John Grimes, the protagonist of Go Tell It on the Mountain, has often been thought to be the young James Baldwin. He is a character from a bildungsroman, yet one with such psychological depth and complexity that his coming of age can be explained only through the circumstances of his parents’ lives.
Baldwin lets his readers know right away that much, perhaps too much, is expected of this good son, who stands in bold contrast to his bad half brother Roy. Everyone says that John is destined to be a great black man. For such a destiny, only one profession is appropriate, that of preaching. John aspires to another kind of greatness, that of the artist.
On his birthday, John sees that rebellion against what others have planned for him is futile. Baldwin describes John as terrified that he will fail as a holy man. His desire to be an artist; his knowledge of the ways of the flesh, emphasized in the very opening of the novel; and his inexpressible homosexual longings condemn him to uncertainty and unhappiness when he should be most content. His long night of ecstasy will prepare him for a future of denial, purity, and probable agony.
The third-person narrative allows for limited physical description but boundless emotional exploration of the characters. Baldwin’s themes arise from the relationships between characters rather than from dialogue or action. John hates his father, Gabriel, but wants his approval and respect. His...
(The entire section is 546 words.)