Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin’s first published novel, tells a passionate story closely paralleling the author’s own family background. It focuses on John Grimes, a black boy growing up in a religious home in Harlem under the stern hand of his preacher father, Gabriel. The action of the novel takes place in 1936, on John’s fourteenth birthday, with sections detailing previous events in the lives of John’s aunt Florence, his father, and his mother, Elizabeth.
Florence is a strident and bitter woman who left her ailing mother and irresponsible younger brother to come North. She married a man named Frank, who abused and abandoned her, and now she approaches old age feeling empty, living alone, and sharing in the life of her brother’s family.
Gabriel, her brother, had been a wild young man, but he repented, became a preacher, and married a fallen woman named Deborah. Succumbing to temptation, however, he impregnated a young woman he worked with and then refused to acknowledge his paternity. He watched his son Royal grow before his eyes and heard of the boy’s violent death in a knife fight. Gabriel drifted in despair, his wife passed on, and he came to New York to begin a new life. There he met Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was nine when her mother died, and, because her father ran a brothel, she went to live with her aunt in Maryland. There she fell in love with a young man named Richard; they moved to New York....
(The entire section is 587 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Go Tell It on the Mountain describes a long day in the life of John Grimes, who awakens on his fourteenth birthday as the novel opens. He hopes that someone will remember that this day in March, 1935, is a special one, his day. Only his mother remembers; she gives him a chance to be by himself for the day.
During the day, John, who is given to introspection, ponders his life and what he wants to make of it. Religion and art are the two contradictory impulses that seem to war for control over his future. The spiritual and physical attraction he feels toward Brother Elisha, a young preacher in his church, also torments him.
John comes by his ambivalence naturally. It is a condition perhaps destined for him by the nature of his birth. He is the illegitimate son of Elizabeth and Richard. His mother seeks solace for her misery from religion, but her lover, John’s father, self-taught and street articulate, favors art over the ignorance of Christianity. Consequently, the child of their union is torn between the sensual life of the artist and the more ascetic life of a preacher and leader. The conflict is further symbolized in his attraction to Brother Elisha, who becomes his spiritual father in ways that his step-father, the Reverend Gabriel Grimes, cannot. John’s plight is developed not through dense plotting but rather through a psychological portrait of him and his family.
What action there is arises from recollection. The...
(The entire section is 860 words.)
Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Set in Harlem in 1935 and spanning approximately twenty-four hours, James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, depicts John Grimes, a poor African American youth, on the threshold of accepting Jesus as his savior. Baldwin presents John’s story, a Bildungsroman, in three sections. Section 1 begins on John’s fourteenth birthday. His mother Elizabeth gives him money to buy himself a present. Away from home, John experiences the sensuousness of the temporal world. Walking idly around the city, John enjoys freedom from the religious strictures imposed by his parents. However, even as he appreciates this freedom, he knows the world is full of evil temptations. He stands on the threshold between secular experience and Christian salvation. In the evening, John goes to church, where he’s joined by Elisha, his enthusiastic and warmhearted Sunday school teacher, a boy only slightly older than John. Church elders arrive and ask John if he is ready to be saved. John is ambivalent but drawn to the prospect. Focused on John’s salvation, the elders begin praying, chanting, and singing.
Section 2 tells, in flashback, the stories of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth. Though raised a Christian, Florence is a skeptic. As the Latin root of her name (flora) suggests, she is like a flower: temporal, uninterested in metaphysical questions. Her primary concern is material gain, so she leaves the rural South to find a husband to...
(The entire section is 902 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
It is John’s fourteenth birthday, but he does not feel pleased. He is worried that no one will remember his birthday or help him to celebrate it in any way. He is surprised when his mother, Elizabeth, recognizes the special day and offers him two different kinds of gifts. The first is money; the second is the opportunity to spend the day without interference from the rest of the family. He can be alone if he chooses.
John has already accomplished the chores to which he is assigned, so he is free to experience uninterrupted adult events. He decides to go to the theater in Harlem, across Sixth Avenue, which he feels is an adventure. For John, it is a mature and independent thing to do. Even this decision, however, is not made without reflection; for him, it represents a kind of release from the protectiveness of his mother, in whom he finds a sense of security. It also represents, however, a release from the tyranny that he experiences from his stepfather, Gabriel, in whom he no longer has any confidence or trust. He has always felt that Gabriel favors his own children, such as John’s stepbrother, Roy.
When John returns home from the theater, he encounters a family tragedy. Roy has been injured in a race-oriented gang war. Stepfather Gabriel, as usual, does not blame Roy and, when he focuses his anger on Elizabeth, Roy defends her. Although John realizes that he is not the cause of this event, he is also not surprised when Gabriel takes out...
(The entire section is 986 words.)
Part I Summary
James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain chronicles the experiences of its young narrator, John Grimes, in Harlem in 1935. The novel opens on the moming of John's fourteenth birthday and centers on the events that lead up to his spiritual conversion later that evening. The narrative also provides a history of his family, of his stepfather Gabriel, a preacher in Temple of the Fire Baptized; of his aunt Florence, Gabriel's sister; and of his mother Elizabeth. All of these stories add poignancy and context to John's efforts to come to terms with his present and his future.
On that morning as he is lying in bed, John thinks about his family's expectations that he will follow in his father's footsteps into "the holy life" but wonders if that is the path he wants for himself. His lack of devotion to the church angers his father. John remembers one Sunday morning when Father James, another preacher in the church, warns Elisha and Ella Mae, two young church members, that "disorderly walking" together could lead to them "straying from the truth." This public warning shames them and so they stop meeting. John acknowledges the same sexual stirrings in himself and masturbates while in bed. Afterwards, feeling as if he has just sinned, he decides he will not devote his life to the church. He notes that he has been singled out in school for his intelligence as early as the age of five. At that point he knew he had "power other people lacked," which...
(The entire section is 603 words.)
Part II Summary
In this section, Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth take over the narrative one at a time as they pray. Florence starts to sing a song her mother used to sing. Fighting her pride, and trying to humble herself before God, she admits she has forgotten how to pray. She is filled with hatred and bitterness but also the fear of death. While struggling to pray, she sees a vision of her dead mother and Gabriel cursing her. Florence then thinks back to her family and growing up in Maryland. Desperate to escape from home where her mother focused only on her brother, Florence moved to New York City at the age of twenty-six, leaving Gabriel to care for their dying mother.
Florence remembers her husband Frank, who left her after ten years of marriage and later died in France during the war. She also remembers getting a letter from Deborah, her neighbor in Maryland who eventually moved to New York and married Gabriel. The letter reveals Deborah's suspicions that Gabriel fathered a child with another woman. Florence determines to use the letter some day to humiliate Gabriel. Returning to the present, she feels that she will not be saved and that everyone is laughing at her attempts.
Gabriel also recalls the past, beginning with his "redemption," which occurred when he was a young man. After a night of drinking and sex, the burden of his sin became too great and he asked God to save him. He felt that this "was the beginning of his life as a man." His first...
(The entire section is 759 words.)
Part III Summary
John, filled with "anguish," faces his sin and lies helpless and afraid on the floor of the church. During this torment, he has a vision of Hell. As he struggles to raise himself out of the darkness, he asks God to have mercy on him and to help him. He then becomes filled with joy. As the family walks home, Florence shows Gabriel Deborah's letter and tells him he needs to look at his own sin, and then he can accept John as his son. She warns him that she will show others the letter unless Gabriel changes. John, walking next to Elisha, acknowledges him as his brother and protector. As they reach their home, John looks at his father who stares back coldly at him. The novel closes with John declaring, "I'm ready. I'm coming. I'm on my way."
(The entire section is 140 words.)