In his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin divides his narrative into three distinct parts. The first section, “The Seventh Day,” sets the novel’s central action, what Shirley S. Allen, in “Religious Symbolism and Psychic Reality in Baldwin’s ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain,”’ calls John’s “initiation into manhood.” John completes that initiation and discovers a sense of self in the closing section, “The Threshing Floor.”
Between these two sections comes “The Prayers of the Saints,” which is broken into three narratives that focus on the history of John’s family: his stepfather Gabriel, his mother Elizabeth, and his Aunt Florence. Marcus Klein in “James Baldwin: A Question of Identity,” argues that the different narrative voices in this section produce “a technical fault” in the novel since “John doesn’t really know the lives of his aunt, his stepfather, and his mother. Only the reader does.” Yet Baldwin’s juxtaposition of these family stories with John’s own contextualizes his struggles to find his identity. The histories of his stepfather, his aunt, and his mother illuminate the same choices and obstacles John faces on his journey to selfhood.
The first section of the novel reveals John’s confusion over his future. “The Seventh Day” opens with John lying in bed on the morning of his fourteenth birthday, considering his family’s expectations that he will become a preacher like his father. He acknowledges, though, his lack of devotion to the church and his inability to feel the ‘joy” others feel in service to God.
The primary impediment to John’s acceptance of “the holy life” lies in his destructive relationship with his father. Gabriel has severely beaten John throughout his childhood and has never been able to accept him as his own son. John, unaware that Gabriel is not his biological father, cannot understand his father’s coldness and brutality. When he sees his father’s tender concern over Roy’ s injuries, John is forced to admit that his father loves his brother but not him.
At this point, John voices his hatred for his father, admitting that “he lived for the day when his father would be dying and he … would curse him on his deathbed.” This hatred prompts his decision not to follow in his father’s path. Since his father was “God’s minister” and he knew that he would have to first bow down to his father before he could bow down to God, his heart also becomes “hardened against the Lord.”
John’s second option is to devote himself to the world of the city, where, as some have insisted, he “might become a Great Leader of His People.” John admits little interest in leading his people, but life outside of the church tempts him, offering a world “where he would eat good food, and wear fme clothes, and go to the movies as often as he wished.” Many have recognized his superior intelligence, which gives him a sense of “power that other people lacked,” a power that might some day enable him to become successful in the world outside the church and to gain the love and recognition that he longs for.
John often escapes the bleakness of his neighborhood and walks downtown where he observes fine shops and beautiful women. Here he decides that devoting one’s life to the church is the “narrow way,” full of poverty and hard work. Yet, his father has told him that he will never be accepted into the city world because of the color of his skin. The issue of racism adds to John’s suffering and thus becomes another impetus for his struggle to find salvation.
His father has also taught him that this life is filled with sin, which John sees illustrated during that afternoon in a movie about a white “evil” woman making a “glorious” fall from grace. While John admires her independence, as she faces damnation on her deathbed, his fear of a similar end resurfaces. Just that morning, after masturbating in his bed, John had felt “the darkness of his sin” and a “wickedness” in his heart. The conflicting urges to gain salvation, to flee his father’s control and brutality, and to enjoy success and comforts in the outside world produce confusion and prevent a clear vision of his future.
In the second section, members of John’s family attempt to pray for comfort, salvation and a sense of communal identity as they, like John, assess their past and present conflicts and look to their future. All four suffer the same obstacles of racism, poverty, and failed relationships that have impeded their search for selfhood. John’s own tortured struggle interrupts each narrative, forcing the reader to return the focus to him and to recognize the similarities among the histories.
Florence’s prayer begins the novel’s second section and traces her battle against the same impediments that John faces. She, like John, tries to fight her pride and humble herself before God but fails. As she recalls her past, she reveals how Gabriel had dominated her life but in a different sense than he does John’s. When Florence was a child, her mother put all her energies into raising and providing for Gabriel while Florence’s needs were ignored. She also remembers incidents that illustrated the racism that Gabriel warns will prevent John from enjoying a life outside of the church. She recounts the devastating effects the rape had on Deborah and suggests that differences in their skin tone helped break up her marriage to Frank:.
As a result of her family problems and experiences with racism, she, like John, is filled with hatred and bitterness but also the fear of death. Florence’s prayer complicates John’s quest, though, when she asks God why she “who had only sought to walk upright” was going to die “alone and in poverty, in a dirty, furnished room.” The fact of her unrelieved suffering suggests John’s religion might not save nor grant him a clear sense of self.
In his prayer, Gabriel provides another example of one who has been unable to find peace through devotion to the church. His faith fails to help him assuage his feelings of guilt over his affair with Esther and the birth of his illegitimate child, Royal. He notes that even after his conversion, he is plagued by dreams of temptation that produce frustration and doubt over his religious commitment. The insecurities that result from the racism he has experienced and his own capacity for sin prompt his abusive behavior toward his family and his especially harsh treatment of John. By refusing to acknowledge the illegitimate John as his son, Gabriel, in effect, refuses to acknowledge his own illegitimate son, Royal, and to confront the guilt associated with his birth.
Elizabeth’s prayer begins with a focus on John. As she sits in the church, she weeps for John’s deliverance, “that he might be carried, past wrath unspeakable, into a state of grace.” She then recounts a life filled with pain and loss. Like John, she has suffered from the absence of love, first when she is separated from her father and then when the injustice of the “white world” takes Richard from her. Her dream of providing a happy home for John crumbles under Gabriel’s stern hand.
She has, however, been able to renew and find comfort in her faith, believing that “only God could establish order in this chaos; to Him the soul must turn to be delivered.” Her belief in God’s grace and in John’s abilities and her love for him provides comfort for John. She tells him she knows “there’s a whole lot of things you don’t understand,” but that God will help him find his way, and she predicts that he will turn into a “fine man.”
Elizabeth’s prayer is brought to an abrupt close when she hears John’s cries as he writhes on the threshing floor. John’s anguish over his relationship with his father and his inability to find a sense of self-hood combine with his fear of damnation and produce visions of torment. At this point, John reaches out to God, determining that a devotion to the church is the only route to salvation. After John’s conversion in the church, Elisha, another character that Baldwin includes in the novel to provide a context for John’s struggle to achieve identity, promises to serve as his brother and protector.
In the novel’s first section, John notes that EIisha has experienced the same sexual stirrings as does John, and that Elisha, after being reprimanded by the preacher, reasserted his devotion to his religion and stopped his “disorderly walking” with Ella Mae. Elisha’s support throughout the novel, and especially at the close as the family walks home after church, prompts John’s closing declaration, “I’m ready. I’m coming. I’m on my way.” John thus appears to have found his place in his commitment to God and the church.
However, narrative elements in the novel’s final section, as well as in the prayers of his family, suggest that John’s resolution may be tenuous. His conversion has not settled the conflict with his father or gained John his love and respect, as evidenced by Gabriel’s cold response to his son’s newfound joy. Gabriel’s conversation with his sister as they are trailing behind John and Elisha reveals his persistent inability to face his past failures and to accept John as his son. Gabriel’s continued rejection and the peripheral threat of racism and poverty remain, and thus threaten to weaken John’s sense of self and his devotion to his religion.
Baldwin’s juxtaposition of narrative voice in Go Tell It on the Mountain provides no easy answers for John as he struggles to rise above racism, poverty, and family tensions in order to define himself and his place in his world. In his successful merging of structure and thematic import, Baldwin illustrates the difficulties inherent in the quest for selfhood.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, James Baldwin, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998
Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998