David, an American expatriate, drinks alone in a house he rented with his ex-fiancée Hella, in the south of France. He remarks that for everyone else the next morning will proceed as usual, except he will have to face the “most terrible morning of my life.” David recalls meeting Hella for the first time and their subsequent engagement. As David continues to drink, he wonders about Hella’s trip back to the United States, while Giovanni, an Italian immigrant David fell in love with in Paris, is set to be executed in the morning.
Thoughts of Giovanni lead David to remember an incident that he had been trying to forget involving his first sexual encounter with a man. One summer when David was a boy, he spent the weekend with a friend named Joey in Coney Island, Brooklyn. David and Joey spend the day at the beach and later watch a movie in the evening, before returning to Joey’s apartment and falling asleep. That night, David awakens to find Joey inspecting his pillow for a bed bug. David teases Joey to go back to sleep and playfully grabs Joey’s head. To David’s surprise, Joey does not resist, and they begin to kiss and become intimate with one another. David is afraid, but also acknowledges joy and pleasure in the experience. In the morning, however, David is gripped with fear and shame and decides to forget the moment and never see Joey again.
David’s thoughts then turn to his childhood. We learn that his mother died when he was five years old and that he grew up with his father and his aunt Ellen. David describes his father as a gregarious man who liked to drink and flirt with women, while Ellen was overbearing. David remembers that his father and Ellen constantly fought about how to raise David. In one confrontation between Ellen and his father, David overhears Ellen chastise his father after a night of drinking. Ellen warns David’s father that his actions will have negative ramifications on David and David’s manhood. David reacts brashly toward this insinuation and finds himself hating his father and Ellen.
David recalls his rift with his father growing exponentially after the incident with Joey. David becomes cold and distant, acts out, and starts drinking with an older, rougher group. The turning point in their relationship occurs after David gets into a car accident. David and his father finally have a heartfelt discussion, and David cleans up his act and joins the army as a means of appeasing his father. David has very little to say about his stint in the army, but he does allude to having homosexual encounters while enlisted—including with a soldier who was later court-martialed for being gay. David admits to feeling an ensuing panic over that soldier’s punishment.
David remembers feeling unsatisfied following his return from the army and decides to move to Paris to discover who he truly is.
After two years in Paris, David finds himself broke and on the verge of losing his hotel room. With his girlfriend Hella in Spain and his father withholding funds, David reaches out to an older, gay acquaintance, Jacques. David sees Jacques—a wealthy Belgian-born American businessman—as a desperate and lonely man who gives financial support to young men in return for sex and companionship. In spite of his antipathy towards Jacques, David (who is in dire financial straits) agrees to meet Jacques for dinner.
Jacques gives David ten thousand francs (the equivalent to about $30 in 1956) at dinner, and they decide to continue the night by going to Jacques’ favorite bar. David notes that the bar is particularly rowdy that evening, filled with the local color and the “les folles” (a term that literally translates to “mad women,” but is used by David as slang for male homosexuals) who David scrutinizes for their flamboyant and femme behavior. While at the bar, the presence of a new barman, Giovanni, catches the attention of Jacques and David. David suspects that Giovanni will fall prey to Jacques and become another one of Jacques’s sexual conquests. Jacques, however, nudges David to invite Giovanni for a drink, suggesting that David might find a new friend in Giovanni. Eventually, Jacques and David are joined by the bar’s owner, Guillaume, at which point David reluctantly agrees to invite Giovanni to drink with them.
David and Giovanni strike up a conversation and discuss New York, Paris, and the differences between America and Europe. During their conversation, David expresses apprehension at being associated with America. Giovanni meanwhile laments that life in Paris is cold and detached, whereas in Italy the people are warmer, friendlier, and much more jovial.
Eventually, Giovanni questions the nature of David’s relationship with Jacques, to which David responds by clarifying that he and Jacques are only friends. Giovanni then assures David that he has made a friend in him and hopes that he will come to the bar more often. David tells Giovanni that it would take some more time and thinking before they can really be friends. Giovanni returns to his bar duties but tells David that they will finish their conversation when he returns. Though David enjoys his conversation with Giovanni it becomes apparent to him that the bar has been watching them, and he anxiously begins to wonder what they must think of him and Giovanni.
While waiting for Giovanni to return, David is approached by a “zombielike” and “ghoulish” figure. David is so unsettled by this person and their appearance that he describes them as an “it” before attributing them with a male pronoun. When the man speaks to David, he makes the insinuation that there is a budding romance between David and Giovanni. Offended by the suggestion, David lashes out at the man, telling the man to mind his own business and get away from him. The man leaves David alone, but not without warning David that his life will be very unhappy.
When David sees Jacques again, Jacques chides David for becoming the talk of the bar. David dismisses the idea that there is something going on between him and Giovanni. As David continues to drink at the bar, he acknowledges his happiness over Hella’s absence, and he thinks that if she were in Paris, he might not have met Giovanni. At the same time, David is overcome by the temptation to seek a prostitute but does not have the power to do so. The chapter closes with David acknowledging the impact that Giovanni has had on his life, and how even after Giovanni is executed, he will continue to haunt David.
David, Giovanni, Jacques, and Guillaume close the bar at five in the morning and hop into a taxi heading to Les Halles (the central food market in Paris) for breakfast. David stares out the window of the taxi and reflects on the morning sun and how it lights up the river and city streets. He wonders how he will tell Giovanni that he is not sexually attracted to him, but that they can still remain friends. When they arrive at a crossroads, Giovanni suggests an alternate location that is less of a tourist trap.
Guillaume criticizes the restaurant they arrive at as dirty and filled with vermin, but the men proceed inside anyway. Once inside, Giovanni is greeted by the hostess and they exchange pleasantries. The hostess playfully remarks that Giovanni is rich now and delighted to see that he has brought his rich friends along with him. After Giovanni introduces the hostess to David, Jacques, and Guillaume, they invite the woman to have a drink with them at the bar. The men spread out amongst the bar patrons, who are a combination of older men and young men. Guillaume flirts with some younger men, while Giovanni finds himself seated between an older gentleman and a young man with red hair.
Before Jacques decides to offer one of the younger men at the bar a drink, he congratulates David for finally letting his guard down and asks him whether David will write to Hella to tell her about this evening. David rebukes Jacques for his insinuation that he is acting any differently and tells Jacques to mind his own business. At the very least, Jacques says, he hopes that David will treat Giovanni with less malice than David has treated him. Hoping to turn the conversation away from himself, David scrutinizes Jacques’ lifestyle and expresses disgust in Jacques’ desperation and constant need to pay men for sex. Jacques closes the conversation by leaving David with the advice to love and to let himself be loved, lest he find himself in ruin.
Giovanni and David retreat to the dining room of the restaurant where they serve oysters and wine. Giovanni tells David about how he met Guillaume when he first moved to Paris, and how Guillaume offered him a job at the bar. After they finish their drink and oysters, David returns to Giovanni’s room, and the two have sex.
Back in the present, David’s remembrance is interrupted by the caretaker of the house. As David is due to leave in the morning, the caretaker is there to take inventory of the place. She inspects the house and questions David as to why he has not been seen around town, where Hella is, and if he has been eating. David coyly responds to her questions, embarrassed by the fact that he has gotten so drunk. Before the caretaker leaves, she advises David that a man should not be alone and the best thing he could do is return home and get married. After she leaves, David proceeds to clean the bathroom and the rest of the house, all the while thinking of Giovanni and the impending morning.
David recalls moving in with Giovanni in the spring and the routine they developed while together. A typical morning began with David picking up Giovanni from Guillaume’s bar, finding a place to have breakfast, and returning to Giovanni’s room. Unable to sleep right away, David and Giovanni drink cognac and coffee, smoke, and talk. David remembers a conversation with Giovanni one morning dealing with Hella’s eventual return to Paris. Giovanni finds Hella overbearing from David’s description of her, especially since David and Hella are not married, and wonders if she herself is not having a steamy affair with a Spaniard.
Believing that Hella will return to Paris soon, David alludes that he and Giovanni will not be able to see each other for fear of Hella discovering their secret and David not wanting to hurt Hella. Giovanni attempts to convince David that their homosexual affair is not something to be afraid of or even something to consider as dirty, though David lashes back and says that in the United States what they are doing is considered illegal. These conversations always take a heated turn, until David and Giovanni stop talking and fall asleep. At around three or four each afternoon, David walks Giovanni to Guillaume’s bar. David remembers the specific afternoon he felt genuine love for Giovanni and the joy he felt being with him. Simultaneously, however, David acknowledges a bourgeoning sense of hate and ambivalence toward Giovanni.
The chapter begins with a description of Giovanni’s room. David describes the room as small, dirty, and in constant disarray. At the onset of their relationship, David takes it upon himself to tidy the room up, thinking that by doing so he would improve Giovanni’s overall situation in life. David expresses how cleaning up the room made him feel like a “housewife,” something he took pleasure in initially, until he began to feel emasculated by this activity. As time passes on in that room with Giovanni, David becomes progressively uncomfortable and even starts to disdain his relationship with Giovanni.
When David is not with Giovanni, he sometimes visits the America Express office to retrieve his mail. One day he picks up a letter from his father and a letter from Hella, and he decides to read the one from his father first. His father writes quizzically about David’s life in Paris and implores him to return home, as he cannot see what David can possibly be doing in Paris for so long other than wasting time and money. David puts his father’s letter in his pocket and notices a young, good-looking sailor on the street. David thinks about the sailor with a combination of envy and desire when David suddenly realizes that he is inadvertently staring at the sailor. The sailor responds with a glare of disgust towards David, which reminds David of the way that he reacts to Jacques’ unwanted looks at him.
David sits down at a café table and opens Hella’s letter. He learns that she will be Spain for ten more days and that she cannot wait to return to Paris to be with him. While David is contemplating the impact of Hella’s return on his relationship with Giovanni, he decides to change his drink order from an aperitif to what he feels to be a classic American drink: a Scotch and soda. David decides that he is relieved by the news of Hella’s return and the eventual termination of his relationship with Giovanni. He reassures himself that he has no reason to feel guilty about his impending abandonment of Giovanni since it was always inevitable that he would return to Hella and that he had not hidden his relationship with Hella from Giovanni.
On his way to Montparnasse (a district in Paris known for being home to artists, cafés, and night-clubs), David is tempted to hook up with a girl to soothe his dread over breaking the news to Giovanni. Though he passes by a number of sex workers, he cannot bring himself to proposition them because he thinks he can do better. David stops at a local café to have a drink when he bumps into an acquaintance named Sue. The two have a drink and converse about their lives. Sue agrees to accept David’s proposition, and they then proceed to Sue’s apartment. Sue and David have a glass of cognac before having sex. While they are having sex, David thinks about Hella and Giovanni and begins to become increasingly anxious and ashamed by the situation. After they are done having sex, Sue asks David if he would like to go on a date, to which David lies and says he already has plans, and generally avoids making future dates. Sue catches on to David’s apprehension and tells him it would be okay to look for her whenever he is feeling lonely. In response, David tells Sue to leave a candle in the window.
After leaving Sue’s apartment, David walks along the river and is struck by thoughts of suicide. He begins to wonder about the lives of other people and the life that he wants for himself, a normative heterosexual life with a wife and children. Once David arrives at Giovanni’s apartment, David finds Giovanni in a manic, distressed state. Giovanni pours David a glass of cognac and tells him that he was fired by Guillaume earlier that evening. Guillaume had made a scene at the bar and accused Giovanni of being a thief and a shameless opportunist, before throwing some money from the cash register at Giovanni and kicking him out of the bar. At one point, Giovanni is so enraged by the occurrence that he breaks a glass. Giovanni tells David that if it were not for David, he would probably be dead.
David consoles Giovanni, suggesting that they get out of the apartment and have a drink. David further tries to calm Giovanni by telling him that everything will be okay financially between them, and that he will even write to his father to send him money so that they can survive until Giovanni is able to find another job. In that instant, David remembers feeling as if his life and his ability to guide his own life is spiraling away from him.
Back in the present day, David meanders around the house, thinking of Giovanni’s execution in the morning, and confesses that he truly did love Giovanni. David remembers a party at Jacques’ he attended one night where he met a man who spent half of his life in prison. David begins to imagine Giovanni in prison, the size of his cell, whether his hair has been cut, if they have shaved him, and other quotidian aspects of life. David wishes he was not alone tonight and hopes that someone is with Giovanni as well.
David recalls the days after Giovanni lost his job and his overall attitude. Giovanni put all his energy into fixing the room, a goal David saw as fruitless. During this time, Giovanni begins to grow more and more dependent on David, to the point where David feels overburdened by his presence. One morning, David and Giovanni have a heated argument about their finances, which leads David to suggest leaving Paris altogether, perhaps even visiting Spain. After David makes snide comments about Giovanni’s room, Giovanni senses David’s unhappiness with their predicament and asks David if he has heard from Hella. David says he has not heard from her in a while, but that she will be returning to Paris any day now. As tensions between them calm down and they embrace each other, David points out that they are only delaying the inevitable and deluding themselves into thinking that their relationship can last.
Hella’s letter finally arrives letting David know exactly when she will be arriving in Paris.
David thinks that reuniting with Hella will give him a sense of clarity and direction for what to do next with his life. At first, he does not feel anything revelatory about their reunion, but once they embrace David is overcome by a sense of joy and safety. On their way back to Hella’s hotel, Hella raves about her time in Spain. Once they arrive at her place, they have a conversation about their time apart, and subsequently about their future, and Hella’s decision to commit to David.
David writes to his father with the news of his engagement to Hella and that his father should finally send him the money he has been withholding from David. David makes sure to include a picture of Hella in the letter and assures his father that she is an American from Minneapolis.
On the third day after Hella’s return to Paris, David and Hella wander around the city and Hella brings up the subject of how difficult it is to be a woman. David is surprised by this discussion because she has never brought it up before. Hella talks about how women are seen as needing a man and the power imbalance between men and women in a relationship. For Hella, men in a relationship are always strangers, even if they have been together for fifty years. Hella firmly stands behind the conviction that she will never be at David’s mercy and that she will continue to read, think, and argue, well after they are married. David humors her by saying that she is “adorable” and remarking about he does not understand her at all.
While David waits for Hella in a bookstore, he bumps into Jacques who tells David about how distraught Giovanni was after David left him. To David’s evident displeasure, Giovanni arrives and is introduced to Hella. Jacques suggests they grab a drink, but Hella declines due to feeling ill. Back in Hella’s apartment, David tells Hella that he was living with Giovanni and that they had become friends, but he does not admit that they were sexually intimate as well. This less than fully truthful explanation furthers Hella’s suspicions as to why David was so nasty toward Giovanni and why Giovanni was frantically asking about where David had gone. David explains to Hella that Giovanni’s position in life is very low and that he can no longer be around Giovanni because Giovanni has turned David into a sort of savior, which David finds insufferable. David ends the conversation by suggesting they get away from Paris and that they should get some sleep since it is almost morning.
The following evening, David visits Giovanni to settle matters between them. David finds Giovanni crying in bed. Giovanni condemns David for leaving him alone and begins to tell David about his life in Italy. Giovanni was happy there until he had to bury his stillborn baby boy.
David is speechless while Giovanni tells his story, until he finally tells Giovanni that they can never be together, that two men can never be together. Giovanni points out to David that the true reason David cannot be with him is because David stubbornly clings onto an idea of purity and manhood. David draws the line and claims that he will never return to Giovanni. Giovanni offers David one last drink and the two of them spend one final evening together.
David remembers the sense of regret he felt as he left Giovanni’s room for the last time. The money from David’s father arrives in the autumn, and Hella and David keep themselves busy preparing to leave Paris.
During this period, David has a series of encounters with Giovanni that reveal Giovanni’s precarious and changing circumstances as well as David’s obsession with Giovanni. First, David recalls sometimes running into Giovanni with Jacques. He notices that Giovanni is wearing better clothes and acting subservient towards Jacques. Seething with anger and self-recrimination, David concludes that Giovanni is sleeping with Jacques in return for financial support. Later encounters with Giovanni suggest that he is living an itinerant existence. He wears less expensive clothes, and instead of being with Jacques he is in the company of “street boys of the quarter.” While drunk one night, David encounters Yves, the “street boy” who is closest to Giovanni and buys Yves a drink. Without directly asking about Giovanni, David gets confirmation that Giovanni is no longer with Jacques. Yves also says that Giovanni might be able to get his old job back at Guillaume’s bar.
Shortly after David is informed about Giovanni’s prospects, he learns that Guillaume was found dead in his apartment above his bar, having been strangled with the sash of his dressing gown.
The scandal of Guillaume’s death overtakes Paris. Giovanni, being a foreigner, becomes the perfect suspect for the crime. The media portrays Giovanni as a depraved outsider, while Guillaume is made to look like the perfect, respectable Parisian. David complains to Hella that Giovanni is being vilified and that Guillaume was actually a vile person. David remembers seeing the picture of Giovanni after he had finally been caught and how he thought about what happened to Giovanni during the week that he was on the run.
David imagines the scene of Guillaume’s death and the encounter between Guillaume and Giovanni that eventually led to Giovanni killing Guillaume. In David’s imagining of the event, Giovanni would be at Guillaume’s bar, Guillaume inviting Giovanni for a drink—and as one thing led to another, Guillaume would tell Giovanni to undress. Giovanni not wanting to succumb so low would decline and Guillaume’s death would ensue as a result of Giovanni’s rejection.
As Giovanni awaits his trial and verdict, David and Hella have already moved to the south of France. Though David tries to do his best by Hella, he is unable to get Giovanni out of his mind. His secret fixation with Giovanni’s fate leads to a tear in his relationship with Hella. Hella in turn begins to suspect that there is something wrong with David. His inability and refusal to disclose to Hella furthers the rift between them. Eventually, David admits that he feels guilty about leaving Giovanni, saying that if he had not left, Giovanni might not be on death row. Hella begs David to leave France, to move back to America, where they can get married and have a life together, and that there is nothing he can do for Giovanni now.
One night, David leaves Hella and travels to Nice where he meets a sailor. After spending a couple of nights with him, David is startled to find Hella standing behind him at a bar. By this point she has realized that David has homosexual tendencies, even though David tries his best to tell her otherwise. Hella feels foolish and tells David that she should have known better and hoped that David actually wanted to be with her. David fails to convince her to stay and the two have a drink before she leaves him entirely and returns to the United States.
Back in the present, David watches as the sun approaches the horizon. He has cleaned the house and packed his bag. The only thing left to do is to get on a bus and begin his journey home to the United States. Thoughts of his journey make him think about Giovanni. As David undresses in front of a mirror, he wonders if Giovanni’s execution has already occurred, and he wonders about Giovanni’s last moments on Earth and Giovanni’s last words. David wishes to say he is sorry.
The realization finally occurs to David that everything that has happened to him—and between him and Giovanni—has been a great lesson, one that will bring him salvation and redemption if he is able to accept it. As David waits for the morning bus, he tears apart a blue envelope Jacques had sent with a note informing David of the date of Giovanni’s execution. The wind carries away the pieces, but as David walks away the wind carries some of the pieces back toward him.