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“Giovanni’s Room” and “Native Speaker” Essay

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Updated: Jun 25th, 2020


Although the problem of gender and race inequity has been on the world agenda for several decades running, the progress that has been made so far has not yet brought one to triumph of equal rights for all those concerned. The problem of sexual identity in general and the lack of tolerance towards homosexuals in the modern society, as well as the issues regarding the culture clash and the problems related to acculturation, still remain on the world agenda (Bhugra and Vahia 116).

Despite the fact that the concept of globalization seemed rather promising in terms of creating links between the representatives of different cultures, the opportunity to communicate freely with the members of other societies only made the problem more complicated by adding the urbanization factor to the overall set of irritants fueling the ethnic and gender conflicts. By creating the hostile environment that is both opening one to a variety of opportunities and at the same time restricting in terms of the choices that one must make in the course of searching for one’s own identity, the urban environment can be viewed as a sexual and an ethnic enclave, as Baldwin and Lee argue in their novels.

Analysis: Themes and Characters

The theme of being imprisoned in the environment that is seemingly open-minded to a range of cultures, yet promotes a single standard in terms of the identity that one is supposed to have and the roles that one must assume, the society is depicted as a cold and brooding social enclave in both Giovanni’s Room and Native Speaker. As many aspects as the two novels treat differently, both of them view their protagonists as the victims of the flawed system, which forces people into building the relationships that they do not want to engage in, thus, locking them in the enclave of their own pretense and lies.

Therefore, the lead characters of both novels have to make a choice between a social seclusion and the following loss of their chances for integrating into the society, and defying their own identity for the sake of retaining the support of the people, who they are to coexist with. The problems, which David and Giovanni have, may be viewed on several levels of meaning. First and most obvious, each of the characters needs to face the threat of being expelled from the society that they are trying to integrate into, each for specific reasons (i.e., homosexuality and the lack of information about the American culture).

On a second thought, though, one may consider the issue concerning gender relationships just as important as the process of creating ties in a new community: “All along, he offered himself as a model of liberal reaction, which is initially fascination and disdain, but then relief. It’s a race war everyone can live with. Blacks and Koreans were somehow meant for trouble in America” (Lee 210). However, the issue of creating a new identity based on compliance with the sexual preferences that are foisted onto the city dwellers by the urbanization and the local concept of the norm is the problem that shines through the rest of the issues.

According to both authors, the surroundings, in which one is placed, define one’s sexuality to a considerable degree. When it comes to determining the way, in which the city is depicted in both novels, one must admit that the two authors envision the urban setting in quite different ways. While one of the authors creates the impression of a vast and hostile area, where one is always haunted by the feeling of distress, the other one makes the reader see the landscape that is far too cluttered and convoluted for one to ever face this mess.

However, both inevitably wind up on the same note of wistfulness. Their attempt at taking introspect on the urban sexuality shows that the city setting not only fails to expose one to the discover of one’s own sexuality, but, instead, stifles the attempts of the characters to come to terms with their sexual identity. The atmosphere created in both books, in fact, stresses the specified elements, therefore, creating a very noticeable claustrophobic pattern; in fact, Baldwin spells it out at some point of the narration: “The bathroom is tiny and square, with one frosted window. It reminds me of that claustrophobic room in Paris” (Baldwin 131).

Although Baldwin describes only the apartment of the lead character, and merely one room at that, he still makes it very clear that the atmosphere of despair floating in the air defines the entire city. The dark, brooding atmosphere, which Baldwin creates, can also be traced rather easily in Lee’s Native Speaker; however, in Lee’s case, the sexual frustration, which the urban atmosphere creates, echoes in the ethnic conflict, which takes place in the novel. However, unlike Baldwin, Lee views the city as the place that is far too vast and far too enormous for its residents to ever feel safe or cozy there. As a result, the author creates the same uncomfortable impression of a city as Baldwin does by creating the exact opposite of the concept that Baldwin does: “The feeling was that the city was beginning to buckle under its burdens” (Baldwin 187).

It could be argued, though, that each of the authors attempts at introducing the characters through the environment, in which they are planted and which they find conflicting with their personalities in order to create a drama: “I was guilty and irritated and full of love and pain. I wanted to kick him and I wanted to take him in my arms” (Baldwin 260). The duality of their own nature tortures the protagonists of both novels, therefore, catching them in an enclave of sexuality and ethnicity that a city is. It should be noted that cities are traditionally viewed as the environment, where open-mindedness is generally appreciated and where the concept of a social norm can be stretched considerably.

For instance, city campuses, according to Fine, can be considered the epitome of homophobia due to the history of their development: “These spaces emerged in large part after the wake of incidences of homophobia, such as the Matthew Shepard tragedy, indicating that their formation was a direct response from campuses to meet the needs of this unique student population” (Fine 285). However, the authors of the novels in question make the readers see a different city, where people are made to conform to the standards of the society.

The issues, which one of the characters face, in fact, can be viewed from the perspective of Freudian psychology. Particularly, the far that David has for women can be identified as the fear of vagina dentate, which was described by Freud, i.e., the “men’s fear of the woman as castrator, realigning Freud’s suggestion that the vagina might exist as the sign of an enacted” (Callahan 12). In other words, the frustration, which David experiences as a result of him being forced into concealing his sexuality, is transformed into fear of women, which he displays towards his wife. The city, in its turn, only enhances this fear, therefore, aggravating the situation, which David is trapped in.

The way, in which the city affects the sexuality of the characters, however, can also be viewed from a different perspective. Since in Room, David basically comes to grips with his sexual preferences once he is introduced to the disturbingly different, yet undeniably exciting city life, the city, in fact, allows him to embrace the uniqueness of his sexual preferences and, therefore, recognize himself as a personality. The rancorous attitudes that he had to face, however, create the above-mentioned tension, therefore, allowing the audience to view the dichotomy of sexuality in the city.

The city offers David, so to say, two possibilities for handling his own sexuality, i.e., coming out of the closet, as his friend Giovanni does, and facing the threat of being ostracized till the end of his days, or create the impression of a heterosexual personal life with Hella and be miserable. The choice between a social exile and a psychological trauma, which the main character faces, displays the key problems of sexuality development in the city as Baldwin sees it; according to the author, the city tricks one into offering a wide range of choices, while, in reality, one is often left with the options that do not allow for escaping a psychological trauma.

Much like Baldwin addresses the issue of gender and sexuality in the urban environment, Lee renders the problem of the search for an ethnic identity. In some way, the topics that the authors tackle seem somehow related to each other, as both presuppose searching for the means of attaching one’s identity to a specific culture. The confusion, which the lead character is trapped in, reminds much of the embarrassment that Baldwin’s character experiences once having to confront his own fears and fight the social prejudice.

Despite the fact that the situations, in which each of the lead characters are tangled in, seem to be based on quite different types of conflicts, the search for an identify, which lee’s character also is in the process of, has a lot to do with sexuality, relationships and gender issues. Specifically, the lead character projects his fear of failing to find the place, where he actually belongs, and becoming a social misfit, on his relationships with a woman that he meets. Seeing that the woman that he dates incorporates the two cultures, i.e., the American and the Korean one, thus, representing the bridge between Henry and the American society, it can be assumed that Henry uses his sexuality as the tool for finding the place, where he actually belongs, and to avoid being socially ostracized. Herein the significance of the aforementioned suffocating environment lies; every single element of the city is supposed to remind the lead character about his being a misfit and a stranger to the American culture.

It is only by clinging to the newly acquired friends that David is capable of surviving in the city jungle; as a result, he sees his relationships with the Korean American woman that he met as a salvation: “They had lots of Korean friends that they met in church and then even in the street, and when they talked in public there was a shared sense of how lucky they were, to be in America but still have countrymen near” (Lee 401). Therefore, both David and Henry are terrified about the idea of failing as the members of a new and quite hostile society; thus, they need to conceal their insecurity through creating seemingly meaningful ties with other members of the community that they long to integrate into so much. Seeing that marriage ties are traditionally viewed as one of the strongest types of relationships, the two instinctively resort to building the relationships that they do not validate as sexual ones themselves.

It is quite peculiar that Lee, though obviously putting the issue of ethnic and national identity in the limelight, also makes a very strong emphasis on the issue of sexuality and the way it manifests itself in the urban setting (Tebble 922). Despite the fact that there is not a single gender related reference made directly throughout the entire book and that most of the topics discussed revolve around the issue of nationality and ethnicity, the author discloses the moral trials and tribulations of the lead character through his relationships with the Korean woman mentioned above. Although the author never renders the problem of sexuality in the city directly, he makes his argument all the more powerful by convincing his readers in a more delicate manner and displaying the problem of a man searching for his identity through relationships.

Thus, in a very interesting way, the argument that Lee delivers in his novel, is much more powerful than that one created by Baldwin. In contrast to the latter, lee does not spell out the problems of the contemporary society; instead, he focuses on the people, who are to face the harsh reality and somehow find a way to cope with it. therefore, it is through the descriptions of their struggle and the desperate measures that they have to resort to in order to be accepted into the hypocritical society with its ludicrous concept of norm that the author allows the readers to view the depth of social injustice (Corlett 128).


Being locked in a sexual and ethnic enclave, the leading characters of both Giovanni’s Room and Native Speaker are forced to make the choices that they would have never considered otherwise due to the need to integrate into the local society successfully and be accepted as its legitimate members. Painfully desperate in their nature, the novels address the problems of the people, who have no other choice but to conform to the social norms, no matter how hypocritical and convoluted the latter may be.

Although each novel tackles a different subject matter, and the two address quite different problems, both authors render the issue of sexuality and the city, one of them stressing the claustrophobically stifling environment, and the other one putting a stronger emphasis on the emotionally devastating journey that the character has to go through in order to locate his true identity. Touching upon the problems of both sexual and ethnic enclave, the Giovanni’s Room and Native Speaker are worth being viewed as some of the most cleverly written and originally put together arguments concerning the problems of living in a society with little to no equality principles in it and a set of very rigid gender and class roles to play. A smart commentary on intolerance in modern society, the two novels have a lot in common despite seemingly different topics addressed.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York, NY: Dial Press, 2013. Print.

Bhugra, Daniel and Victor Vahia. “Homosexuality and Its Discontents.” Journal of Postgraduate Medicine 60.2 (2012): 116–117. Print.

Callahan, David. “Sexuality and the Feminine Space in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.” Portuguese Association of Anglo-American Studies 5.1 (2002): 9–21.Print.

Corlett, J Angelo. “On Race, Ethnicity, and Racism.” Journal of African American Studies 18.1 (2013): 128–129. Print.

Fine, Leigh E. “The Context of Creating Space: Assessing the Likelihood of College LGBT Center Presence.” Journal of College Student Development 53.2 (2012): 285–299. Print.

Lee, Chang-rae. Native Speaker. New York, NY: Random House, LLC, 1995. Print.

Tebble, Adam James. “Homosexuality and Publicness: Towards a Political Theory of the Taboo.” Political Studies 59.4 (2011): 921–939. Print.

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