The setting of James Baldwin’s novel – the impoverished part of New York known as Harlem, and more specifically the storefront church within the Harlem community – was undoubtedly a key reason for the book’s popularity upon its first publication, giving intellectuals an inside look at a world not many of them had known. This setting may be the reason some people read Go Tell It on the Mountain today, even with the inner city well documented by television cameras. The important thing about this setting, though, is that it is integral to the personality of the characters, affecting them and being formed by who they are.
The adult members of the Grimes family, for instance, all came to New York for different reasons. Florence came first, thirty years earlier, rebelling against the limitations put on her as a woman; Gabriel to escape the deaths of his illegitimate son and his barren wife; and Elizabeth came with hope and love for Richard. The fact that three such diverse characters end up in the same small section of town says much about how narrowed opportunities for African-Americans were. Similarly, the fact that they all attend the Temple of the Fire Baptized despite their different reasons (Florence in despair, Gabriel to control and Elizabeth with true religious devotion) helps define the narrowness of the options each character has.
John is a true son of New York. He goes to Central Park to feel triumphant while looking out over the powerful metropolis and goes to a seedy theater in Times Square to experience the lower side of life. But he can also connect with his country roots at the local church, which is itself urban enough to have a busy hospital across the street.
The novel starts on a specific Saturday morning in 1935, but it intermingles stories from the family that go back in time to 1876, and it refers to times even earlier-back to the time of John’s grandmother Rachel on the plantation before the end of the Civil War in 1865. Technically, a flashback occurs within the mind of the person that it happens to, and it happens “in scene” – that is, the narrative travels to the specific place and time of the flashback and does not just summarize what happened then. The scene where Rachel learned that the slaves were free is not a flashback because it is presented in Florence’s memory as something her mother told her; Richard’s death is not rendered in flashback because the action is not described as it occurred, only the evidence that his landlady found the next day that he had slit his wrists. The sermon that Gabriel gave at the Twenty-Four Elders Revival Meeting is rendered as a flashback, presented in his memory with actual details. The “Prayers of the Saints” section of this book is told mostly in flashback, but returns periodically to the real setting of the story, John’s fourteenth birthday.
Stream of Consciousness
Much of the final chapter of the book, “The Threshing-Floor,” applies a form of the stream-of-consciousness technique. Thoughts are presented as they pass through John’s mind without reason or order, imitating the ecstatic experience that he is having on the floor of the church. John’s thoughts are not recorded directly, but are filtered through the third-person narrator, who interprets what John is thinking-it is, for instance, unlikely that John would use the words “malicious” and “ironic” to describe the voice inside of his head.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, James Baldwin, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998