The Ties That Bind Personal Feelings in Giovanni's Room

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Rachel Greenwald Smith argues that the depiction of individual feelings in literature precludes readers from observing and understanding the systems, institutions, and networks present in society. Conversely, Judith Butler claims that it is through personal feelings such as grief that we come to know how connected to each other we truly are. In this essay, I provide an overview of both Smith and Butler’s theoretical positions and the places in which these theories converge. I then analyze the personal feelings and relationships present in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room through the lens of each theory. Smith argues that literature about “personal feelings” perpetuates neoliberal ideas of individualism, and obscures connections between humans. In contrast, Judith Butler believes that one’s individual emotions can illuminate connection and cause us to recognize the ways in which we affect and are affected by the lives of others. For both, individuals are irrevocably connected to those around them, both close and far. The personal feelings that are owned and controlled by the individual, and emphasis on connection only for personal gain that Smith describes as hallmarks of neoliberalism are present in Giovanni’s Room. The characters in the novel are largely focused on self-advancement, and do not hesitate to leverage their personal relationships to achieve this end. The vulnerability, grievability, and connection that Butler describes are also present throughout Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin illuminates the ties that constitute his characters both explicitly and implicitly. In Giovanni’s Room, personal feelings illuminate the ways in which society acts upon the individual. While both Smith and Butler offer a valid and productive method of engaging with the text, Butler’s theory offers insight into Giovanni’s Room that Smith’s theory occludes. It is through Butler’s perspective that the reader can see all that Giovanni’s Room has to offer.

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