Gender Roles In Giovanni’s Room

Gender Roles: Due to Success? In Giovanni’s Room, In Cold Blood, and Radioactive, characters struggle with gender roles and norms, trying to fit into roles that were not made for them. In the three novels, characters are held back by these norms in some way. While the characters are held back, some characters, such as Marie Curie, are still able to break these gender roles. A character’s ability to break gender norms is directly associated with their success, which calls into question whether more success leads to more gender barriers broken. In Giovanni’s Room, In Cold Blood, and Radioactive, characters have to deal with societal gender roles, and depending on the character’s ability to be successful, the characters let the norms define them.

In Giovanni’s Room, David lacks success in his career and believes in gender norms, which becomes a stigma in his relationships. David cannot seem to find himself, or where he fits, in America, so he goes to France. He expresses his inability to find himself when he says, “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” (Baldwin 21). David is not successful in finding a place for himself in America. After moving to France, he tries to find himself, but explains later on how he still is unable to. Due to this lack of self, David becomes desperate to fit in. This desperation started before he even arrived in France, and is seen when David explains, “We gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love…”

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But above all, I was suddenly afraid. It was borne in on me: “But Joey is a boy….” Then I, who had seen him that summer nearly every day till then, no longer went to see him” (Baldwin 8-9). David, unsuccessful and in America, gives up an eternity with a boy he loves because of society. He leaves because of a realization that “Joey is a boy.” While Joey is a boy, this should not pose a problem for David if he realized that being different should not have a negative connotation associated with it. But since society at that time condemned homosexuality, he is compelled to believe it is wrong. His lack of success and vulnerability generate a sense of desperation, leading David to blend into society in order to fill the void – for he is not strong enough to oppose the norms. After arriving in France, David is viewed conforming to gender norms. He cannot find success and, once again, succumbs to vulnerability, attempting to conform. Despite his desires for homosexual relationships, he tries to suppress them. David’s struggle is evident when he describes, “I was trembling. 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, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed. With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes” (Baldwin 64). Instead of describing the scene with happiness or how he embraced his desires, he portrays it as a forceful act. As compared to his interaction with Joey, David, after realizing that homosexuality contradicts societal norms, is more concerned about conformity than his sexual partner, Giovanni.

David’s inability to be successful builds an environment where he cannot comfortably be himself. In contrast to societal oppression against homosexuality, in “In Cold Blood,” Perry is constrained into a stereotypical woman’s role due to his lack of masculinity and success. Perry had a tough childhood, leading him to turn to crime. However, he couldn’t even be a successful criminal as he ended up in jail. After release, his inability to stand on his own forced him to rely heavily on Dick. This dependency leads Perry to a vulnerable position, pushing him into a woman’s stereotypical role. Perry’s imposed gender role is evident when Dick claims, “He is very touchy; his feelings are very easily hurt” (Capote 131). At least in the 1950s, part of a woman’s stereotypical role was to be emotional and easily hurt. Dick indicates how Perry exhibits these characteristics. Dick treats Perry this way, even referring to him by “wife names,” when he says, “A cinch,’ said Dick. ‘I promise you, honey, we’ll blast hair all over them walls” (Capote 22). Dick’s usage of “honey” for Perry establishes a traditional boy-girl relationship replacing their friendship.

This relationship creates two gender roles: a male and a female role, each role to be filled by a specific character. Dick takes the masculine role, shown when Capote explains, “Dick’s literalness, his pragmatic approach to every subject, was the primary reason Perry had been attracted to him, for it made Dick seem, compared to himself, authentically tough, invulnerable, ‘totally masculine’” (Capote 16). Dick is described as totally masculine, and is often seen taking charge. Dick fulfills the traditional masculine role, which forces Perry to fill the other side of the relationship. Perry lets Dick be the leader and follows his plans. As Perry was unable to find success on his own, he is forced into a stereotypical women’s gender role in order to work with Dick and attempt to gain success. Perry is even treated as a woman by society, shown when Capote states, “The jail contains six cells; the sixth [is] the one reserved for female prisoners…Far as I know, Perry Smith was the first man ever to have stayed in the ladies’ cell” (Capote 252). Perry is the first man to ever stay in the women’s cell, demonstrating society’s view of him as a woman.

In contrast to Perry and David’s lack of success and adherence to traditional gender roles, in Radioactive, Marie Curie is able to defy gender roles and overcome gender barriers to further her career. Marie’s success is revealed when Redniss writes, “On June 25, 1903, Marie defended her thesis ‘Researches on Radioactive Substances,’ and became the first woman in France to receive a doctorate… Before the year was out… Marie Curie and Pierre Curie were recognized for the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena.’ They had won the Nobel Prize” (Redniss 72-73).

Marie’s research is held in high esteem, with her earning a doctorate due to her contributions. Contrary to the societal gender role that suggests women cannot contribute to science as much as men can, Marie redefines this view with her work. She is placed onto the same level as her husband when they both win the Nobel Prize. Marie Curie was the first woman to receive both a doctorate and a Nobel Prize, a testament to her success. Even after her husband’s death, Marie is able to continue her career, shown when Redniss notes, “The Sorbonne offered Marie her late husband’s professorship. For the first time in the university’s 650-year history, a woman became a professor – a bittersweet triumph given the circumstances” (Redniss 110). Marie defies gender roles despite the absence of Pierre, advancing in her career and redefining professorship at The Sorbonne. Marie’s influence shakes societal expectations and surprises some women.

Marie explains, “I have been frequently questioned, especially by women, how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career” (Redniss 76). Marie is frequently asked this question instead of Pierre because she is a woman and people are amazed that she can resist conforming to a woman’s typical motherly gender role. Marie’s success keeps her from conforming to gender roles and instead breaks the gender barriers that once limited women’s research. In all three of the novels, a character faces a conflict dealing with gender roles in society. The more successful characters, like Marie, can break these gender roles to further their success; however, other characters, like Perry and David, are not fueled by the same success and lack the ability and courage to challenge societal norms. In ‘Giovanni’s Room’, ‘In Cold Blood’, and ‘Radioactive’, characters grapple with societal gender roles and norms, with their ability to confront them directly depending on their success.

The Use Of Realistic Parallels In James Baldwin’s Novel Giovanni’s Room

By drawing realistic parallels to the actual human qualities of his audience and himself, James Baldwin expertly adds useful conflict to his plays. Baldwin strengthens his plots through the discovery of his characters and his own identity. He invites his audience to become part of the story by allowing them to identify with his characters or himself. For drama to be successfully written, it must contain conflict. If the play deals with family-related themes to be effective, it should represent either external conflict between characters and a cultural issue, or internal conflict within the family as its main issue or plot. If a play deals with more sensitive issues such as race or sexuality, it, too, must include conflict– perhaps incorporated through the development of events that have occurred in history.

Such events would serve to create a believable plot and help the reader relate to the issues at hand. Baldwin incorporates an interpersonal struggle between characters in “The Amen Corner,” which results in a powerful family drama. This resonates with audiences because of its honesty and real-life plot. “The Amen Corner,” written in 1952, explores the conflict between religious dogmatism and individual responsibility; it is a religious and deeply personal play drawn from the author’s experience within the church. James’s stepfather, David Baldwin, married his mother three years after James was born. As a laborer in a New York factory, David barely supported his new family. His first son Samuel, who was nine years older than James, received the majority of David’s love. When Samuel left home due to his resentment towards his father, James was left with a stepfather who blamed and hated him. Consequently, James was left to care for his two brothers and five sisters while his mother worked night shifts cleaning office buildings. As a child growing up in a northern black ghetto, Baldwin was subjected to ridicule and made to feel regretful of his race by his classmates, friends, and stepfather. James, who was always a quiet child with very little to express verbally due to the persecution he received at home, became a pastor in a local church at the age of only fourteen, partly to please his father and partly to escape from the solitude his youth brought to his life.

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The Firestone Pentecostal Assembly in Harlem. James’ stepfather, also a preacher for a local Baptist church, grew more jealous and hateful toward his son as he threw himself further into a relationship with God at such a young age. James began to associate with other members of the church, many of whom were not African Americans. This further angered his father. At the age of seventeen, James retreated from the church with much learned, mostly negative, about his feelings toward others. “This religious retreat of nearly three years made Baldwin understand his hate and his new need to wreak vengeance upon whites and even God.” After nearly six years of managing his junior high school and his high school’s newspapers and building upon his literary skills that he had always shown, James graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in January of 1942. Just one year later, on the same date that James’ youngest sister, Paula Marie, was born, his unloved stepfather died of Tuberculosis in a Long Island hospital. With little emotional feeling toward his father’s death, James was left with many family duties as the oldest of the three brothers. “James Baldwin had to face the harsh reality of the world with courage in order to support a family of which he was very proud.” James’ family consisted of George, born in 1927; Barbara, born in 1929; Wilmer, born in 1930; David born in 1931; Gloria born in 1933; Ruth born in 1935; Elizabeth born in 1937; and Paula Maria, the youngest child, born in 1943. After graduating from high school and understanding that he would be the sole moneymaker for his family, Baldwin searched for work in the New York area. His work in a New Jersey Railroad factory resulted in Notes of a Native Son.

This was a very angry time in James’ life. He wrote about his rage toward whites when his rights and those of other blacks were denied. Working as a cook in a Greenwich Village restaurant, Baldwin was able to support his family and avoid the draft during World War II. In 1948, Baldwin left the United States for France. He confessed to Margaret Mead in 1971, “I left because I wanted to live.” Earlier that year, Baldwin’s close friend, Eugene Worth, had committed suicide due to his lack of faith in living as an artist in New York. Baldwin related to Worth and the struggles that he faced. He knew that something needed to be done to jump-start his life and escape his death. Baldwin’s character and attitude changed during his first few years in Paris.

Lucian Happersberger became a friend to him, and through the sharp words in his essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” he ended his long-standing relationship with Richard White. This compelling literary debut was irrefutable proof that the young black writer from Harlem had started reflecting on his individual experiences and the broader black experience. In France, he had the opportunity to articulate the problems he had encountered in America from a comfortable and objective distance. Living with Happersberger in the Swiss Alps in 1952, James finished “Go Tell it on the Mountain” before returning to New York for his brother David’s wedding. Back in Europe, over the next three years, Baldwin immersed himself in writing several works. He began working on “Another Country,” which wouldn’t be published until 1962, “The Amen Corner,” one of his three plays, and “Giovanni’s Room,” which, upon his return to the United States in 1956, amplified his public recognition. That same year, he received the National Institute of Arts and Letters prize and a scholarship from Partisan Review magazine.

“In Paris, I started to see the sky for what seemed like the first time. This realization – which did not make me melancholic – was that the sky had always been there, long before I was born, and would continue to be there after I was gone. It was, therefore, entirely up to me to make the most of this temporary opportunity.” – James Baldwin, “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American”

After voluntarily spending almost eight and a half years in France, Baldwin relocated to New York to understand America better and to help America better understand him. While working on “Another Country,” he felt that returning to its real setting would solidify both the story and its characters. For the following four years, Baldwin moved between France and New York. He found the sanctuary of France conducive for introspection and peaceful writing, yet he always felt the need to live in the U.S. in order to communicate his message to Americans. Baldwin invested considerable time traveling in Southern U.S. where he studied the persecution of Southern blacks, which piqued his interest in the Civil Rights Movement. He used these experiences to inform his ideas for advancing the cause of blacks. Baldwin experienced considerable growth during this period. He evolved into a persuasive spokesperson for the black movements of the early 1960s and received prestigious honours, including a grant from the Ford Foundation.

This grant enabled him to dedicate more time to his work, and thus he become a respected figure among blacks across America. He published his second anthology of essays, “Nobody Knows My Name,” and began delivering speeches and attending meetings. His changing attitude during these years is evident in his writing. He was teaching himself to be more receptive and take lessons from others, instead of shutting off his emotions. These developments contributed towards America paying more attention to Baldwin’s message of love, not hate. Baldwin evolved into an effective spokesperson for Blacks in particular and America in general.

In the last twenty years of his life, James Baldwin fervently traveled, becoming a prominent figure in American history. His goal was to make Americans better understand America itself.

“Baldwin wrote much about his childhood, and almost without exception, his memory speaks of misery and confusion.” Baldwin wrote about everything from his childhood trials with his stepfather to his feelings on political issues. He dedicated a significant amount of time to the Civil Rights Movement, marching hand in hand with Martin Luther King. He was always ready to participate in nonviolent Civil Rights demonstrations during the war in Vietnam. As his years passed, it became harder for Baldwin to stay out of the public eye. His plays began to be produced and the media continued to report on his life. The FBI even began surveillance on him and his life in New York. James continued to travel and pursue literary plans while living a hazardous life. He began to drink heavily, starved himself, and became addicted to cigarettes. On December 1, 1987, James Arthur Baldwin died from complications due to cancer.

“The story Baldwin tells repeatedly, in his novels, his stories, his writings for the theatre, and in his essays, is of the attempt of a heroic innocent to achieve what Baldwin usually calls identity. Identity is by all measures his favorite word, but on occasion, the word is ‘manhood’ or ‘maturity’ – and the thwarting, then, of this hero by his society. The hero is prevented from entering the world.” – Harold Bloom.

James Baldwin uses the roles of Margaret, David, and Luke in his play “The Amen Corner” to show the interpersonal conflict that a family faces for being colored. In the play, Margaret grapples with her personal dreams of balancing a religious status with a happy family. These two extremes in her life not only help build her character but also create a plot. “I just want my man and my home and my children. But that’s all I wanted. That’s what I wanted! Sometimes what we want and what we ought to have aren’t the same. Sometimes, the Lord, He takes away what we want and gives us what we need.” This is a style often seen within successful plays. It is because of this internal battle that Maggie is the protagonist. David, Margaret’s son, finds his conflict in his search for himself through his family and his music. He pleads to his mother in Act III, “to find something to help me hide-to hide from what I’m feeling.”

“Mama, I want to be a man. It’s time you let me be a man.” His fight is internal as he grows up and realizes that his adult life is becoming more of a reality. He bases his dreams on the goals that he sees in Margaret and his father, Luke. Luke’s conflict lies in the recognition that he gets from his family versus that from his professional career. He is not the protagonist in ‘The Amen Corner,’ yet he does change and resolves his dreams in Baldwin’s play. Baldwin gives his characters genuine qualities that enable his reader to identify with them. This is important because it creates a physical existence in the play that can be compared to the conflicts that a reader might encounter. By creating characters with realistic dreams, inconsistencies, and flaws, ‘The Amen Corner’ will seem important in history and portray the issues that Baldwin wishes to highlight. This play finds the perfect balance between its characters and its readers. David’s construction of manhood throughout the play parallels with many problems that we see in a young adult’s struggle to grow up. Although his problems are more localized, dealing mostly with music and religion, we can gather enough to understand his dreams and relate them to characters we see in real life. David confesses, “Things started happening inside of me which had never happened before.”

“It was terrible. It was wonderful. I started looking around this house, around this church – like I was seeing it for the first time.” Because Margaret struggles with being a mother, a wife, and a preacher, it is just as easy for an audience to relate to her. We see early in the play that she seems to be content with her position as a mother of the church and of a family. We later discover that things may not be as ideal as we are led to believe. Baldwin establishes these aspects in her life similarly to create realism in her character.

Maggie’s problems are real enough, and fit into her simplified life well enough to allow the audience to connect with her as they would with themselves. Problems that we encounter as characters in life are relatively simple. Baldwin understands this and equips this cast with uncomplicated problems, as to allow our imaginations to improvise. “(Baldwin’s) career can be divided into two distinct thematic periods: 1) flight from self, quest for identity, and the sophisticated acceptance of one’s blackness; 2) apocalyptic vision of racial and sexual oppression. At the core of his fiction is an existentialist psychology, all identity emerges from the void.” – Robert Bone, ‘The Novels of James Baldwin.’ ‘Blues for Mr. Charlie’ attempts to portray the real issues of the black problem. ‘The Fire Next Time’ paints a picture of the consequences of neglect. ‘Notes of a Native Son’ and ‘Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son’ emphasize the struggle involved with Baldwin’s (and all African Americans’) struggle for identity to be a human specimen. ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain’ is extremely autobiographical, dealing with religious themes, and ‘Going to Meet the Man’ demonstrates Baldwin’s desire to unify spiritual and cultural experiences. Finally, ‘Another Country’ depicts the significance of human relationships, in all diverse manners.

Baldwin uses The Amen Corner to express his personal issues through his life. Specifically, he shows through the character of David how many of the conflicts that occur in this play also occurred in his life. This is yet another quality that brings out the realism in his stories; he can use his own life to demonstrate the reality of his issues. Baldwin spent many of his early years grappling with inner conflict between the church, himself, and his family, much like David racing to find himself through musical and social activities. Baldwin discovered these problems as he was transitioning into adulthood. He grew up without his biological father and showed interest first in the church, then later in music. Baldwin has attempted to use his playwriting to discover himself and address issues that he has encountered and lived through in his lifetime, such as religion, racism, homosexuality, and jazz. An author is likely to discover realistic qualities in their characters if they model them after real people, as Baldwin has done with himself. James Baldwin is an author who shapes his characters to underscore his arguments. In The Amen Corner, he molds David after himself in an autobiographical manner, to infuse undeniable human qualities into the play and his plot. He uses his characters as tools to create a compelling family drama and highlight the conflict that he perceives as vital. By using these devices, he can engage his audience and allow them to relate to his cast and his plot of interpersonal conflict within a black family and his own identity. Bibliography: Baldwin, James.

The Amen Corner. Hatch & Shine. Black Theatre USA, New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1996. Bloom, Harold. James Baldwin New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991. Gounard, Jean-Francois. The Racial Problem in the Works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Translated by Joseph J. Rodgers, Jr. Westport, Connecticut Greenwood Press, 1992. Hay, Samuel A. African American Theatre: An Historical and Critical Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Mead, Margaret. “A Rap on Race: How James Baldwin and Margret Mead Talked a Book.” Redbook, September, pp. 70-72, 75. 1971. Porter, Horace A. Stealing the Fire Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1989. Standley, Fred L. and Nancy V. Standley. James Baldwin: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980. Troupe, Quincy. James Baldwin: The Legacy, New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1989.

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