosexuality in The Sun Also Rises might well also inspire motivated Signification. J. Gerald Kennedy notes a number of excised passages expressing Jake’s “virulent aversion” (1993, 101) to homosexual men and suggests that, while “omitting this jeering, Hemingway [only] partially masked his prejudices,” and that “traces of his angry fascination with homosexuality nevertheless remain,” most notably in the bal musette scene (102).5 In spite of this, Baldwin’s response is far from straightforward parody or correction. Indeed, Hemingway’s messy sexuality speaks to Baldwin’s interest in characters whose bodies, hearts, and minds struggle to realize contradictory desires.6 Baldwin characterizes his own protagonist’s complex relationship to normalized definitions of masculinity through a call and response with Hemingway’s text,7 though this is an homage with a twist. This paper, then, will trace a concern central to both novels, as their characters struggle to achieve an idealized—and impossible—American norm. Suggestively, the degree of each character’s suffering depends on how closely he can approximate the norm and on the depth of his faith in American self-determination.

One of the obsessions of Giovanni’s Room is the great force of compulsory heterosexuality, which the novel closely links to gender identification. If he does not comply with the code by which one must love women to be a man, David fears he will become a sexual exile like les folles, men whom neither men nor women want. He thinks, “I wanted children. I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed. I wanted the same bed at night and the same arms and I wanted to rise in the morning, knowing where I was” (Baldwin 1956, 104).8 For David’s fiancée Hella, too, gender identity depends on a performance of heterosexuality, as when, after their engagement, she says with relief, “From now on, I can have a wonderful time complaining about being a woman. But I won’t be terrified that I’m not one” (126). In the face of such powerful sexual norms David’s attempt at heterosexuality crumbles into tragedy, and the heterosexual compulsion emerges in the novel as both irresistible and untenable.

Whiteness and compulsory heterosexuality intersect in medical and pedagogical discourses in the first half of the twentieth century, which—purporting to reflect neutral data but in fact concerning only white, straight, married couples—consolidated a definition of normal American sexuality. With its race-evasive language, the discourse of normality in this period, Julian Carter argues, defined “self-alignment with white racial ideals . . . as the basic requirement for participation in American life” (2007, 78). Both white and non-white, straight and queer Americans were subject to this definition of the normal. In the early decades of the twentieth century, fears about white reproductive weakness were displaced onto fears about homosexuality, coded as primitive and degenerate, but the power of the normal was rooted in its occlusion of racial and sexual politics.9

The extreme force of this compulsory normality takes shape in Giovanni’s Room through far-reaching structural borrowing, and we can see this force by overlaying the erotic love triangle of that novel onto the triangle at the center of The Sun Also Rises.10 The central love triangle in Giovanni’s Room is bisexual and looks like this:
HellaGiovanniDavid
As Eve Sedgwick argues, in “Gender Asymmetry and Erotic Triangles” (1997), changing the placement of particular members of the pattern doesn’t change its dynamic, so, for the sake of argument, let’s twist the triangle one click counterclockwise to create the heterosexual rivalry with which David would feel more comfortable:
GiovanniDavidHella
In this theoretical heterosexual triangle, David could experience his bond with Giovanni in a socially sanctioned way while competing for a lady love. Interestingly, in early versions of Giovanni’s Room the central love affair was indeed heterosexual.11 This pattern of desire does not operate in the finished novel, however, in which David’s feelings for Hella are in question throughout, and Giovanni’s feeling for his romantic rival is only resentment.
Hemingway’s love triangle, though heterosexual, is complex for a different reason. Although Jake and Brett’s mutual attraction remains constant, Jake’s heterosexual sexual failure may provide a model for David’s, and Brett’s struggle between stability and freedom may provide a model for Hella’s. The third corner, however, is occupied by a series of men—Mike Campbell, Pedro Romero, Robert Cohn, and Count Mippipopolous—and Baldwin’s Giovanni resembles these men in various ways: his desire for David echoes Bill’s homosocial affection for Jake; like Romero he is beautiful and passionately desiring; like Cohn his public vulnerability emasculates him. The striking similarities between the corresponding corners of the two triangles illuminate the fact that Baldwin’s novel is pulling toward heterosexuality on a much larger scale than that of David’s personal struggle. Each pair showcases their similarities through parallel androgyny or lapses of heterosexual functionality, but these parallels would not be possible if we did not first acknowledge on a broader scale, through the twist of the triangle, how powerfully the characters in Giovanni’s Room desire heterosexuality. Here is the Hemingway triangle next to the one we have posited:
GiovanniDavidHellaCohnJakeBrett

The parallel between Cohn and Giovanni is particularly important because they are the only members of the protagonists’ expatriate circle of friends who are coded racially other. As a Jew, Cohn suffers discrimination at the hands of his classmates at Princeton and his expatriate friends, and though Jake himself is not quite as publicly and virulently anti-Semitic as Mike or Bill, he still identifies with the Anglo-Christian perspective and sees Cohn as an outsider. A dark-complexioned Italian, Giovanni is also coded racially other, in notable opposition to David, who in the opening image of Giovanni’s Room regards his pale reflection and observes, “My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. . . . My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past” (GR 3). When David first describes Giovanni he notes his darkness and compares him to an African animal—“[The new barman] stood, insolent and dark and leonine, his elbow leaning on the cash register”—and he immediately thinks of slavery: “I knew that Jacques could only hope to conquer the boy before us if the boy was, in effect, for sale; and if he stood with such arrogance on the auction block he could certainly find bidders richer and more attractive than Jacques” (28). David here conflates Giovanni’s Italian darkness with the blackness of slaves but believes this difference brings with it power. In this imagined transaction, Giovanni is somehow both the seller and the sold.

Just as Cohn and Giovanni are racially coded as other, Jake and David both see their emotionality as an unmasculine weakness. Unable to accept that their tryst meant nothing to Brett, in a fit of jealous rage Cohn beats up his romantic rivals, and afterward Jake tells us, “Cohn was crying. There he was, face down on the bed, crying. . . . He was crying. His voice was funny. He lay there in his white shirt on the bed in the dark. . . . He was crying without making any noise” (SAR 197–98). And his girlfriend Frances mockingly advises him, “Don’t have scenes with your young ladies. Try not to. Because you can’t have scenes without crying” (57). To Jake, such emotionality negates Cohn’s more traditionally masculine talents. Likewise, Giovanni also believes in romantic love and he is most intensely emotional, like Cohn, at the end of his love affair. When David returns to Giovanni’s room for the last time, Giovanni starts to cry: “His eyes were red and wet, but he wore a strange smile, it was composed of cruelty and shame and delight” (GR 136). Giovanni considers his emotions a strength and criticizes David’s inability to love: “‘You do not . . . love anyone! You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will! . . .’ He grasped me by the collar, wrestling and caressing at once, fluid and iron at once, saliva spraying from his lips and his eyes full of tears, but with the bones of his face showing and the muscles leaping in his arms and neck” (141). Although he recognizes its passion, David is disgusted by the physicality of Giovanni’s weeping. The first time David sees Giovanni cry is the day Guillaume fires him: “He began to cry. I held him. And, while I felt his anguish entering into me, like acid in his sweat, and felt that my heart would burst for him, I also wondered, with an unwilling, unbelieving contempt, why I had ever thought him strong” (106).

Brett and Hella are both Anglo expatriates living in Paris, and though both are engaged to be married, as they travel to Spain they both experience romantic indecision. Physically, both have a somewhat boyish appearance. Though Brett has a feminine shape, she styles herself androgynously, with a boy’s haircut, a masculine jersey sweater, and often a man’s felt hat (SAR 30). Similarly, when David sees Hella in the train station, he observes that “her hair was a little shorter, and her face was tan, and she wore the same brilliant smile. . . . She stood stock-still on the platform, her hands clasped in front of her, with her wide-legged, boyish stance, smiling” (GR 119). Readers’ first impressions of both women are shaped by masculine markers of confidence.

As they enter the plot, Hella is in a social position similar to Brett’s, though they develop in different ways. Mark Spilka describes Brett as “the freewheeling equal of any man” who exists in a “moral and emotional vacuum among her postwar lovers” (2002, 36), while Wendy Martin, more sympathetically, suggests that, “On the one hand, [Brett] is insouciant, careless, a femme fatale—a woman dangerous to men; on the other, she reflexively lapses into the role of redemptive woman by trying to save men through her sexuality” (2002, 50–51). Either way, Brett is notable partly for her seeming fearlessness, comfort in public spaces, and sexual activity. While what is most notable in Hella is her desire to nest, she appears very much like Brett when David recounts how they met: “I can see her, very elegant, tense, and glittering, surrounded by the light which fills the salon of the ocean liner, drinking rather too fast, and laughing, and watching the men. That was how I met her, in a bar in Saint-Germain-des-Pres, she was drinking and watching, and that was why I liked her, I thought she would be fun to have fun with” (GR 4). Hella is here in search of her next fling: like Brett, seemingly “insouciant, careless, a femme fatale.”

Late in the novels both women imagine the prospect of feminizing their masculine styles in order to keep a man, and here we can see how the normalizing pressures are more intense in Giovanni’s Room. In The Sun Also Rises, Brett explains that Pedro Romero wanted to marry her after she had gotten more “womanly”: “He wanted me to grow my hair out. Me, with long hair. I’d look so like hell” (SAR 246). For her, feminizing for the sake of a man is finally not an option; she ends the affair. But Hella embraces that option, imagining it would secure her identity as an appropriate wife. She pleads, “David, please let me be a woman. . . . I’ll wear my hair long, I’ll give up cigarettes, I’ll throw away the books. . . . Just let me be a woman, take me. It’s what I want. It’s all I want. I don’t care about anything else” (GR 161). David’s suffering is not the result only of his non-normative sexuality, for even the straight Hella reacts with self-loathing anxiety to the overwhelming pressure she feels to enact a heterosexual gender identity.

Comparing the two protagonists suggests at first that Jake finally comes to some terms with his sexual difficulty in a way that David does not, though his relative peace of mind at least partly reflects his different position in relation to American gender norms. Where Jake is secure in his identity, David is fractured; Jake reaches a melancholy acceptance while David violently resists. We can see this, for example, in parallel scenes involving the observation of a policeman directing traffic. Hemingway’s most famous policeman appears in the closing lines of The Sun Also Rises, as Jake and Brett ride in a cab through Madrid:

“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a good time together.”

Ahead there was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (SAR 251)

In Giovanni’s Room, the policeman appears just after David has picked up Hella at the train station upon her return from Spain: “Hella looked about delightedly at all of it, the cafes, the self-contained people, the violent snarl of traffic, the blue-caped policeman and his white, gleaming club. ‘Coming back to Paris,’ she said, after a moment, ‘is always so lovely, no matter where you’ve been.’ We got into a cab and our driver made a wide, reckless circle into the stream of traffic” (GR 120). In both scenes, the policeman appears to the protagonist and the woman with whom he has a vexed sexual relationship. Jake and Brett have reached, if not an ending, an understanding that they are in a destructive cycle they cannot change, while David and Hella are at the naive beginning of their relationship, with the wounding yet to begin. In both, the policeman serves as a reminder of virile masculinity, though Jake’s description is direct, while David’s is mediated through Hella’s imagined perspective, marking David’s alienation from his own experience, and highlighting the contrast between Hella’s delight and David’s anxiety. Jake stresses the phallic significance of the image, focusing on the blunt phrase “he raised his baton,” an action mirroring the erection Jake cannot have but also directly causing physical contact with the woman he cannot have. He thus responds to Brett’s comment with melancholic irony and with resignation. Unconcerned about his sexual potency, David doesn’t comment about any “raising” of the baton, stressing instead the policeman’s “white, gleaming club,” a signifier of potent white masculinity. Instead, his great struggle is against his homosexual desire, and so he describes the “violent snarl” and “reckless” movement of a threatening cityscape that might out him at any moment.

Jake and David also study their bodies in two parallel mirror scenes, in which, undressing for bed, each sees his naked reflection. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake looks, but his attention wanders from his own reflection: “Undressing, I looked at myself in the mirror of the big armoire beside the bed. That was a typically French way to furnish a room. Practical, too, I suppose. Of all the ways to be wounded. I suppose it was funny. I put on my pajamas and got into bed” (SAR 38). Jake first approaches the problem as if he is unafraid, with the assertive phrase “I looked at myself in the mirror.” Unable to process what he sees there, he then turns his attention to the armoire, but he cannot remain distracted from his body for long: “Of all the ways to be wounded.” The mirror provides a full frontal view of the problem, and whether Jake looks or turns away, the troubling image remains.

In Giovanni’s Room, David, too, studies his naked reflection in the mirror:

The body in the mirror forces me to turn and face it. And I look at my body, which is under the sentence of death. It is lean, hard, and cold, the incarnation of a mystery. And I do not know what moves in this body, what this body is searching. It is trapped in my mirror as it is trapped in time and it hurries towards revelation.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I long to make this prophesy come true. I long to crack that mirror and be free. I look at my sex, my troubling sex, and wonder how it can be redeemed, how I can save it from the knife. The journey to the grave is already begun, the journey to corruption is, always, already, half over. Yet the key to my salvation, which cannot save my body, is hidden in my flesh. . . .

I move at last from the mirror and begin to cover the nakedness which I must hold sacred, though it be never so vile, which must be scoured perpetually with the salt of my life. I must believe, I must believe, that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it. (GR 167–69)

Like Jake, David muses on his relationship to heterosexuality, but he focuses on his genitalia in a way Jake cannot, compelled by a use-it-(heterosexually)-or-lose-it fear: “I look at my sex, my troubling sex, and wonder how it can be redeemed, how I can save it from the knife.” The knife David fears is wielded by a holy hand seeking retribution for his “sin” of homosexuality. As if in response, he quotes from 1 Corinthians 13, a passage that, out of its biblical context, appears autobiographical. In its original context, the passage is part of a lesson on charity that glorifies selflessness in stark contrast to narcissistic mirror-gazing. Similarly, David’s thoughts pull in two directions: first he suggests it is time to take his fate into his own hands but then calls on “the heavy grace of God” to carry him passively out of temptation. And the mirror’s doubling recreates the split he feels throughout the novel, evident in his hope that the mind can make independent decisions and force them on the body. By the time we reach this scene, however, we know out-of-body decisions are impossible for David, as becomes clear in his first sexual encounter with Giovanni: “I thought, if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I knew I could not open the door. . . . With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes” (64). David experiences his resistant mind as entirely at odds with his eager body, and the body wins the day, even if in the mirror scene he still “long[s] to crack the mirror and be free.”

Both mirror scenes, then, represent the protagonist’s struggle with what he feels is insufficient masculinity. Jake may appear more melancholy and resigned, and David more alienated and struggling, but for both the wishes of the mind are no match for the power of the body: David’s desires are as ineradicable as Jake’s wound. Suffering the split between body and mind, Jake thus appears a fitting antecedent for David, and though David’s battle with compulsory heterosexuality involves more self-loathing, Jake’s relative resignation does not make him a model of stoic acceptance to which David fails to rise. Jake begs Brett to live with him, a conversation they seem to have rehearsed many times before, and for all his valuing of self-control, Jake cannot help crying himself to sleep over Brett or feeling almost violently threatened by the gay men at the bal musette—cannot stop wanting the sex with Brett he associates with domestic bliss. In both novels, then, compulsory marital heterosexuality holds sway.12

For a variety of reasons, Jake and David experience the pressure of this compulsory norm quite differently. Jake’s male friends offer him examples of the (apparently) fully realized heterosexual masculinity he desires. But in Mike Campbell, Robert Cohn, and Bill Gorton, Jake can see that sexual potency isn’t a cure-all: none, it seems, experience fulfilling romantic relationships, much less fulfilling marriages. In contrast, in his expatriate community David’s friends and acquaintances, from Guillaume to Jacques to Giovanni, are homosexual or bisexual. The only straight male character (besides unnamed and infantilized French husbands) is David’s father, whom David escapes as soon as he can. Without lived examples of heterosexuality around him in Paris, David can continue to idealize the myth of the normal masculine man and punish himself for failing to fulfill it.

Jake also finds it easier than David to pass as successfully heterosexual. When Count Mippipopolous asks Jake and Brett why they don’t marry, for example, the couple’s quick, stock answers suggest a practiced response to that potentially awkward question. Jake’s outward appearance as a sexually active heterosexual man also helps him pass as one. David’s failure to pass shows most strikingly when a sailor in the street gives him a look of “instantaneous contempt,” prompted, David knows, by the hunger in his gaze: “I was too old to suppose that it had anything to do with my walk, or the way I held my hands, or my voice. . . . I know that what the sailor had seen in my unguarded eyes was envy and desire” (GR 92). Here, as elsewhere, David’s body betrays his desire, in spite of his attempt at control. While both men fail to meet the standard of procreative heterosexuality, because Jake’s desires are heterosexual, because he sees the unhappiness of men who possess what he lacks, and because he can pass as a functioning straight man, it seems that Jake can accept the inevitability of his situation with more grace than can the fractured David.

Torn between his body and his mind, David also suffers more intensely because he believes he has the power to choose whom to love, and perhaps the most telling contrast between these characters lies in their very different understandings of the American myth of self-determination: the belief one can choose one’s fate. In The Sun Also Rises, on the fishing trip to Burguette, Bill says to Jake, “I’m fonder of you than anybody on earth. I couldn’t tell you that in New York. It’d mean I was a faggot” (121), suggesting that identity categories are fuzzier in Europe than in America, where the problem of clear-cut categories introduces the obligation of choosing among them. Jake, as a “more or less permanent resident” of Paris, does not believe he has the power to choose who he will be, advising Cohn that a change in setting doesn’t change the self: “Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another” (19). In Giovanni’s Room, in contrast, David is plagued by choice, and on the night he and Giovanni meet it is choice they discuss:

“Time is just common, it’s like water for fish. . . . The big fish eat the little fish and the ocean doesn’t care.”

“Oh please,” I said. “I don’t believe that. Time’s not water and we’re not fish and you can choose to be eaten also not to eat—not to eat,” I added quickly, turning a little red before his delighted and sardonic smile, “the little fish, of course.”

“To choose!” cried Giovanni, turning his face away from me and speaking, it appeared, to an invisible ally who had been eavesdropping on this conversation all along. “To choose!” He turned to me again. “Ah, you are really an American. J’adore votre enthousiasme!” (GR 34–35)

Where Giovanni sees choice as an American myth and a defining characteristic of the true American, David believes he can choose between heterosexuality and homosexuality, Giovanni and Hella, being American and being European, being a tourist and being a native—a belief finally at the root of his suffering.

At its end Giovanni’s Room raises the possibility that David might be coming to the point, like Jake, of resignation and acceptance. At the beginning of David’s relationship with Giovanni, Jacques tells him, “You are lucky that what is happening to you now is happening now and not when you are forty or something like that, when there would be no hope for you and you would simply be destroyed” (54). Jacques knows that David’s choice is already made, and all he can decide now is how to handle it. David plays dumb, insisting that he does not need to tell Hella about Giovanni because there is nothing to tell. Here and throughout the novel, David attempts to keep his options open, but by the end, it seems his belief in self-determination has been tempered by an awareness of Fate, and he can see his future: “Sometimes, in the days which are coming—God grant me the grace to live them—in the glare of the grey morning, sour-mouthed, eyelids raw and red, hair tangled and damp from my stormy sleep, facing, over coffee and cigarette smoke, last night’s impenetrable, meaningless boy, who will shortly rise and vanish like the smoke, I will see Giovanni again, as he was that night” (42–43). If this suggests that David now accepts that he cannot opt out of his homosexuality, even at the end this acceptance only goes so far. Earlier in the novel, David felt he had a choice: he could have taken Jacques’s advice and tried to love Giovanni while he had the chance. At the end, examining himself in the mirror, he still dreams he can become a man and give up childish things, once again imagining he has the power to choose his destiny. The novel closes, however, by ironizing that possibility: “The morning weighs on my shoulders with the dreadful weight of hope and I take the blue envelope which Jacques has sent me and tear it slowly into many pieces, watching them dance in the wind, watching the wind carry them away. Yet, as I turn and begin walking toward the waiting people, the wind blows some of them back on me” (169). David tries to throw the memory of Giovanni—and homosexuality—to the wind, but the final sentence blows some of those fragments back onto his body.

In both novels, characters grapple with the same impossible American expectations, but perhaps Baldwin could empathize more deeply than Hemingway with that struggle. White, married, and a father, when he wrote The Sun Also Rises Hemingway seemed to embody an ideal normality, at least in some obvious ways. Black, bisexual, unmarried, and childless, Baldwin had no recourse to these normalizing categories.13Giovanni’s Room helps keep the focus on struggles involving sexuality, but perhaps it also suggests the sheer power of the normalizing ideals. The whiteness of Baldwin’s characters, for example, makes conspicuous the absence of blackness. Though Baldwin may have felt ambivalent about the influence of his straight, white predecessor, The Sun Also Rises throws forward a melancholy possibility to the later text: Jake’s resignation suggests the possibility of a self-acceptance constituting a small act of resistance to social compulsion.14 Finally, Giovanni’s Room’s deep engagement with The Sun Also Rises doesn’t resolve that ambiguity. Just as David struggles beneath the weight of compulsory heterosexuality, Baldwin struggles with the powerful influence of his predecessor. However, while David fails to harness the creative potential of his conflict, Baldwin turns Hemingway to his own uses in Giovanni’s Room.

Acknowledgments

I would like to express my gratitude to Anita Patterson for her invaluable guidance during the development of this article.

Notes

1

I am indebted to some earlier essays that offer admirable models for such a comparison, for example, Gary Edward Holcomb’s “The Sun Also Rises in Queer Black Harlem: Hemingway and McKay’s Modernist Intertext” (2007) and Brian Hochman’s “Ellison’s Hemingways” (2008).

2

Holcomb and Scruggs refer to the preface to The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, where Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay write that this distinct origin is oral, characterized by “the traditional antiphonal ‘call/response’ structure peculiar to African and African American expressive cultural forms” (1997, xxxviii). Gates and McKay suggest the African American tradition is particularly self-enclosed:

The editors of the monumental anthology The Negro Caravan (1944) called the practice of repetition and revision “a sort of literary inbreeding which causes Negro writers to be influenced by other Negroes more than should ordinarily be expected.” If Virginia Woolf was correct when she claimed that “books speak to other books,” it is also true that works of literature created by African Americans often extend, or signify upon, other works in the black tradition, structurally and thematically. (xxxvi)

3

Gates defines his terms as follows: “Black texts Signify upon other black texts in the tradition by engaging in what Ellison has defined as implicit formal critiques of language use, of rhetorical strategy. Literary Signification, then, is similar to parody and pastiche, wherein parody corresponds to what I am calling motivated Signification while pastiche would correspond roughly to unmotivated Signification” (1988, xxvii).

4

The Sun Also Rises will be cited as SAR.

5

For a detailed reading of how this scene parallels one in Giovanni’s Room, see Parker 2012, 49–51.

6

Yasmin DeGout has highlighted Baldwin’s ambivalent representation of homosexual love (1992, 432). For Kenneth Lynn (1987), Hemingway’s text inscribes similar complexity. Lynn points out that Hemingway derived Jake Barnes’s name from associations with two famous lesbians (“Natalie Barney, 20 rue Jacob; Djuna Barnes, Hotel Jacob”) and suggests that the author’s closest identification is with a female character: “In her unquenchable unhappiness, Brett was Hemingway” (1987, 325).

7

Jake expresses his disgust for the group of gay men at the bal musette, and David expresses his disapproval of the gay men who frequent Guillaume’s bar. Both scenes occur on the night when the protagonists first encounter their primary love interest, Brett and Giovanni, respectively. In both cases the gay men appear to be marked as other but also emerge as connected to the protagonist (neither they nor Jake will make “proper use” of Georgette; like them, David is a regular at a gay bar). And Jake’s use of Georgette to pass as a sexually potent heterosexual man is similar to David’s use of his American friend Sue to enact an unsatisfying and temporary appearance of heterosexuality.

8

Giovanni’s Room will be cited as GR.

9

Two recent readings of Giovanni’s Room are particularly interesting in this regard. Abdur-Rahman (2015) argues that Giovanni’s Room anticipates a deconstructive approach to identity that understands selfhood as constructed relationally, in contrast to a marginalized other. Drawing on Baldwin’s comment in a 1979 interview that “white people invented black people to protect themselves against something which frightened them” (quoted in Abdur-Rahman 2015, 167), Abdur-Rahman argues that David’s white identity depends upon the abjected black (and homosexual) body. However, he claims, this contextual identity is always in danger: “As David constantly violates heteronormative codes and as sexual variance is perceived as the terrain of the socially ousted black (or dark) figure, David undergoes a progressive racialization throughout Giovanni’s Room that throws his avowed whiteness into question and makes possible his own redemption” (168).

Stephanie Li responds to earlier scholars, including Adbur-Rahman, who have identified David with his creator and claimed the character is the author in “whiteface” (2015, 130). Li argues that David is, instead, a study in whiteness: while the opening image of David peering at his reflection shows him “acknowledging the guilt of his white ancestors,” later he paints his white lovers with figurative blackness, enjoys the privilege of the white male gaze, and, in speculating authoritatively about the details of Giovanni’s crime, “claims the ultimate privilege of whiteness: the ability to articulate and create history” (133, 149–50). My reading, like Li’s, accepts David’s whiteness. But I stress how the compulsion to achieve the “American normal” of procreative heterosexuality (coded white) affects characters regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and how the degree of suffering resulting from this compulsion relates to the myth of American self-determination.

10

Hemingway and Baldwin both signal the importance of love triangles using place-name hints, as Joshua Parker points out: “As Jake unknowingly prepares to make his entrance on a scene where he, Brett, and her soon-to-be lover first meet together as a trio, he approaches the impending meeting via the rue des Pyramides,” and “David reads of Hella’s impending return in the midst of his affair with Giovanni in the Place des Pyramides” (2012, 42).

11

See Campbell 1991, 89.

12

These connections suggest that David’s heterosexism is not a personal failing but part of an inevitable systemic heterosexism. Though this pressure makes David’s struggle darker, what is interesting is that it affects both straight and queer characters. Loveless marriage engagements in both novels illustrate that even Baldwin’s Hella and the straight Hemingway characters long for a domestic and procreative heterosexuality that remains unattainable to them. In “The Male Prison,” Baldwin writes, “No matter what encyclopedias of physiological and scientific knowledge are brought to bear the answer [to the question of whether homosexuality is natural] never can be Yes. And one of the reasons for this is that it would rob the normal—who are simply the many—of their very necessary sense of security and order” (1998, 232). The passage suggests the normal and the not-normal are distinct groups pitted against one another, while the universal struggles of these fictional characters suggest instead that “the normal” is a standard that oppresses all individuals, regardless of their sexuality.

13

Julian B. Carter writes that non-normativity like Baldwin’s can place one in “a position of considerable critical insight, because people whose lives are shaped by their difference from the normal perforce must know a great deal about both their own positions and the ones that oppress them,” while normality like Hemingway’s might invite “the (empirically inaccurate) conviction that one’s own position is simply natural and devoid of political meaning” (2007, 22).

14

In Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison writes, “All that [Hemingway] wrote—and this is very important—was imbued with a spirit beyond the tragic with which I could feel at home, for it was very close to the feeling of the blues, which are, perhaps, as close as Americans can come to expressing the spirit of tragedy” ([1953] 1995, 140). Holcomb and Scruggs write that the blues singer “does not try to solve problems or conflicts, but ‘he’ does acknowledge and articulate them. He understands that there are no panaceas for pain and suffering, but he sees that they ‘cooperate’ with his creative imagination to make his song” (2012, 5).

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