Ennui and Identity in Giovanni’s Room

The concept of ennui is extremely prevalent in the starting chapters of Giovanni’s Room. In the OED, ennui is defined as “The feeling of mental weariness and dissatisfaction produced by want of occupation, or by lack of interest in present surroundings or employment”. According to the OED, one of the word’s  first appearances is in reference to the French, fitting considering its setting in Paris.

A repeated motif in the novel is darkness such as empty voids and caverns. In describing the feelings he had after his night with Joey, his “body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured until madness came, in which I would lose my manhood.” David has a dream where his dead mother attacks him in her grave bringing him into “a breach so enormous as to swallow [him] alive”. This darkness is symbolic of David’s struggle with his identity in that his identity is something both unknown and terrifying to him.

After his first homosexual encounter with Joey, David shuts himself off from the world. He had “decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me…by not looking at the universe, by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect, in constant motion.” To escape the terror of being queer, David goes into a state of ennui, drifting through life, emotionless, following along with the concept of ennui.

However, this leaves David unsatisfied. Consequently, he moves to France “to find” himself. France, particularly Paris, is the home of artists and creators. What does David hope to find in Paris? In describing America to Giovanni, he describes it as a place of constant motion opposed to Paris as a more static old place. Paris then serves as a place for David to ground himself and find his identity.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the significance of the novel’s setting in Paris? And why would David want to “find himself” there?
  2. How would you describe the initial mood of the novel?
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