Sexuality in Giovanni’s Room and Howl: The Importance of Labels | Teen Ink

Sexuality in Giovanni’s Room and Howl: The Importance of Labels

April 29, 2019
By amysotog GOLD, Miramar, Florida
amysotog GOLD, Miramar, Florida
10 articles 0 photos 0 comments

The way people identify in society often correlates with the different societal labels they feel associated with. For instance, American people of African descent often identify with the label of African-American because they feel connected to others in that group who share a similar appearance, culture, and history. Similarly, one’s self-perception, or how people view themselves, also has to do with which societal labels people feel they fall under. Continuing the previous example, many African-Americans view themselves as a minority in everyday life due to that particular group’s long history of oppression that still goes on today. Another, very important, societal label that often influences people’s identity and self-perception, is that of the sexuality they feel associated with. In the novel “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin, the author portrays how sexuality negatively influences identity and self-perception as seen through the narrator, David’s character, a closeted gay adult male in the 1950s. In comparison, the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg demonstrates how sexuality can more positively influence identity and self-perception as seen through the author’s ideas and the way in which they are presented.

The 1950s novel by James Baldwin examines the character of David, who spends most of his life prior to the current happenings of the story “trying to outrun and reject his past and aspects of his identity which he wishes to ignore.” (Celestin, 7) Through his inner struggle, one can see how his sexuality along with his defiance towards it negatively affected his identity and self-perception. From the beginning of the story, David labels himself as heterosexual, introducing his girlfriend, Hella, who “is on her way back to America.” (Bloom, 82) However, it seems as though David does not really know who he is, as he looks back on his life, wondering where things went wrong. As the story unfolds, we see that it is because of David’s denial of his sexuality that he is unable to be happy. Throughout the story, David suggests feelings of confinement and self-hatred, because of his inability to accept himself as a homosexual. For instance, in David’s foretelling of his first homosexual encounter, he uses dark imagery in order to associate Joey, the boy whom he had slept with, “with what is sour in himself.” (Kemp, 35) Furthermore, David describes the room, in which he lived in with his lover Giovanni, as “filthy and hideous because he considers his own inner nature, his own undeniable homosexuality, in the same way.” (Kemp, 38) David often projected his own self-hatred onto others who were able to label their sexuality comfortably, unlike him. Later on in the story, David continues to deny his true self and sleeps with an old acquaintance in order to prove to himself that he likes women. However, he is unable to be happy with his girlfriend and she “discovers him in a bar with a sailor.” (Bloom, 85) Towards the end of the novel, we see David come to accept the fact that he will stay miserable forever as he now deals with feelings of guilt and shame for Giovanni, who was executed for killing a gay bar owner. As shown by Baldwin, through David’s struggle to accept himself, sexuality can negatively affect one’s identity and self-perception, if they are unable to be true to their chosen label.

Unlike the previous, the poem by Allen Ginsberg shows a more positive side to how sexuality can influence identity and self-perception. Throughout this poem, we see how Allen Ginsberg strongly identified with the homosexual label and how greatly that affected his writing. The poem mainly consists of his own personal thoughts about his generation as well as a message for his friend Carl Solomon, whom he met in a psychiatric hospital. “Howl” is mostly written in the form of a long-winded rant; it “communicates the sense of a sudden, angry eruption of instincts.” (Breslin, 222) In addition to this, the piece contains so much explicit imagery and language, for the time it was published, that the publisher “was charged with publishing and selling obscene material,” (Petersen, 1) although in the end the poem was ruled not obscene. The poem uses a lot of imagery depicting drug-induced hallucinations as well as sexual experiences and feelings. It is also important to note that Ginsberg had been kicked out from Columbia University for ‘inappropriate’ behaviour, referencing his involvement with drugs and the gay community, long before this. The piece was really a “released flood of raw experience and emotion” (Breslin, 223) on Ginsberg’s part, where he criticized the society he lived in for treating him poorly while also consoling his friends who were given similar treatment. Taking all of this into account, one can see that Ginsberg was unafraid to be bold and obscene if it meant getting his point across, something that he clearly inherited from society’s constant and obvious dislike of his sexuality. Furthermore, in the poem, Ginsberg claims that the best minds of his generation were destroyed by societal norms, explaining that these are people who are admitted into mental hospitals; these people asked for “immediate release from their heads,” and instead got “prolonged incarceration.” (Breslin, 223) Here, Ginsberg is suggesting that people with mental illness are geniuses who are misunderstood and locked up for being different. This shows how sexuality can influence self-perception as at the time, homosexuality was believed to be a mental illness, so essentially, he thought his sexuality and differentness actually made him better than others. Ginsberg also seems to view himself as a minority not only because he was part of a generation that was destroyed but also because of his sexuality. Through this poem, Ginsberg was able to step out of “the formalism of the fifties” and let out a “prolonged and impassioned cry” (Breslin, 222) of himself. This shows how Ginsberg was positively influenced by his sexuality to be brave and outspoken, despite the societal views of the time.

Both texts contrast plenty on how they demonstrate that sexuality can influence identity and self-perception. David’s character in “Giovanni’s Room” spends a long time running away from his sexuality, leading him to feel lost in life unable to really be happy as he does not want to accept who he is. He makes several attempts to convince himself that he is straight but ultimately, this leads to a deep self-hatred. This story shows that sexuality can make people feel lost, unable to really identify with one label or group of people and that it can damage one’s self-perception greatly, leaving only feelings of guilt, shame, and hopelessness behind. In contrast, Ginsberg’s personal piece shows that when embraced and celebrated, sexuality can actually make people feel empowered, as seen through his attitude and voice in the poem. Ginsberg was able to open himself up in this poem, in order to criticize society’s disapproval towards people who are different, such as people who were open about using drugs and being sexually active as well as those who were mentally ill. His sexuality and life experiences as a minority gave him a strong enough voice in order to state his opinions boldly and uncaringly in this piece. Sexuality gave Ginsberg a sense of belonging and a strong and positive perception of himself. Further on, the two pieces also show how sexuality can affect identity and self-perception differently as seen through their manner of presentation. “Giovanni’s Room” presents a much more slow struggle with finding oneself as David’s character must go through a lot of denials before he can realize the effect of his sexuality on his life. Then you have Ginsberg, who presents his ideas much more obscenely, often referencing homosexual activities in his poem, giving his audience a clear opinion on what he thinks about his sexuality. The two narrators clearly are affected by their sexuality in many different ways. Thus, the two texts differ on the sides of sexuality they show and how it influences identity and self-perception.

However, the two pieces although obviously different in both style and tone do have some similarities in the way that they show how sexuality can influence identity and self-perception. For instance, both “Giovanni’s Room” and “Howl” exhibit how societal views in the 1950s factored into the way sexuality influenced people. Baldwin shows this through the extensive self-hatred David develops due to his internalized homophobia acquired from American ideals on homosexuals at the time, while Ginsberg shows this by publicly blaming and criticizing society for destroying the minds of homosexuals by putting them in mental institutions. Furthermore, the two texts also deal with a more internalized storyline. “Giovanni’s Room” is a novel with little plot as most of the action comes from the extensive and intricate descriptions of David’s inner feelings and his struggle towards self-discovery. Similarly, the poem “Howl” consists mostly of Ginsberg’s personal feelings towards society and heavy descriptions of his experiences. Thus, both texts, although undoubtedly different in their portrayal of sexuality’s influence on oneself, do have some similarities in their ideas and presentation.

In summary, the texts “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin and “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, show how sexuality can influence identity and self-perception in many different ways. Baldwin’s piece displays a negative perspective through David’s character as he struggles to fit himself into a label that he can clearly not identify with, leading him to self-loathing. Meanwhile, Ginsberg’s piece demonstrates how, when accepting of one’s true self, sexuality can inspire an outspoken, strong, and unafraid attitude towards life. The two pieces express contempt towards unaccepting societies that pressure non-heterosexuals to become something they are not and present detailed internalized descriptions of emotions. It is clear, that sexuality is a huge part of a person’s sense of self no matter which labels they associate themselves with.

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Works Cited Page

Bloom, Harold. James Baldwin, Updated Edition. Chelsea House, 2007. Infobase eBooks. 

Breslin, James E. B. "Allen Ginsberg's Howl." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Roger Matuz and Cathy Falk, vol. 69, Gale, 1992. Literature Criticism Online. Accessed 2 Aug. 2018. Originally published in From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965, by James E. B. Breslin, The University of Chicago Press, 1984, pp. 77-109.

Celestin, Amber. “DEFINING SPACES: GIOVANNI'S ROOM AND THE JOURNEY TO IDENTITY”. 2010. Accessed 7 Aug. 2018.

Kemp, Williams. "The Metaphorical Construction of Sexuality in Giovanni's Room." Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 229, Gale, 2010. Literature Criticism Online. Accessed 2 Aug. 2018. Originally published in Literature and Homosexuality, edited by Michael J. Meyer, Rodopi, 2000, pp. 23-33.

Petersen, Jennifer B. “Allen Ginsberg.” EBSCO, Great Neck Publishing, 1 Sept. 2005. Accessed 2 Aug. 2018.

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