Go Tell It on the Mountain Additional Summary

James Baldwin


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Set in Harlem in 1935 and spanning approximately twenty-four hours, James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, depicts John Grimes, a poor African American youth, on the threshold of accepting Jesus as his savior. Baldwin presents John’s story, a Bildungsroman, in three sections. Section 1 begins on John’s fourteenth birthday. His mother Elizabeth gives him money to buy himself a present. Away from home, John experiences the sensuousness of the temporal world. Walking idly around the city, John enjoys freedom from the religious strictures imposed by his parents. However, even as he appreciates this freedom, he knows the world is full of evil temptations. He stands on the threshold between secular experience and Christian salvation. In the evening, John goes to church, where he’s joined by Elisha, his enthusiastic and warmhearted Sunday school teacher, a boy only slightly older than John. Church elders arrive and ask John if he is ready to be saved. John is ambivalent but drawn to the prospect. Focused on John’s salvation, the elders begin praying, chanting, and singing.

Section 2 tells, in flashback, the stories of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth. Though raised a Christian, Florence is a skeptic. As the Latin root of her name (flora) suggests, she is like a flower: temporal, uninterested in metaphysical questions. Her primary concern is material gain, so she leaves the rural South to find a husband to provide her a better life. Her mother and brother Gabriel beg her to stay, but Florence refuses. Justifiably, the townspeople believe Florence thinks that she is too good to marry somebody “down home.” In the North, she marries Frank, a good-natured man satisfied with being a simple laborer. His inability to improve their lifestyle leads them to separate after ten years of marriage. Florence never remarries.

A carouser in his youth, Gabriel is saved at twenty-one years of age after a night of drinking and whoring. Outwardly, his conversion appears sincere. He becomes a stern evangelist, preaching heartlessly of God’s retribution for sinners. Baldwin’s use of the name “Gabriel” is ironic. In the Bible, Gabriel is an...

(The entire section is 902 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

It is John’s fourteenth birthday, but he does not feel pleased. He is worried that no one will remember his birthday or help him to celebrate it in any way. He is surprised when his mother, Elizabeth, recognizes the special day and offers him two different kinds of gifts. The first is money; the second is the opportunity to spend the day without interference from the rest of the family. He can be alone if he chooses.

John has already accomplished the chores to which he is assigned, so he is free to experience uninterrupted adult events. He decides to go to the theater in Harlem, across Sixth Avenue, which he feels is an adventure. For John, it is a mature and independent thing to do. Even this decision, however, is not made without reflection; for him, it represents a kind of release from the protectiveness of his mother, in whom he finds a sense of security. It also represents, however, a release from the tyranny that he experiences from his stepfather, Gabriel, in whom he no longer has any confidence or trust. He has always felt that Gabriel favors his own children, such as John’s stepbrother, Roy.

When John returns home from the theater, he encounters a family tragedy. Roy has been injured in a race-oriented gang war. Stepfather Gabriel, as usual, does not blame Roy and, when he focuses his anger on Elizabeth, Roy defends her. Although John realizes that he is not the cause of this event, he is also not surprised when Gabriel takes out his anger on him as well, repeating his frequent criticisms of John. It is time for church, and John leaves the house to meet with the young preacher, Elisha.

Elisha is seventeen, and John is drawn to him, not only spiritually but also physically and emotionally. Elisha seems to provide many havens and refuges for John. During the church service this day, John is prayed for by other members and has a “peak experience,” a religious conversion or redirection. He then formally offers himself to God.

John’s church experience also includes the prayers of his family members. Each prayer reveals much about its speaker, as well as implying reasons for each speaker’s different relationship with John. During the service, John turns away from Gabriel, and Elisha gives him a kiss on his forehead. Since his stepfather does not seem to affirm his conversion, John looks increasingly to both Elisha and Elizabeth for the affirmations he...

(The entire section is 986 words.)

Part I Summary

(Novels for Students)

James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain chronicles the experiences of its young narrator, John Grimes, in Harlem in 1935....

(The entire section is 603 words.)

Part II Summary

(Novels for Students)

In this section, Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth take over the narrative one at a time as they pray. Florence starts to sing a song her...

(The entire section is 759 words.)

Part III Summary

(Novels for Students)

John, filled with "anguish," faces his sin and lies helpless and afraid on the floor of the church. During this torment, he has a vision of...

(The entire section is 140 words.)