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.
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...
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