Shame, Dirt and the Suppression of Desire
Twentieth Century Literature
As a result of consequential conceptions surrounding sex, distinct sexual identities are suppressed within society. Those who experience desires that deviate from the norm are shamed and made to feel smaller than others. Cereus Blooms at Night and Giovanni’s Room illustrate the internalization of shame — defined by their father figures specifically — and the spiral of self-destruction it results in. Through a comparative analysis of Chandin and David — as men who struggle in one way or another with their sexual identities — this paper will expose the tendency of each character to fall back on women they have no desire for in order to suppress their true feelings. As an analysis will demonstrate, the texts routinely invoke figurative imagery of cleanliness and dirt in order to mark a distinction between acceptable desire and deviance.
Chandin is adopted into the Thoroughly family as a young boy. He is raised Christian under the wing of Reverend Thoroughly, who assumes the role of his father. The only girl Chandin ever feels desire for is the Thoroughly daughter, Lavinia. His feelings are so strong they result in, “A rash of jealously [which] darkens […] his days and [makes] his nights sweaty and fitful” (35). As they grow stronger he stops looking at her all together, “feeling that the flame he [can] feel burning in his cheeks and the odd and unspeakable sensation filling his trousers and the pleading in his eyes [are] all too visible” (35). Before Reverend Thoroughly confronts him about his discernible desire for Lavinia, Chandin knows his feelings are not acceptable. As such, he says they “[are] all the more unbearable because he [knows] he dare not express them” (35).
Conversely, David grows up with his biological father. He too, feels desires he knows he should not. While Chandin falls in love with his sister, David falls in love with boy named Joey. He recalls the first night he ever slept with Joey, “Odd to remember, for the first time in so long, how good I felt that night, how fond of Joey” (7). The morning after they sleep together, David wakes up and admires Joey’s naked body. He refers to it as the most beautiful creation he has ever seen. His admiration cripples, as he comes to the realization that Joey is a boy. The body David previously admired “suddenly [seems] the black opening of a cavern in which [he will] be tortured till madness [comes], in which [he will] lose his manhood” (9). David also refers to his own mind as a cavern, “black [and] full of rumor, suggestion, of half-hearted, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words” (9). In his mind, his desire for Joey is dirty. He cannot stand the fact he acted on it. Before deciding to close the door on his friendship with Joey forever, he wonders what his father would think if he knew.
The shame Chandin and David feel for their desires settles in once they are told what is expected of them by their fathers. Reverend Thoroughly summons Chandin to his office. Chandin stands in front of his desk, as he imagines a son might stand waiting for his father. While the Reverend stalls the confrontation, Chandin considers confiding in the Reverend, and confessing his desire for Lavinia. To his surprise, the Reverend firmly states, “Your attentions have not been unnoticed by my wife and me” (39). Chandin’s heart sinks into his stomach as the Reverend slams the top of his desk with his fist spewing the words, “You cannot, you must not have desire for your sister Lavinia. That is surely against God’s will” (40). After Chandin is dismissed, he stands outside holding his stomach, as it seems to be tied in a knot. The Reverend confirms for Chandin what he wishes were not true. The desire he feels for his sister is supposedly wrong. He mumbles to himself, “She is not my sister. Why couldn’t I say that instead of grinning? She is not my sister. It’s not that wrong, is it? It can’t be” (40).
David knows what his father expects without confrontation. As he lay in his bed listening to his father drunkenly argue over David with his sister late at night, he says, “all I want for David is that he grow up to be a man” (15). David knows being a man surely does not constitute sleeping with other men. Although never explicitly stated, David feels pressure from his father to be with a woman. Even while living in Paris, his father awaits a letter from David, telling him he has fallen in love. Due to the expectation of their fathers, Chandin and David internalize their shame, and develop hatred for the ones they truly desire.
David walks out on Joey and never looks back. When he finally sees him again, and only by accident, he lies to him, by telling him he has been seeing a girl from school. When the semester starts up again, he hangs around with an older crowd and is nasty toward Joey. The fact this upsets Joey only makes David nastier. He refers to his time with Joey as the darkening summer, which brought him to the state he lives in as a grown man — a state of shame and self-hatred. In his own words, he became a specialist in self-deception that summer. A specialist whose decisions were “elaborate systems of evasion,” resorted to in order to make himself appear to be what he is not. “This is certainly what my decision, made so long ago in Joey’s bed came to” he recalls (20). “I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something, which shamed and frightened me” (20).
On the other hand, Chandin knew his love for Lavinia would never die. After his confrontation with the Reverend, he makes a decision to suppress his desire so well no one will be able to trace it. Only he, “in the privacy of his own room after he [turns] out the light, [will] know his love still [glows]” (40). When Lavinia takes off to the Shivering Wetlands, he too develops hatred. Chandin knows, “As long as she [stays] in the Wetlands he [will] be able to keep at bay his unquenchable desire for her and his ferocious hatred, not of her but of the effect she [wields]” (52). Chandin and David feel a sense of hatred toward Joey and Lavinia because they cannot help but desire them. They wish they could desire someone else, someone more acceptable to love.
Not only do they internalize a sense of hatred for the way Lavinia and Joey make them feel. They also develop a sense of hatred for themselves. This self-hatred is evident through passages where Chandin and David observe themselves in long or large mirrors. Chandin watches himself in a long mirror, and sees what he most fears: “a short and darkly brown Indian-Lantanacamaran boy with blue-black hair” (36). Chandin wishes he looked different. He knows an upper class Christian girl like Lavinia could never love a boy like him, let alone the fact he is her adopted brother. His race and place in society make him feel even more ashamed about his desire. David is just as uncomfortable with himself as Chandin. He is terribly aware of mirrors throughout the narrative. The image he sees in the mirror frightens him, because he sees his body as reflective of the ‘dirty’ desire he feels inside. He fears the way the world will perceive him. He hopes no one notices how insecure of himself he truly is.
Due to the internalization of shame, Chandin and David attempt to shelter themselves from their desires by falling back on what societal norms expect of them. Chandin and David decide to marry women they feel no desire for. The lack of desire they feel for their chosen spouses’ results in failed relationships. After Joey, David falls in love with another man named Giovanni while living in Paris. As a relationship evolves with Giovanni, his mind gradually floods with fear, as the same desires he had tried so hard to suppress with Joey flow back to him. As a result of this fear, he falls back on a heteronormative monogamous relationship with a woman named Hella. He does this, in part, to please his father. After David moves to Paris he gets along well with his father, but knows the only reason they get along is because “the vision I [give] my father of my life [is] exactly the vision in which I myself most desperately [need] to believe” (20). David struggles to make this vision a reality as he attempts to forget Giovanni, the same way he forgot Joey.
When he gets together with Hella he writes a letter to his father informing him, “Hella has already made me a very happy man” (124). Although his words are untruthful, David tries hard to make them true. He kisses her, “trying to find [his] way in her again, as though she [is] a familiar, darkened room in which [he] fumbles to find the light” (121). In committing himself to Hella, David is “[forcing] her to relinquish reins” over his desire (122). Despite his effort to “drive out fire with fire,” the reality of Giovanni’s touch cannot be suppressed (122). Even while he lies close to Hella, his mind is a mile away. When his fingers metaphorically lose grip on Hella, he says he has never felt more frightened in his life. “I [realize] that I [am] dangling from a high place and that I [have] been clinging to her for my very life. With each moment, as my fingers [slip], I [feel] the roaring air beneath me and [feel] everything in me bitterly contracting” (158). As hard as he tries to hold on to Hella, he knows he cannot live happily with her.
Chandin similarly fails at his attempt at a relationship with another woman. His heart is heavy with heartbreak as the Reverend tells Chandin Lavinia will marry a man she met in the Wetlands. His broken heart weighs him down further when the Reverend informs him the man she will marry is a distant cousin. The Reverend demanded Chandin to suppress his desire for Lavinia because they are siblings, yet approves of her marrying her cousin. His preference is reflective of Chandin’s class and race. Chandin knows he will never be with Lavinia, and so decides to fall back on Sarah, a woman of his own cultural background.
Without thinking, Chandin tells the Reverend he too has been thinking of marriage. He lies, saying “I, I think it’s time for me also. I have been thinking of Sarah. In the same way David needs Hella, Chandin wants “nothing more than to collapse in the security of a woman” (48–49). Six weeks after asking the Reverend’s permission, he and Sarah are married. Although Chandin is with Sarah for a longer period of time, and has children with her, he too fails at his relationship. He likes watching his children play, but is otherwise a dispassionate husband. He and Sarah rarely speak unless it is absolutely necessary.
The only day Chandin ever compliments his wife is the day Lavinia is set to visit. After her engagement is broken off, Lavinia comes back to Lantanacamara, and “Chandin [is] like an excited child” (54). He pays a man to put “two coats of whitewash on his weathered mudra house” (54). He takes out his white shirts and trousers, and has Sarah bleach, starch and press them. In preparation for her arrival, there are multiple references to cleanliness and whiteness in the text. Even the colour of Chandin’s children seems suddenly too dark to him. He says he wants to “remove himself from his wife and his children but [knows] it is impossible” (55). The references to whiteness in the passage reflect the fact Chandin wishes he were white. This way he would be able to express his desire for Lavinia without any protest against it.
In the same way Chandin feels dark and dirty about his race and his desire for Lavinia, David feels dark and dirty about homosexuality and his desire for Giovanni. Before the two split, Giovanni confronts David about his fear of desire. He accuses David of being incapable of loving anyone. He says David loves loves his purity too much. He refers to him as a little virgin (141). With saliva spraying from his lips and tears from his eyes, he cries, “You want to be clean. You think you came here covered with soap and you think you will go out covered with soap — and you do not want to stink, not even for five minutes in the meantime” (141). Giovanni hates how fearful of love David is. It disgusts him the same way same-sex desire disgusts David. They despise each other because they love each other. “His touch never [fails] to make me feel desire,” David admits, “yet his hot, sweet breath also [makes] me want to vomit” (105).
The internalization of shame and self-hatred lead Chandin and David down a spiral of self-destruction. As a result of hatred, they turn to alcohol to numb their pain. David starts drinking more heavily after the incident with Joey, when he still lives at home. He feels he cannot discuss what happened to him with anyone. “I [cannot] even admit it to myself,” he says (16). “While I never [think] about it, it [remains], nevertheless, at the bottom of my mind, as still and as awful as a decomposing corpse. And it changed,” he recalls. “It thickened, soured the atmosphere of my mind” as time went on (16). After he breaks Joey off, he spends his nights out drinking and comes stumbling through the door late at night the same way his father always had.
His habits get so bad he ends up in the hospital, after getting behind the wheel under the influence. David continues to drink while living in Paris. As his feelings toward Hella seem to turn sour in his stomach — the same way the thought of Joey did — he goes out to a bar and ends up sleeping with a man, whom he later loses her over. Drinking numbs the pain David feels about himself and his desire. As such, it is what he most often resorts to. Chandin does the same after Sarah and Lavinia run off to spend their lives together, leaving him with his daughters. Chandin loses himself after this happens. He comes stumbling home from work everyday — the same way David did as a teenager. The only difference is he directs his anger physically toward his daughters when he is intoxicated.
The internalization and suppression of desire lead Chandin and David to a dark places they wish they never knew existed. Their father figures play a role in defining what is and is not shameful. Chandin is made to feel small for loving Lavinia, the daughter of an esteemed Christian Reverend, who happens to white and privileged, while David is made to feel small for not living up to stereotypical expectations of manhood. Both try hard to engage in relationships with women in order to suppress their true desire for the ones they feel they should not or cannot be with. Although Chandin and David are rife with passion at the start of each narrative, the only feeling they are left with by the close of the narrative is despair.
Word count: 2584
Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. The Dial Press, 1956.
Mootoo, Shani. Cereus Blooms at Night. McClelland & Stewart Ltd, 1996.