Critical readings of James Baldwin’s Giovanni Room have largely focused on what is considered its displacement of blackness unto whiteness in the form of the novel’s white protagonist, David, and stage a sort of lynching party to search out and expose to the critical gaze the “absent black man” in the text. Only a few recent readings, beyond biographical surveys of expatriate writers, have considered expatriation outside of Baldwin’s biography and essays, or seriously attempted to locate exile as a key theme and strategy in his fiction. Since, as Méral has noted, Paris is “closely linked with the first fictional attempts to deal with the subject of homosexuality” (223), there must be something about the city which is ripe as a setting for exploration of homosexual themes.
In an attempt to address this lacuna, and to unite Baldwin’s biographical and fictional interest in the productive functions of expatriation, this article examines the symbolic function of the places and displacements in Giovanni’s Room through the prism of the décalage afforded by Parisian exile. I argue that, through the depiction of the Parisian spaces—the city itself, the gay bars, and Giovanni’s room—and their contrast with American spaces, Baldwin shows the function of exile and otherness in not only evading, but producing and reinforcing (sexual) identities. With the freedom afforded “under a foreign sky” to ‘find oneself,’ David explores, then excises and exorcises, his hidden, “dirty,” “dark,” gay self in the figure of the guillotined Giovanni. As such, David reproduces heteronormativity through, literally, torturous means, highlighting the contortions required to maintain the heteronormative status quo, as well as white American identity.