Breaking Down Barriers

“‘What’s integration mean?’ Tim asked Grover.
‘The opposite of differentiation,’ Grover said, drawing an x-axis, y-axis and curve on his greenboard. ‘Call this function of x. Consider values of the curve at tiny little increments of x’ – drawing straight vertical lines from the curve down to the x-axis, like the bars of a jail cell – ‘you can have as many of these as you want, see, as close together as you want.’
‘Till it’s all solid,’ Tim said.
‘No, it never gets solid. If this was a jail cell, and those lives were bars, and whoever was behind it could make himself any size he wanted to be, he could always make himself skinny enough to get free. No matter how close together the bars were.’
‘This is integration,’ said Tim.
‘The only kind I ever heard of,’ said Grover.” (186-187)

In “The Secret Integration,” Pynchon draws an analogy between racial integration and Grover’s explanation of the term used for integral calculus. According to Pynchon’s analogy, racial integration breaks down the barriers between whites and blacks so that they become a community, just as the young boys have initiated Carl Barrington into their group. The young boys exemplify a judgment-free, ideal, classless group. With the forthcoming civil rights movement, the young boys struggle to understand the meaning of integration and their parents’ stubborn racism while growing up in a generation of change and acceptance as they instinctively invite Carl into their gang. Although Carl Barrington is revealed to be a figment of the young boys’ imaginations, his acceptance into the group of young boys shows the hope of a new generation’s first step toward racial integration.

In his analogy, Pynchon demonstrates not only the importance of integration and racial tolerance, but also the innate humanity that a younger generation can demonstrate. The lines of Grover’s graph, as he points out, can be seen as bars of a jail cell. Racial integration allows blacks to be free of those bars.

The young boys occupy their time playing practical jokes while also plotting a large-scale anti-institution revolt. Grover hates institutions and any “scaled-up world adults made” that they live in without him (143). He also hates the world “uneducable,” which he refuses to explain to his friends, because it suggests inequality as he compares it to derogatory terms (150). The young boys, especially Grover, are clearly aware of discrimination and see it as the fault of higher institutions, which are led by adults, but they are also surprised by their own parents’ stubborn racism. Although the group may seem rowdy, they are political minded youth looking to reverse a system that they view is wrong. And with the surprising twist that Carl was a figment of their imagination, it is revealed that Carl was their secret integration. For the adults, Carl is not there, and they never want him to be there. Carl is a playmate the young boys can spend endless hours with because he is a collection of phrase and images “that grownups had somehow turned away from” (192).

Almost is Never Enough

“‘Grovie,’ said Etienne, ‘are we still integrated? If he doesn’t come back? Hops a freight somewhere or something?’ ‘Ask your father,’ said Grover. ‘I don’t know anything.'” Page 192.

From the beginning of the story, the characterization of Grover, a major character, is that he is a very intelligent boy. It is established that he has more academic comprehension than the rest of his peers. He uses big words and can answer any question that his friend’s throw at him.  His friend Tim asks him what integration means. After he explains what integration is, Grover makes the conclusion that their school is integrated due to Carl, an African American student and member of the friend group, attending their school.

Unfortunately, the adults, which also included Grover’s and Tim’s parents, did not want to reside in an integrated society. The adults made awful phone calls to Carl’s parents, used “dirty words they got so angry with kids for using” (Page 188), and trashed their front lawn. These uncivilized acts eventually lead to Carl to keep a low profile and gives an indication that he might just leave the town altogether.

The characterization of Grover and the racist events that happen to Carl and his family tie together. Grover is so confident in his intelligence that he never doubts himself or the information that he studies. This was no different when he came to the conclusion that his school was integrated and there was nothing that the adults could really do about it. As it turns out, the conclusion the Grover made was wrong. What’s interesting is that this one answer that he got wrong impacted the way he portrays himself. Never once has Grover ever said that he didn’t know anything.

This may be because Grover is so used to the answers being concrete, permanent, and rational. Definitions of words will always stay the same, math has a set of rules that people abide by, and the correct answers will never be considered incorrect. Because of this mindset, it is understandable why Grover is so shaken by everything that happened to Carl.


“Time is just common, it’s like water for a fish. Everybody’s in the water, nobody gets out of it, or if he does the same thing happens to him that happens to the fish, he dies.” (Part One, Chapter Two)

Giovanni’s take on what time is in his conversation with David is a reflection of David more than of other people.  The novel is made up heavily of David’s own memories,  the only other sections (for lack of a better word) seen so far are snippets of his own musings on them.   David himself is very aware of the connection that lies between him and Giovanni, and of the futility of any attempt to sever it.  This makes David the fish.  Just like his relationship with Joey, his encounter with Giovanni will always be an important part of his identity, like water is to the fish, for an individual is made up of his past experiences and the people surrounding him.

While Giovanni’s take on time defines it as eternal and static, while David defines time (or well, Giovanni defines “American time” for him) as progress. He tells him they define time:

“as though with enough time and all that fearful energy and virtue you people have, everything will be settled, solved, put in its place. And when I say everything I mean all the serious, dreadful things, like pain and death and love, in which you Americans do not believe.” (Part One, Chapter Two)

This take on time, however, is not reflective of David (even if it is of his values).

David and his attempt at self-discovery

“Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced. I think now that if I had had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home. But, again, I think I knew, at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France” (p. 21).

Through going abroad, David attempts to find reconciliation in who he is; David hopes to determine his sexuality without the pressure of his family.   Hence, Baldwin chooses to write from a retrospective point of view to incorporate details that David—at the moment he chose to go to France—did not know. Through Baldwin writing in retrospect, David admits to “…think[ing] now that if [he] had had any intimation that the self [he] was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which [he] had spent so much time in flight, [he] would have stayed at home” (p. 21). This admittance is crucial to the plot of the novel, as David focuses upon his fateful night with Joey throughout the first twenty pages or so; this was the night that David discovers that he enjoys the company of men as much, if not more, than women. Thus, the narrator is inserting details that allude to David going to France to discover his sexuality in an environment with no outside influence.

David attempts to set off on a voyage of self-discovery when he begins to sense that his dad “… thought [him and David] were alike [and David] did not want to think so” (p. 17). David fears being confined to what his father is; he fears being compared to his father because he knows that he is nothing like him. David enjoyed his sexual encounter with Joey; his father enjoys the company of women. David utilizes alcohol to stifle the pain caused by his inability to be like his father; David wants to be straight and fears that he is gay. Therefore, when David goes to France, David and his father “… got on quite well, really, for the vision [he] gave [his] father of [his] life was exactly the vision in which [he himself] most desperately needed to believe” (p. 20). The vision being that David is straight. Thus, the retrospective narrator comments that “… [he] think[s] [he] knew, at the very bottom of [his] heart, exactly what [he] was doing when [he] took the boat for France” (p. 21) because David knew that he would need to escape the pressure of conformity to be happy; David knew that, if he were to discover his true self, he would need to be free from judgment.

David’s (and everyone’s) Contradictory Transformation

“We will ride through the same changing countryside north-ward, leaving behind the olive trees and the sea and all of the glory of the stormy southern sky, into the mist and rain of Paris.” (3-4)

This quote come within the very first pages of Giovanni’s Room. The narrator, in first person, describes how everything on his return to Paris from a house in the south of France will be the same; the people, the train, his whole life will be unchanging. In this quote, though, there are the beginnings of contradiction, which is prevalent throughout the rest of Part One. Our narrator says the “same changing countryside”, which begs the question how can something be the same and changing? If it is the same countryside, then it has not changed. Conversely, if it changes, then the countryside is never the same. This discrepancy is our introduction into the life of our main character and narrator David. In the remainder of this section, we see how many contradictions arise in himself and his life. He at once loves and is cruel to Joey. He can be extremely drunk but appear composed and sober. He dates Hella yet seems to immediately fall for Giovanni. It is in these inconsistencies that Baldwin reveals the truths about growing up. The transformation that David is going through is characteristic of growing up. All young people encounter contradictions in who they are, how they feel, and what they want to be. David believes he has made decisions about who he wants to be, such as when he decided he would never sleep with a boy after Joey; and yet, by page 6 we learn that that is untrue because he sleeps with Giovanni. Young people are full of contradictions as demonstrated not only by these opening pages but also by many of the protagonists we have encountered thus far. It is not to say that David, or any other human (or character) in the midst of growing up, lies or imagines things but rather that this is a part of what it means to become an adult.

David and his ‘immaculate manhood’; An analysis of David and the men in his life

“Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else really matters?” (page 57)

Throughout the first part of Giovanni’s Room, David is in crisis with the men in his life, even if they are all in very different ways. Despite the difference of the love he has (or tried to have) for his father and Joey, David responds in a somewhat similar way – he chooses to distance himself rather than embrace the love they were offering him. At the end of part I, we are left waiting to see if he will treat Giovanni with the same distance or if he will display growth later in the book.

David’s relationship with his dad appears to be a rather tragic one. David searched for the “merciful distance of a son, which would have permitted me to love him.” (page 22) Meanwhile, David’s father would rather them be “buddies”(page 21). David never wanted this “buddie” relationship, and despised his father for wanting them to have a friendship rather than the father-son relationship. When reflecting on the time he left home, David describes how he chose to deal with the troublesome relationship when he said “once (he) got out of the house it became much easier to deal with him (his father)” (page 24) because David could feed his father exactly the information he wanted to hear rather than actually deal with him. This distance that David desires is his way of dealing with a troublesome relationship, and it is to become a pattern of the first part of the book.

Joey is the first man David meets who he seems to love. Joey was a close friend who Joey had spent “nearly every day” (page 15) that summer with. After spending the day together, David and Joey shared a bed for the night and “kissed, as it were, by accident” (page 16) at first, followed by love making that made David later say it was “odd to remember… how good (he) felt that night, how fond he was Joey” (page 24). However, David felt instant regret when he contemplates – “but Joey is a boy.” (page 14) He saw it as an event “in which (he) would lose his manhood.” (page 14) Yet again, David chose to deal with a relationship’s problems by distancing himself from Joey. He avoided Joey after their interaction, knowing full well how he loved the experience, and even when he did run into Joey after the Summer, he made up a transparent excuse saying he was spending his time with a girl in order to push Joey away for good.

After the first two relationships, Giovanni seems to be something completely different – “everyone in the bar (where they met) were talking about how you and (Giovanni) have hit it off.” (page 48). They had an instant connection, and flirted frivolously from the moment they met. When David was referring to the present tense, it seems as though Giovanni and himself were to be a perfect couple, and they travel around Paris sharing their stories, while “the ferocious excitement which had burst in (David) had burst in him like a storm.” (page 44) Towards the end of Part I, David displays some confusion as to how he will deal with his new found love. He is caught between how he should act with his fiancée, and his wishes to “find a girl. Any girl.” (page 44) – which were his wishes to fit into a heterosexual girl. But the question is – how is he going to deal with Giovanni? Will he deal with him as he has done with the other two major problematic male relationships in his life and distance Giovanni? Or will he embrace the relationship despite its problems and show growth in Part II?

Self Discovery or Escaping the Truth

“Perhaps as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what is says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced, I think now that if I had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home. But, again, I think I knew, at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France”. (23)

pages may differ due to different edition

After the car accident David tells his father that he is going to find a job and live on his own instead of going to college. This is all part of David’s plan to live a life of his choosing without the input of his father and Ellen. As David leaves for France he reflects on his intentions for leaving, stating that he wants to “find [him]self” (23). Although the act of “finding oneself” often describes self-discovery, I would argue that David is not in search of who he is as an individual, but instead he is afraid of his feelings and believes that by fleeing his location he is also escaping true identity. I think that David is not only scared of his father’s reaction but the reaction of society as a whole. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin was copyrighted in 1956. The majority of Americans during the 1950s could be described as homophobic. During this time homosexuality was seen as a mental illness, abnormal, and those who identified with being gay or were even thought to be gay could be denied federal jobs because they were seen as a security risk.

In chapter one of the novel we are introduced to Joey and his relationship with David. Initially they were best friends but one day after spending the day together and drinking, they had sex. After spending the night together David says, “above all, I was suddenly afraid. It was borne in me: But Joey is a boy” (9). Although David shares that “[they] gave each other joy that night” and that “it seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for [him] to act with Joey the act of love”, he later expresses that he fears the reaction of his father and Joey’s mother if they were to find out (9). David has genuine feelings for Joey but it is his fear of what society would think of him that prevents him from further acting on these feelings and as a result he does not spend time with Joey for the remainder of the summer.

Despite David’s attempt to escape from his identity he continues to struggle with it while in France. His fear of society’s response to his sexuality reappears in France when David realizes he has romantic feelings for another man, Giovanni. This fear is even pointed out by another character in the novel, Jacques when he says David is scared of his relationship with Giovanni, and that their relationship will “change [him]” (62).