Details and Atmosphere

Throughout the first two chapters of Giovanni’s Room I have noticed a distinct dichotomy in the author’s use of descriptive language. From the very beginning, David narrates from the first person and uses a lot of text to describe his surroundings.

“I have a drink in my hand, there is a bottle by my elbow. I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane. My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blonde hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times.”

Such descriptive language allows the reader to visualize the intricate environments and also allows the author to impart a distinct sense of atmosphere. By using vivid descriptors, the author builds the world for us.

Despite David using so many adjectives and working so thoroughly to set the atmosphere of the novel, there are a few places where description is keenly lacking. Though we may be able to imagine the rooms, and the streets, and the backdrops, David does not fully describe the people. If he does, it is usually only after they have been introduced. It takes multiple pages after we are told about Joey for David to mention his looks (other than that he is dark), and even then the details are fleeting:

“I saw suddenly the power in his thighs, in his arms, and in his loosely curled fists.”

A similar pattern occurs with Giovanni, where he is mentioned many times while we still have no idea who he is. It is only in chapter 2 that David describes Guillaume’s new bartender:

“He stood, insolent and dark and leonine, his elbow leaning on the cash register, his fingers playing with his chin, looking out at the crowd.”

And even then, readers still don’t know that this man is, in fact, Giovanni until a full page later.

Finally, it is interesting to note the one place where this pattern is flipped, and that is with David himself. The first quotation in this post comes from the very first page of the book. However, despite knowing his appearance and stature, we do not know who he is until much later. We are aware he is the narrator, but we are only told that his name is David on page 15 (in my copy).

Thus the questions arise:

  1. How do authors use descriptive language and detail to tell their story and in what kinds of ways can they be used? What affect does their use have on how the reader is meant to interpret the text?
  2. Why does David give us so much detail about his surroundings? Why do you think the people in the story are described less than the settings?

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