The Variety of Narrative Voices in Go Tell It on the Mountain

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1680

In his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain James Baldwin divides his narrative into three distinct parts. The first section, "The Seventh Day," sets the novel's central action, what Shirley S. Allen, in "Religious Symbolism and Psychic Reality in Baldwin's 'Go Tell It on the Mountain,'" calls John's "initiation into manhood." John completes that initiation and discovers a sense of self in the closing section, "The Threshing Floor."

Illustration of PDF document

Download Go Tell It on the Mountain Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Between these two sections comes "The Prayers of the Saints," which is broken into three narratives that focus on the history of John's family: his stepfather Gabriel, his mother Elizabeth, and his Aunt Florence. Marcus Klein in "James Baldwin: A Question of Identity," argues that the different narrative voices in this section produce "a technical fault" in the novel since "John doesn't really know the lives of his aunt, his stepfather, and his mother. Only the reader does." Yet Baldwin's juxtaposition of these family stories with John's own contextualizes his struggles to find his identity. The histories of his stepfather, his aunt, and his mother illuminate the same choices and obstacles John faces on his journey to selfhood.

The first section of the novel reveals John's confusion over his future. "The Seventh Day" opens with John lying in bed on the morning of his fourteenth birthday, considering his family's expectations that he will become a preacher like his father. He acknowledges, though, his lack of devotion to the church and his inability to feel the "joy" others feel in service to God.

The primary impediment to John's acceptance of "the holy life" lies in his destructive relationship with his father. Gabriel has severely beaten John throughout his childhood and has never been able to accept him as his own son. John, unaware that Gabriel is not his biological father, cannot understand his father's coldness and brutality. When he sees his father's tender concern over Roy's injuries, John is forced to admit that his father loves his brother but not him.

At this point, John voices his hatred for his father, admitting that "he lived for the day when his father would be dying and he...would curse him on his deathbed." This hatred prompts his decision not to follow in his father's path. Since his father was "God's minister" and he knew that he would have to first bow down to his father before he could bow down to God, his heart also becomes "hardened against the Lord."

John's second option is to devote himself to the world of the city, where, as some have insisted, he "might become a Great Leader of His People." John admits little interest in leading his people, but life outside of the church tempts him, offering a world "where he would eat good food, and wear fine clothes, and go to the movies as often as he wished." Many have recognized his superior intelligence, which gives him a sense of "power that other people lacked," a power that might some day enable him to become successful in the world outside the church and to gain the love and recognition that he longs for.

John often escapes the bleakness of his neighborhood and walks downtown where he observes fine shops and beautiful women. Here he decides that devoting one's life to the church is the "narrow way," full of poverty and hard work. Yet, his father has told him that he will never be accepted into the city world because of the color of his skin. The issue of racism adds to John's suffering and thus becomes another impetus for his struggle to find salvation.

His father has also taught him that this life is filled with sin, which John sees illustrated during that afternoon in a movie about a white "evil" woman making a "glorious" fall from grace. While John admires her independence, as she faces damnation on her deathbed, his fear of a similar end resurfaces. Just that morning, after masturbating in his bed, John had felt "the darkness of his sin" and a "wickedness" in his heart. The conflicting urges to gain salvation, to flee his father's control and brutality, and to enjoy success and comforts in the outside world produce confusion and prevent a clear vision of his future.

In the second section, members of John's family attempt to pray for comfort, salvation and a sense of communal identity as they, like John, assess their past and present conflicts and look to their future. All four suffer the same obstacles of racism, poverty, and failed relationships that have impeded their search for selfhood. John's own tortured struggle interrupts each narrative, forcing the reader to return the focus to him and to recognize the similarities among the histories.

Florence's prayer begins the novel's second section and traces her battle against the same impediments that John faces. She, like John, tries to fight her pride and humble herself before God but fails. As she recalls her past, she reveals how Gabriel had dominated her life but in a different sense than he does John's. When Florence was a child, her mother put all her energies into raising and providing for Gabriel while Florence's needs were ignored. She also remembers incidents that illustrated the racism that Gabriel warns will prevent John from enjoying a life outside of the church. She recounts the devastating effects the rape had on Deborah and suggests that differences in their skm tone helped break up her marriage to Frank.

As a result of her family problems and experiences with racism, she, like John, is filled with hatred and bitterness but also the fear of death. Florence's prayer complicates John's quest, though, when she asks God why she "who had only sought to walk upright" was going to die "alone and in poverty, in a dirty, furnished room." The fact of her unrelieved suffering suggests John's religion might not save nor grant him a clear sense of self.

In his prayer, Gabriel provides another example of one who has been unable to find peace through devotion to the church. His faith fails to help assuage his feelings of guilt over his affair with Esther and the birth of his illegitimate child, Royal. He notes that even after his conversion, he is plagued by dreams of temptation that produce frustration and doubt over his religious commitment. The insecurities that result from the racism he has experienced and his own capacity for sin prompt his abusive behavior toward his family and his especially harsh treatment of John. By refusing to acknowledge the illegitimate John as his son, Gabriel, in effect, refuses to acknowledge his own illegitimate son, Royal, and to confront the guilt associated with his birth.

Elizabeth's prayer begins with a focus on John. As she sits in the church, she weeps for John's deliverance, "that he might be carried, past wrath unspeakable, into a state of grace." She then recounts a life filled with pain and loss. Like John, she has suffered from the absence of love, first when she is separated from her father and then when the injustice of the "white world" takes Richard from her. Her dream of providing a happy home for John crumbles under Gabriel's stern hand.

She has, however, been able to renew and find comfort in her faith, believing that "only God could establish order in this chaos; to Him the soul must turn to be delivered." Her belief in God's grace and in John's abilities and her love for him provides comfort for John. She tells him she knows "there's a whole lot of things you don't understand," but that God will help him find his way, and she predicts that he will turn into a "fine man."

Elizabeth's prayer is brought to an abrupt close when she hears John's cries as he writhes on the threshing floor. John's anguish over his relationship with his father and his inability to find a sense of selfhood combine with his fear of damnation and produce visions of torment. At this point, John reaches out to God, determining that a devotion to the church is the only route to salvation. After John's conversion in the church, Elisha, another character that Baldwin includes in the novel to provide a context for John's struggle to achieve identity, promises to serve as his brother and protector. In the novel's first section, John notes that Elisha has experienced the same sexual stirrings as does John, and that Elisha, after being reprimanded by the preacher, reasserted his devotion to his religion and stopped his "disorderly walking" with Ella Mae. Elisha's support throughout the novel, and especially at the close as the family walks home after church, prompts John's closing declaration, "I'm ready. I'm coming. I'm on my way." John thus appears to have found his place in his commitment to God and the church.

However, narrative elements in the novel's final section, as well as in the prayers of his family, suggest that John's resolution may be tenuous. His conversion has not settled the conflict with his father or gained John his love and respect, as evidenced by Gabriel's cold response to his son's newfound joy. Gabriel's conversation with his sister as they are trailing behind John and Elisha reveals his persistent inability to face his past failures and to accept John as his son. Gabriel's continued rejection and the peripheral threat of racism and poverty remain, and thus threaten to weaken John's sense of self and his devotion to his religion.

Baldwin's juxtaposition of narrative voice in Go Tell It on the Mountain provides no easy answers for John as he struggles to rise above racism, poverty, and family tensions in order to define himself and his place in his world. In his successful merging of structure and thematic import, Baldwin illustrates the difficulties inherent in the quest for selfhood.

Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998
Perkins is an Assistant Professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland and has written numerous critical articles for essay collections, journals, and educational publishers.

Race and Art James Baldwin

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 700

Baldwin's own most valiant attempt to capture the "ambiguity and irony of Negro life" was his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), which centers on a Harlem family not unlike his own. Like the Trinitarian God, the book is divided into three parts: John, who is the focus of the first and third parts (and who, like Baldwin, is known as "Frog Eyes"), is the stepson of Gabriel, a preacher who believes "that all white people [are] wicked, and that God [is] going to bring them low," and who feels that God has promised him a son to carry on his holy work; the second part, itself divided in three and consisting largely of flashbacks, outlines the earlier lives of Gabriel (who many years ago, we learn, had a mistress and an illegitimate son, both of whom died as a consequence of his refusal to acknowledge them), of Gabriel's sister Florence, and of his second wife, Elizabeth (whose ill-fated and fervently atheistic first lover, John's father, loved art as much as Gabriel loves God). Baldwin renders this family's inner history—the details of which John will probably never know, though it has profoundly influenced his own life—with both the ten-derest sympathy and the harshest insight; he sees the life of faith from both inside and out, and by exploring the past through these several pairs of eyes not only conveys something of the richness and mystery of a family's life but reminds us that to understand is to forgive. And he does a remarkably vivid job of capturing the streets of New York as seen by a boy raised on Pentecostal sermons:

And certainly perdition sucked at the feet of the people who walked there, and cried in the lights, in the gigantic towers, the marks of Satan could be found in the faces of the people who waited at the doors of movie houses; his words were printed on the great movie posters that invited people to sin It was the roar of the damned that filled Broadway, where motor cars and buses and the hurrying people disputed every inch with death. Broadway the way that led to death was broad, and many could be found thereon; but narrow was the way that led to life eternal, and few there were who found it.

The novel, whose style has something of the stateliness of the King James Bible and the music of black vernacular, splendidly evokes Harlem's sights and sounds, its frustrations and hypocrisies. Baldwin excels at small descriptive touches, as when Gabriel observes the "distant and angry compassion" in his illegitimate son's face. This is, as Campbell says, [in his Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin] "Baldwin's most accomplished novel, technically, and his most disciplined," free of the "idealizations, the sentimentality, the jarring tones and overlong conversations, even the moral fervour, which, separately or all at once, were to mar, in part or whole, his later novels."

Yet Campbell is also right to call Go Tell It on the Mountain "somewhat stiff and formal." Though Baldwin aims for a natural-seeming lyricism (and though the novel does rise to beautiful lyrical heights), there is too often an air of contrivance about it. Like a sermon in a black church, the prose is sometimes poetic and inspired, sometimes windy, repetitious, bombastic. Baldwin hammers us relentlessly with biblical verses—and with good reason, for his purpose is to impress upon us the ubiquity of religion in John's family and his sense of being bound inextricably to God—but it doesn't take long before we're weary of it all and the verses seem like mere gimmickry. Many of the novel's more protracted sentences, too, which should sound fresh and musical—like hymns, say, with long melodic lines—strike one as rather too self-consciously constructed; and the frequent flashbacks—which were to become a familiar device in Baldwin's work, as if to suggest the immense history that lies behind even the most seemingly negligible occurence in black America—are less dramatically effective than they are confusing.

Source: Bruce Bawer, "Race and Art: James Baldwin" in The Aspect of Eternity Essays by Bruce Bawer, Graywolf Press, 1993, pp. 17-35

A review of Go Tell It on the Mountain

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884

Critics have complained that the point of view in James Baldwin's first novel is problematical. Very early in the novel we are told of the adolescent protagonist's religious doubts and we are led to trust a narrator who seems to state his case unambiguously. We are told in an opening church scene that John Grimes has no real belief, but it is the faith of his family and fellow church members that make the concept of faith real to him. Later, at the novel's end, during John's conversion, (when the reader would expect John's religious conflicts to end), no real resolution is offered. The reader is left with the question: Has John been converted (or saved) or not? The question remains because of Baldwin's use of an ironic voice dunng the conversion scene and his resort to heavy situational or dramatic irony.

At the moment of his "salvation," when John is knocked to the floor by the power of the Holy Ghost, he hears a "malicious, ironic voice which insist(s), that he rise—and, at once,...leave this temple and go out into the world." The ironic voice tells John to get up and take charge of his life. It urges John to be in awe of no one; least of all his father (who is also John's Pastor and who, ironically, stands over him with an accusatory air during his "conversion"). To the voice, John's father, and by implication, God-the-Father, are judgmental forces that should be defied: "Get up, John," the voice says, "Get up, boy. Don't let him keep you there. You got everything your Daddy got."

Yet, when the ironic voice leaves, John hears another voice which tells him to "Go through." Shortly after this voice is heard, John experiences his "conversion": "And a sweetness filled John as he heard this voice, and heard the sound of singing: The singing was for him...the light and the darkness had kissed each other, and were married now, forever, in the life and the vision of John's soul." The ironic voice, it seems, has been banished forever.

Yet, immediately after John has "come through," Baldwin shifts from narrative to dramatic irony. At the very moment when his mother's face should be a welcome sight (as a fellow saint), John feels total estrangement. The converted's first impulse is to tell everyone how he's "got over" to "Go Tell It on the Mountain." But at John's conversion the novel's very title is rendered ironic. John has no voice to speak to his mother or the other saints; "no language, no second sight, no power to see into the heart of any other." "Salvation" has meant learning the truth about his own heart and it is a truth so horrifying that he knows "he could never tell it," because it would be blasphemous.

When John leaves the stone front church with his fellow "saints," the Harlem streets are appropriately still quite filthy. Gutter cats (emblematic of nightly sexual jaunts) slink by. The uncomprehending saints rejoice at having recovered one "lost sheep" andequally rejoice when sirens wail, indicating another sinner "struck down."

Thus, on this day of rebirth, one day after his natural birthday, John is neither purged nor "washed whiter than snow." If he saw his face darkly in the household mirror before, there is more profound darkness to come:

He would weep again, his heart insisted, for now his weeping had begun; he would rage again, said the shifting air, for the lions of rage had been unloosed; he would be in darkness again, in fire again, now that he had seen the fire and the darkness. He was free— whom the Son sets free is free indeed—he had only to stand fast in his liberty. He was in battle no longer, this unfolding Lord's day, with this avenue, these houses, the sleeping, staring, shouting people, but had entered into battle with Jacob's angel, with the princes and the powers of the air."

Perhaps John's abiding sense of evil comes from his burgeoning homosexuality. The joy John feels at being "converted" is rooted in the well-spring of despair relieved only by the loving arm of his fellow "saint," Elisha, which hangs heavily on John's shoulder as they walk away from the church.

It is Elisha who seals John's "deliverance" with a "holy kiss." But how holy is this kiss when John has felt such unambiguous infatuation for his virile, handsome friend? Thus the irony of John's "conversion" is tripled: it leaves him with a deeper sense of mankind's innate evil; it frees him, not from sin, but from the tyranny of his father's authoritarian control by replacing his father with another more supportive male presence; finally it liberates him from "closet" feelings and brings mto the light his homoerotic needs.

When John says "I'm coming...I'm on my way" at the novel's end, the reader cannot be sure which "Promised Land" he refers to.

Through ironic voices and situational irony, Baldwin distances himself from his protagonist and casts doubt upon the meaning of John's salvation, leaving it to the reader to wrest his own interpretation from the multiple directions of the text.

Source: Maria K Mootry, "A review of Go Tell It on the Mountain," in The Bxphcator, Vol. 43, No. 2, Winter, 1985, pp. 50-52.

The Ironic Voice in Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3294

A number of questions raised in critical interpretations of James Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, can be answered by studying his use of irony. Such questions include Baldwin's artistic distance from the characters, his attitude toward their religious beliefs, the identity of the ironic voice in Part Three, and the meaning of the novel's denouement. Although there are at least three different kinds of irony in the novel, they are closely related because they result from the narrative technique Baldwin employs, an internal and subjective point of view limited to the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of the main character. In order to transcend the limitations of this point of view, Baldwin uses irony in the narrator's diction, irony of statement and event in the action, and an ironic voice as a character.

In the major action of the novel, which is the struggle of young John Grimes to leave childhood and achieve maturity with a sense of his own identity, the narrator is limited to John's internal point of view. Although he speaks in the third person, this point of view is strictly maintained, so that even the physical appearance of the hero is described subjectively through comments he hears from others and the images he sees in the mirror.

The point of view is further limited by confinement in time. Although the narrator uses the past tense, he recounts events as they happen, unedited by the perspective of time. We follow John Grimes through the course of his fourteenth birthday as if we were experiencing the events with him. Careful use of adverbs denoting present time, such as "now" and "still," maintain this sense of contemporary action. So does a scrupulous use of tenses, particularly the past-perfect for every event occurring even recently before the moment of the present action and frequent use of "would" to express future time in the past tense. A few sentences taken from the episode of Roy's injury illustrate Baldwin's use of tenses:

His mother leaned over and looked into Roy's face with a sad, sympathetic murmur. Yet, John felt, she had seen instantly the extent of the danger to Roy's eye and to his life, and was beyond that worry now. Now she was merely marking time, as it were, and preparing herself against the moment when her husband's anger would turn, full force, against her.

The effect of this narrative style is immediacy and directness like the first-person, present tense point of view, but it avoids the literary awkwardness of that form. Although such a narrator is not uncommon in modern fiction, Baldwin's use is remarkable for consistency and suppleness. He also exploits fully the freedom of a third-person narrator to use whatever diction the author chooses without limitation to language characteristic of the protagonist. Baldwin's excellent command of language (improved over his earliest short stories) and his talent for almost poetic expression are used to present the thoughts of a Harlem schoolboy without restriction to his grammar and vocabulary.

In fact, the contrast between the narrator's diction and the dialogue of the characters emphasizes both the universality of their inner conflicts and the particular circumstances of their lives as Negroes in America. Baldwin's ear for language and his skill at representing it in print are nowhere better displayed than in the dialogue of Go Tell It on the Mountain where the dialect is conveyed with such subtlety and economy that the rhythms, accent, and colloquialisms of Harlem speech do not blur the individuality and dignity of the speakers. Contrasted with the dialogue is the educated and highly literate voice of the internal narrator, compelling the reader's understanding and sympathy beyond suggestions of race or class.

The separation between the subjective narrator and the character that is implied by use of the third-person form is also useful in this novel because in Part Two, "The Prayers of the Saints," the narrator enters the minds of three other characters serially, maintaining the same point of view in relation to each as his relation to John in Part One and Part Three. The narrator becomes in thoughts, feelings, and perceptions John's aunt, then his stepfather, then his mother; but his diction remains his own. This device is important for preserving the continuity of the novel, which has few external indications of continuity.

Having set up this type of narrator, with immediate and intimate knowledge of the character, Baldwin partially overcomes his limitation to a single, internal point of view by introducing verbal irony into his diction. Sometimes he merely uses a word with connotations opposite to the values assumed by the character, as when he describes the great preaching mission that Gabriel regards as the most important of his career as "a monster revival meeting" and his more venerable colleagues as "war horses." Sometimes he simply lifts out of its churchly context a word used with religious conviction by the characters, as when he speaks of the saints doing their housecleaning or refers to Praying Mother Washington as "the praying mother." Several times he describes obviously human motives in terms of divine providence with such naivete^ that the statement becomes ironic: Tarry service officially began at eight, but it could begin at any time, whenever the Lord moved one of the saints to enter the church and pray. It was seldom, however, that anyone arrived before eight thirty, the Spirit of the Lord being sufficiently tolerant to allow the saints time to do their Saturday-night shopping, clean their houses, and put their children to bed.

He also uses biblical language to describe an action contrary to the spirit of biblical precept and thus reveals hypocrisy in the pious:

The ministers were being served alone in the upper room of the lodge hall—the less-specialized workers in Christ's vineyard were being fed at a table downstairs.

Although much of the irony is related to the religious views and practices of the characters, some is purely secular:

Elizabeth found herself in an ugly back room in Harlem in the home of her aunt's relative, a woman whose respectability was immediately evident from the incense she burned in her rooms and the spiritualist seances she held every Saturday night.

The ironic detachment of the narrator is subtly suggested by Baldwin's careful use of the past tense to express a timeless conviction: "For the rebirth of the soul was perpetual; only rebirth every hour could stay the hand of Satan."

Such irony in the narrator's voice runs the risk of leading the reader's sympathy away from the characters and breaking the illusion of intimacy. Indeed, Wallace Graves has charged Baldwin with "literary cuteness" and lack of "moral energy" (honesty) in his treatment of John's mother and natural father, Elizabeth and Richard, because of the narrator's verbal irony in "Elizabeth's Prayer," where he finds a "shift in technique" from the "highly serious narrator elsewhere in the book." The narrator's irony, however, is not limited to one section of the novel, and it avoids literary cuteness by its subtlety and sparseness. The ironic voice that speaks occasionally through the narrator's diction merely reminds us that there are other points of view from which the ideas and actions might be regarded. Moreover, in many cases the character whose thoughts are being presented may actually share this double view, consciously or unconsciously. A good example is the description of Sister McCandless, seen through John's mind but infused with the narrator's irony:

There were times—whenever, in fact, the Lord had shown His favor by working through her—when whatever Sister McCandless said sounded like a threat. Tonight she was still very much under the influence of the sermon she had preached the night before. She was an enormous woman, one of the biggest and blackest God had ever made, and He had blessed her with a mighty voice with which to sing and preach.

Similar ambiguity is found in Elizabeth's view of her aunt's threat to move heaven and earth: Without, however, so much as looking at Heaven, and without troubling any more of the earth than that part of it which held the court house, she won the day.

Since both John and Elizabeth have serious reservations about the accepted view of the character being described, the irony may reflect then-own feelings expressed in the more sophisticated language of the narrator.

The narrator's sophistication and detachment are balanced by bis serious tone and poetic intensity of expression in describing important events or psychological perceptions in the lives of his major characters, so that his occasional irony is more like a wry smile than ridicule. The touch of humor in an otherwise passionately serious work relieves tension and gives the complexity of view needed to avoid sentimentality in so closely autobiographical a novel.

Baldwin also uses other kinds of irony to escape from the limitations of the subjective narrator in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Most obvious is the dramatic irony made possible by the three long flashbacks, which give the reader information unknown to other characters. For example, when Gabriel is thinking over the events in his life, the reader already knows, because of Florence's revelations, that Gabriel's wife is aware of his infidelity; and therefore the reader finds much irony in his account of scenes between them. Baldwin also uses irony of event to give the reader a corrective viewpoint So Gabriel's two chance meetings with his bastard son occur under circumstances that emphasize sexual potency and thus contradict the purely paternal relationship Gabriel assumes.

But the most important and pervasive kind of irony in this novel is developed through the use of biblical texts and Christian doctrine to comment upon the attitudes and actions of the characters. Critics disagree about Baldwin's attitude toward the religious faith he ascribes to the characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain, often citing statements from Baldwin's subsequent essays to bolster their arguments. The question is important for understanding the novel, since its main action is the conversion of the hero to that faith and the reader must know whether this resolution is tragic or victorious. Aside from other evidence, unrelated to the subject of irony, which I believe points to the latter interpretation, a cogent argument can be found in Baldwin's use of this religious faith to pronounce judgment on his characters by irony of statement.

For example, Gabriel is ironically judged by his own quotations from the Bible and doctrines of the church. Under the title "Gabriel's Prayer" is an epigraph taken from a Negro spiritual, which asserts, "I ain't no stranger now." This expresses Gabriel's conviction that he is "saved," the fundamental tenet of his religious faith and the basis for his holier-than-thou attitude. If this assumption were allowed to stand uncorrected, the reader would condemn that faith as illusory and deplore John's conversion to it, since Gabriel is revealed as more devilish than saintly. But Baldwin carefully shows the irony of Gabriel's assumption by contrasting it with his own preaching. We learn early in the novel that he has taught his sons that they are in more danger of damnation than African savages precisely because they are not strangers to the gospel. In one of his sermons, he stresses the need for humility and consciousness of sin before God: "When we cease to tremble before him we have turned out of the way." In his thoughts about the tarry service, he remembers that "the rebirth of the soul is perpetual." Gabriel, the preacher and expositor of the faith, thus passes ironic judgment on his own self-righteousness.

Baldwin makes ironic Gabriel's favorite text, which is Isaiah's message to Hezekiah: "Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live"—a quotation Gabriel uses both to terrify his children and to assert his own righteousness. The first mention of this text is ironically placed just after the breakfast scene, which has shown how disordered Gabriel's house is in its family relationships. A second mention during Florence's prayer suggests the further irony that Gabriel is unaware of his own approaching death, or at least of the inevitability of death. But more significantly, the text is used to make ironic Gabriel's unshakeable confidence in the "sign" he believes he received from God. He seizes upon the advent of Elizabeth and her bastard as the sign that God has forgiven him after he has ignored a sign that the reader recognizes as similar to that given Hezekiah the moment after Esther told him of her pregnancy, when the sun stood still and the earth was startled beneath his feet.

In another instance Gabriel's belief that God speaks aloud to men, sometimes through thunder, is turned ironically against his assumption of righteousness. First mentioned early in the novel, this belief becomes important during Deborah's confrontation of Gabriel with his mistreatment of Esther. He justifies his action as God's will: "'The Lord He held me back,' he said, hearing the thunder, watching the lightning. 'He put out His hand and held me back.'" To make certain that the reader sees the irony, Baldwin has Gabriel repeat his belief about the thunder: "Listen. God is talking." Gabriel is thus contradicted by the voice of his own God. The final irony on this theme occurs in the conversation between Gabriel and Florence at the end of the novel:

"I been listening many a nighttime long," said Florence, then, "and He ain't never spoke to me "
"He ain't never spoke," said Gabriel, "because you ain't never wanted to hear You just wanted Him to tell you your way was right"

Although Gabriel is the character most often ironically judged by his own religious convictions, Florence and Elizabeth also unwittingly pronounce judgment on themselves. Florence recites the conditions for successful prayer and then fails to meet them in her cry for salvation. Elizabeth tells herself that she is on her way up the steep side of the mountain, and then contracts a loveless marriage as "a hiding-place hewn in the side of the mountain."

By using the tenets of their faith for ironic comment upon the characters' actions and attitudes, Baldwin transcends the limitations of his subjective narrator and at the same time establishes as trustworthy the religious faith they profess, even when they misinterpret it. Within the novel the universe works according to the principles of the Hebrew-Christian tradition, and therefore John's conversion is the opening of his eyes to truth—a giant step on his way up the mountain.

In Part Three, "The Threshing Floor," Baldwin introduces an ironic voice that speaks to John during the early stages of his internal struggle. Critics disagree about the identity of this anonymous internal speaker. David Noble asserts that it is the voice of Gabriel, because it expresses Gabriel's wish that John would get up off the threshing floor. In order to accept this identification the reader must see Gabriel as a conscious hypocrite who could encourage John to rebel against his authority to prevent John's salvation, but Baldwin carefully shows Gabriel as an unconscious hypocrite, never capable of overt double-dealing. Other critics have taken the ironic voice as John's own common sense, fighting a losing battle against his weakness for hysterical religion. If the voice is common sense, then John's conversion is a tragedy and his joyful faith an illusion; and this interpretation is contradicted by the tone of the last few pages, by the meaning of the book's title and supporting epigraph, and by the serious attitude toward religious faith implied by Baldwin's use of it for ironic comment. Moreover, John's struggle on the threshing floor is described in terms of birth imagery, and the accomplished delivery sets him free from the womb of childhood. After his conversion he stands up to his father on the equal footing of adulthood, refuting Gabriel's scornful doubts, openly recognizing the enmity between them, and refusing to obey his command. Obedience to the urging of the ironic voice would have prevented this deliverance and left John in his state of childish rebellion, a prisoner to his longing for parental love and his feeling of sexual guilt.

In terms of the novel, we see the ironic voice as an enemy who presses John to do what Gabriel secretly hopes he will do, what Florence did when she rejected her brother's church and her brother's God. The narrator describes it as malicious: "He wanted to rise—a malicious, ironic voice insisted that he rise—and, at once, to leave this temple and go out into the world." The voice comes from within John, expressing his own wishes, and its main attack is against any belief in this religion, which it attempts to discredit by associating it with "niggers" and by ridiculing the Bible's story of Noah's curse on Ham. The voice, then, is the voice of unbelief within John, which Baldwin describes as predominant in his state of mind before his conversion. At the beginning of the tarry service he is scornful of the praying women and replies to a kindly, though pious, remark by Sister Price with "a smile that, despite the shy gratitude it was meant to convey, did not escape being ironic, or even malicious." Like Florence, who prays, "Lord, help my unbelief," he is not a believer. His unbelief and hidden scorn are expressed by the ironic voice in the first stages of his struggle on the threshing floor.

The voice also expresses his rebellion against his father, his father's religion, and his father's social status. It labels the tarry service as a practice of "niggers," with the implication that John is above that level, and its spurs him to resist his father's authority:

Then the ironic voice spoke again, saying: "Get up, John Get up, boy. Don't let him keep you here. You got everything your daddy got."

This explicit connection of his sexual maturity with his father's enmity brings him to the brink of understanding, but it is not until the ironic voice leaves him that John is able to penetrate the mystery:
But now he knew, for irony had left him, that he was searching something, hidden in the darkness, that must be found. He would die if it was not found.

When he has rid himself of malice, he is free to search the subconscious depths of his mind until he grasps the true relationship of father and son—the Oedipal situation common to all human experience or, in Baldwin's interpretation, original sin.

Ridding oneself of malice is a necessary condition to salvation. Florence, unable to escape her hatred of Gabriel, founders on this rock, just as Gabriel's pride prevents him from reaching true understanding of the Oedipal situation. When John's malicious irony is swept away, he faces the psychic realities of his subconscious, and then only fear is left—the fear of being an adult, unprotected by parental love and responsible for his own life. Overcoming this fear is the final step—the step Elizabeth has not yet been able to take, and John makes it with Elisha's help. The ironic voice of unbelief, of the devil, of childish rebellion is replaced with the humble voice of faith, of God's angel, of mature self-acceptance, saying, "Yes, go through."

Perhaps Baldwin is suggesting that all irony is in a sense malicious, that human problems cannot be solved by sophisticated detachment or even common sense reasonableness. Certainly the ironic voice of the narrator is lost in the passionate seriousness of John's religious experience, which is the climax and resolution of his conflict.

Source: Shirley S. Allen, "The Ironic Voice in Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain," in James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Therman B. O'Daniel, Howard University Press, 1977, pp. 30-37.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Critical Overview

Explore Study Guides