Go Tell It on the Mountain

by James Baldwin

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The Characters

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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 self-knowledge, his intelligence, and his sense of being anointed combine to save him from imitating Roy’s waywardness.

John is Elizabeth’s hope; her love is his consolation for self-abnegation. Gabriel hates the boy, ostensibly because of his weakness and self-absorption. Underlying this refusal to accept John is his own self-loathing for having wavered from the path of righteousness. His profound animosity toward White people arises as much from his own past and that of Black people as from his personal fear of powerlessness.

Although the relationships of the characters to one another is essential in giving meaning to the novel, on another level, and crucial to the narrative, is each character’s relationship to God, the God of poor Black people, the God who demands adherence to His laws in spite of the afflictions and oppression of His people. In such suffering, the characters define themselves. Roy, for example, to whom God is just an abstraction, is really a peripheral character without psychological depth. Even Florence, who distrusts the ways of the pious, has her night of tormented prayer.

Baldwin’s voice is that of a commentator, more sophisticated than his characters yet for the most part sympathetic to them. He employs monologue in place of dialogue to reveal character, with flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness description used as devices to reinforce the “prayers” of interior soul-searching. The effect is appropriately biblical; Baldwin relies on hymns and Scriptures to emphasize meaning.

The central and secondary characters are not just believable but also vital. Never stereotyped even in the traditions of African American literature, they benefit from the imaginative nuances of their creator. They are placed within the straitened community of the Black church, it, too, an émigré from the South, with its strict conventions, its intense, almost overpowering emotion, and its sense of community.

Characters Discussed

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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...

(This entire section contains 494 words.)

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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.

Brother Elisha

Brother Elisha, a seventeen-year-old preacher in the storefront church of John’s family, the Temple of the Fire Baptized Congregational Church. He is a young, handsome man, consumed by religious fervor, and he is the object of John’s spiritual and physical longing.

Florence Grimes

Florence Grimes, Gabriel’s sister and the only person who will stand up to him. She hates him and knows the secrets of his dissolute youth and his fall from grace even after he professed himself saved. In many ways, she is his conscience and his scourge.

Elizabeth Grimes

Elizabeth Grimes, perhaps the most complex character. She has no conflict with her faith. She is a true believer in the sense that she bears the cross of her past sin—John’s conception—as well as the burdens of her poverty, Blackness, and hidden hatred of White people, a loathing brought on by her lover’s suicide. Richard, John’s real father, represented for her a choice between God and lust, a corruption to which she had gladly succumbed. The two leave the South, but before they can be married, yet after Elizabeth is pregnant with John, Richard is jailed for a crime he did not commit. After being acquitted, he cannot live with his understanding that as a Black man he is truly “invisible,” denied his humanity. He slashes his wrists, despite Elizabeth’s great love for him. After his death, Elizabeth is lonely, poor, and guilt-ridden; she turns to Gabriel, who promises to become a true father to John.


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

Part One, "The Seventh Day," reveals John's basic conflicts as he struggles to establish his own identity. He strives mightily to accept his stepfather's repressive religious beliefs — and, not coincidentally, to be accepted by his stepfather. He also must deal with his emerging sexuality, with the prospects of pleasure sex presents and with the guilt such thoughts engender. Finally, John discovers his own form of racism, his hatred of Whites. As he becomes more aware of the workings of the world around him and of the world beyond Harlem — that tantalizing White world that seems so far out of his reach — he also realizes that he hates the people who have confined him in Harlem, and he feels guilty for hating.

Part Two, "The Prayers of the Saints," centers on the three significant others in John's life. Each character prays for John's salvation, and during each prayer flashbacks reveal important information about that character's past. Aunt Florence's prayer deals with the frustration Florence feels over her position in a male-dominated family and with the self-hatred she has been forced into by White society. Florence is a skin bleacher and hair straightener. She tries mightily to look White, and she despises everything Black — even her husband, Frank, who felt "that black's a mighty pretty color." Florence has ended up alone, having driven Frank away and isolated herself from her brother. Her prayer demonstrates that her religion has not offered her any real solace or provided her with a way to feel good about herself. Florence feels forsaken by God.

Gabriel Grimes sums up twenty years of the conflict between the flesh and the spirit. He recalls details of his own conversion and of his emerging fundamentalist beliefs, which develop largely in opposition to the opiate-like religion of contentment he despises in his New Orleans elders. He enters an unfortunate marriage to "a holy fool," and he has an affair with Esther, an affair which produced a son who died. He reviews his feelings as he entered his marriage with Elizabeth, his love for her and his intentions of providing a good family atmosphere for her son John. He also reviews the way those intentions have turned out. His life is chaotic, and both he and John have tried to love each other, but feelings of inadequacy have caused each to feel unworthy of the other.

Elizabeth prays about what love has meant to her. Her early relationship with Richard, John's father, led her to forsake her family; Richard's suicide, provoked by his humiliation at the hands of White policemen, left her pregnant and practically without resources; and her marriage to Gabriel has left her hating her situation but despairing of any possibility of change for the better. She sees her world in turmoil, and she resigns matters into God's hands. Only He can bring order out of that much chaos.

Part Three, "The Threshing Floor," chronicles John's conversion, brought on by guilt, family pressure, and his own insecurity. John emerges from the Temple of the Fire Baptized at dawn, confident about his future, yet nothing has really changed. John's ultimate fate remains an open question at the end of the novel.


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Seventeen years old and recently arrived in Harlem from Georgia, Elisha is the nephew of the pastor of the Temple of the Fire of the Baptized. He has been publicly chastised in front of the congregation for "walking disorderly" with Ella Mae Washington, meaning that they had been walking without supervision and might have given in to temptation and had sex.

John is infatuated with Elisha. At Sunday school, "John stared at Elisha all during the lesson, admiring the timbre of Elisha's voice, much deeper and manlier than his own, admiring the leanness, and grace, and darkness of Elisha in his Sunday suit, and wondering if he would ever be holy as Elisha was holy." While clearing the church to prepare for the Saturday evening tarry meeting, John and Elisha wrestle: He saw the veins rise on Elisha's forehead and in his neck...and John, watching these manifestations of his power, became wild with delight."

John's spiritual possession follows Elisha's, both in style and in time, raising the question of whether it is a true religious experience or just an imitation. At the end of the novel Elisha kisses John on the forehead and tells him, "Run on, little brother. Don't you get weary. God won't forget you. You won't forget."


Early in the novel, as the Grimes family goes about their Saturday morning chores, Elizabeth, the mother, appears to be an apologist for her husband's brutality, explaining to her children that Gabriel works hard to provide for them. She is kind to John; she is the only one in the family to remember his birthday, and she tries to distract the family with prayer when, after Gabriel has slapped her, Roy curses his father and tells him to leave her alone. It is not until much later in the novel that the reasons for her meekness appear.

Like the other characters, her childhood was a difficult one. Her mother, a cold woman that Elizabeth did not love, died when she was young, and her aunt, who thought Elizabeth was snobbish, took custody of her so she would not be raised by her father, who ran a house of prostitution. Elizabeth was devastated, because she loved her father dearly. When she was eighteen she met Richard at the local store and fell in love with him. When he moved to New York, she did too, but to keep up her reputation she lived with a "respectable" relative of her aunt, who was actually a spiritualist who conducted seances on Saturday nights. Elizabeth and Richard both worked in the same hotel and were planning to marry when he had enough money saved. He killed himself, though, before Elizabeth could tell him about her pregnancy.

When the baby was born, she withdrew from society, and despaired that the child, John, would never have a father. At work, she became acquainted with Florence, and through her met Gabriel. Gabriel took an interest in her son, and when he proposed to Elizabeth he told her he would "love John just like my own," a promise clearly broken in the favoritism he shows for Roy.

Ella Mae

The granddaughter of Praying Mother Washington, she was called before the congregation early in the novel for spending time with Elisha without an escort. After John has undergone his spiritual transformation, Ella Mae is noticeably absent: "She had a bad cold, said Praying Mother Washington, and needed to have her rest."


In the novel, Florence has two secrets. One is that she is dying, and this is why, to John's surprise, she shows a sudden interest in going to church. The second is that she knows, through a letter sent her thirty years earlier by Gabriel's first wife, that her brother had fathered a child out of wedlock with one of the local girls. "For she had always thought of this letter as an instrument in her hands which could be used to complete her brother's destruction. When he was completely cast down she would prevent him from ever rising again by holding before him the evidence of his blood-guilt."

At the end of the novel, the day he is "completely cast down" turns out to be the day his stepson John enters the religious community. The letter is from Deborah, a friend from a neighboring farm when they were growing up. As children, Florence and Deborah each had experiences that made them angry and frustrated Deborah was gang-raped by White men and shunned by the Black community because of it, and Florence lost her chance to go to school, have new clothes or even eat a hearty meal when her mother gave all privileges to Gabriel because he was a boy. Florence left home at age twenty-six and Deborah later married Gabriel.

Florence moved to Harlem where she met Frank, who was a kind, good-natured man but was foolish with money. Florence dreamed of owning a home, but Frank wasted his paychecks on ugly presents for her and on drinking with his friends. When she last saw him, they were in the middle of an argument and he said, "All right, baby. I guess you don't never want to see me no more, not a miserable, black sinner like me." He walked out of the door and never came back. Years later, the woman he had lived with most recently informed Florence that he had died in France during World War I.


Florence's husband Frank was a good-natured but weak man, always spending money foolishly instead of saving it, inviting his drunken friends over and constantly apologizing to Florence. One day, during an argument, he walked out, and though she expected him to return that night, or the next morning, he never came back. She found out that he had died in France during the war from the woman that he had lived with for a few years after he had left her.


John's father is a deacon at the local church in Harlem, and he had a successful career as a preacher when he was young, but he started life as a troubled boy who broke church laws by drinking, gambling and having sex with women. Gabriel's mother was harsh with him, trying to correct his behavior with spanking and forcing religion on him: "And, after the beating, with his pants still down around his knees and his face wet with tears and mucus, Gabriel was made to kneel down while his mother prayed."

His behavior did not change, though, until he was twenty-one, when his sister Florence left home and Gabriel was left to care for his aging, sick mother by himself. Faced with the silent watchfulness of his once-fiery mother, he begged God with prayers that he would be able to leave his evil ways and follow a religious life. One day, as he was to repeatedly tell the story, his prayers were answered: "I opened my mouth to the Lord that day and Hell won't make me change my mind."

Soon after this he began preaching, and made such a name for himself that he was invited to be one of twenty-four preachers on the bill for a "monster revival meeting." Disgusted with the crude remarks the older preachers made about a neighbor girl, Deborah, who had been gang-raped by Whites when she was young, Gabriel soon married her, confirming his religious sincerity to himself. But it was an unhappy marriage, and when one of the other employees where he worked showed an interest he ended up sleeping with her. The affair with Esther lasted nine days. Gabriel was cold to her in breaking it off and even colder in refusing to help when she told him she was pregnant. "She put out her hands to reach him, but he moved away"—with that gesture of rejection and denial his life became a web of deceit that ruined his early promise as a preacher. Esther died in childbirth, naming the infant Royal to spite Gabriel, who had wanted a son named Royal "because the line of the faithful is a Royal line." The boy was raised by his grandparents and died in a knife fight in Chicago, never knowing that he was Gabriel's son. After Deborah died, Gabriel moved to Harlem, and at the time of the novel he is married to Elizabeth and raising John, who she had before she met him; Roy, the new Royal, who should be the start of his Royal line but who drinks and fights as Gabriel did as a young man; and two girls, Sarah and Ruth.

Deborah Grimes

Deborah grew up as a neighbor to Gabriel and Florence. When they were young, a gang of White men raped Deborah, and when her father went to threaten them for what they had done, they beat him and left him for dead. Deborah and Florence were friends growing up, and when Florence left to live in the North, Deborah became close to Rachel, Florence's mother. Eventually Gabriel married Deborah, but they had a cold marriage: she did not talk with him, possibly because she was in awe of his religious authority, and he was secretive about his feelings. When Gabriel cried upon hearing that his son Royal had been killed, Deborah told him that she had known about this son all along, and would have been willing to raise it as her own if he had asked her to.

John Grimes

One of the first things to cross John's mind when he wakes up at the novel's beginning is "that it was his fourteenth birthday and that he has sinned." The particular sin he refers to appears to be a combination of homosexuality and masturbation, as he had "sinned with his hands" while in the bathroom at school, "thinking of the boys, older, bigger, braver, who made bets with each other as to whose urine could arch higher." It soon becomes apparent, though, that John is likely to feel like a sinner no matter what he does—his stepfather, a Deacon of the Temple of the Fire Baptized, has physically and verbally abused John all his life, showing favor to John's younger brother Roy.

Gabriel Grimes married John's mother when John was young, and he does not know that he and Roy are of different fathers. As a result of the abuse he suffers, John harbors a hatred of shocking intensity toward his stepfather: "He lived for the day his father would be dying and he, John, would curse him on his deathbed." In balance to Gabriel's destruction of his self-esteem is John's secret satisfaction that he has been chosen for something better in life. He is a shy, awkward boy, but "he apprehended totally, without belief or understanding, that he had within himself a power that other people lacked; that he could use this to save himself; and that, perhaps, with this power he might one day win the love which he longed for."

When it appears to him that his family has forgotten his birthday, John bitterly tells himself that it is all right, that they have done it before and he deserves no better, but his mother gives him money to buy a present and he is grateful to her. He goes to a movie in Times Square and finds himself sympathizing with the villainess, a "violent and unhappy woman," because "nothing tamed or broke her, nothing touched her, neither kindness, nor scorn, nor hatred, nor love."

The one person in the book that John respects and admires is Elisha, a boy at the church who is just a little older than him. They joke around in a tender, sparring way while setting up for the Saturday evening service, then they wrestle. In the novel's climax in Part Three John's spirituality is confirmed to the church members when he falls to the "threshing-floor" in a fit of religious ecstasy, flailing about and talking in unknown languages. The elders of the church (Sister McCandless, Sister Price and Praying Mother Washington) are delighted that he has "got religion," and Elisha takes responsibility for him as a "little brother."

His stepfather is hesitant to believe in John's spiritual conversion and points out that "it ain't all in the singing and the shouting—the way of holiness is a hard way," reflecting his own inability to lead a good life. John himself seems skeptical that what happened to him was a meaningful, lasting religious conversion, but he is glad for the way that it gains him social status and binds him to Elisha.

Rachel Grimes

Gabriel and Florence's mother, who had been a slave before the Civil War.

Roy Grimes

John's younger half-brother, Roy is actually the second son named Royal to be fathered by Gabriel—the first died in a knife fight before Gabriel moved to New York and married Elizabeth. As his only son, Gabriel favors Roy, even though Gabriel thinks of himself as a man of God and Roy is wild, skipping Sunday school and arguing with his mother and hanging out in the streets with a gang.

On the Saturday in 1935 that this novel takes place, Roy comes home with a knife cut across his face, having been in a fight. His father is unable to accept Roy's wild ways, so he turns the situation on meek, churchgoing John, telling him that he should learn a lesson from this. When Elizabeth reminds Gabriel of the fate of the first Royal by telling him to discipline Roy "before somebody puts another knife in him and puts him in his grave," Gabriel slaps her Roy shouts with incredible daring at the abusive man: "You slap her again, you black bastard, and I swear to God I'll kill you."

Sister McCandless

One of the women who attends tarry services on Saturday night at the Temple of the Fire Baptized.

Esther McDonald

Gabriel had given up sinning and married Deborah when he met Esther, and before long he was having an affair with her. The affair only lasted for nine days before he ended it, but Esther came to him weeks later and told him she was pregnant. When Gabriel refused to leave Deborah and marry her, Esther decided not to blackmail him with public disclosure of her pregnancy. Showing a religious fervor that he could never get her to feel with his preaching, she said, "I shamed before my God—to make somebody make me cheap, like you done." She moved North with money Gabriel gave her and died while giving birth to Royal.

Royal McDonald

Gabriel's first son, Royal was raised by his grandparents in the town that Gabriel lived in, but he never found out who his father was. Deborah befriended Royal's parents and gave Gabriel periodic updates on the boy's life. The last time Gabriel saw Royal, there had been a racial incident in town, and White men were looking for any Black man they could abuse. Gabriel thought of revealing his identity, but the fear of being caught in the street talking made him mutter a weak warning to Royal and hurry away. Two years later word came that Royal had been killed in a knife fight in Chicago.

Sister Price

One of the women who attends tarry services on Saturday night at the Temple of the Fire Baptized.


Richard was John's father, Elizabeth's true love. She had moved to New York to be with him, and they planned to be married, but one night after dropping her at her doorstep, while waiting on the subway platform, Richard was arrested. Three Black robbers, escaping the police, had run past him, and the police had assumed he was with them and arrested him, held him in jail and tortured him to confess. He was released for lack of evidence, but the night of his release he slit his wrists, having never found out that Elizabeth was pregnant.

Praying Mother Washington

One of the women who attends tarry services on Saturday night at the Temple of the Fire Baptized.

Madame Williams

Elizabeth's aunt that she lived with when she moved to Harlem. Madame Williams is a spiritualist, conducting seances in her apartment on Saturday nights.