The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

John Grimes

John Grimes, a fourteen-year-old boy who, everyone says, is destined to be a preacher and a great leader of his people. He is insecure, intelligent, and ambivalent in the love/hate relationship with the Reverend Grimes, who has taken over as his father, and his church. John is a pubescent artist who finds within himself a terrible conflict over his religious heritage. The novel relates what happens on his fourteenth birthday, a day only his mother remembers. The final chapter finds John writhing on the floor of a sanctuary, his soul the prize in a battle he does not comprehend.

Roy Grimes

Roy Grimes, John’s younger half brother. He is indifferent to religion and expected to be in trouble; he does not disappoint. Roy is the favorite of the Reverend Gabriel Grimes, whereas John is the child of his mother’s heart—and sin.

The Reverend Gabriel Grimes

The Reverend Gabriel Grimes, a tyrannical, puritan man, the husband of Elizabeth and father of three of her children, but not of John. Gabriel cannot love John because he cannot forgive the circumstances of his birth; he idealizes his “natural” son, Roy. John represents a child whom Gabriel had conceived with a lover out of wedlock, then abandoned. John thus serves as a reminder of the failure of his own flesh. John also symbolizes for the preacher the former sinfulness of his second wife, Elizabeth.


(The entire section is 494 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

While the novel centers on John Grimes, three other characters — John's Aunt Florence; his stepfather, Gabriel; and his mother, Elizabeth...

(The entire section is 555 words.)