Go Tell It on the Mountain

by James Baldwin

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Themes and Meanings

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It is no accident that John’s mother is named for Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. The relationship of Black people to their church is a central theme of Go Tell It on the Mountain, the title alone signifying that the real protagonist of the novel is God. He is a stern, forbidding deity, and the characters see him as vengeful and angry. He takes away Gabriel’s beloved Esther and Royal because of the errant preacher’s sin. John is Elizabeth’s consoling reminder of Richard, with whom she has transgressed. The child’s unhappiness is Elizabeth’s repayment for lust and folly. Florence is cold, shrewish, and self-righteous, and her hatred for her brother, who is a man of God, marks her distance from real religious conviction.

God’s status as father to the saved is mirrored in the nature of the human fathers in the novel. Paternal imprinting is central to Baldwin’s descriptions. Elizabeth finds in Richard a substitute for the father’s love she did not know; Gabriel desires a son to continue his work, preaching devotion demanded in turn by the Almighty Father; and John, symbolically fatherless, yet blessed with too many fathers—the dead Richard, the tyrannical Gabriel, and God—relies on his mother’s compassion and, tellingly, finds in Brother Elisha the spiritual mentor who will understand what he has endured in the long night of his soul on the threshing floor. A secondary but important theme here is John’s latent homosexuality. It has been curiously unremarked upon, except peripherally, in criticism of Go Tell It on the Mountain, possibly because of the overwhelming religiosity of the novel. It is, however, an important element, particularly in the light of the autobiographical aspects of the novel.

Baldwin himself said that he considered this novel as a kind of love song, “a confession of love.” The absence of love is a guiding force in the narrative. John feels rejected precisely because the man he should most admire, the man who points the way toward salvation, his stepfather Gabriel, is so wrought with his own longings and guilt. Hatred of the unforgiving Gabriel fuels John’s own sense of sin. His tenderness for his mother and for Brother Elisha is his only source of happiness as he struggles to understand what he is and what he is to become. It is important to emphasize that John turns away from Gabriel after his salvation to receive a kiss on the forehead from Elisha. Gabriel does not smile on his son, and John must turn to the object of his physical attraction for validation of the experience he has just undergone.

John and his family are part of a community, and Baldwin takes great pains to express the experience of Black people as they attempt to reinforce their identity, their sense of community, and their reliance on each other in the face of a hostile society. In one passage at the end, John hears the rage and weeping of his people in the terrible darkness of his passion. Without words or even meaning, the voices from the darkness tell him of his people, “of boundless melancholy, of the bitterest patience, and the longest night; of the deepest water, the strongest chains, the most cruel lash; of humility most wretched, the dungeon most absolute, of love’s bed defiled, and birth dishonored, and most bloody unspeakable, sudden death.”

From this passage, too, readers may note the power of Baldwin’s cadenced language, especially in the almost incantatory repetition that occurs in the biblical exhortations so often quoted or sung to the characters. The narrator not only tells a tale...

(This entire section contains 677 words.)

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but also probes into character. His language is richly symbolic, laden with explicit and implicit meaning, and his point of view is not so omniscient, not so distant or so direct, that his reader does not share his sorrowful compassion for Elizabeth, his mistrust for the puritanical Gabriel, and his self-imposed quandary over John, for whom he seems to oppose happiness with holiness.

Christian Themes

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Perhaps the dominant evidence of Christian concerns throughout the novel is its juxtaposition of Old and New Testament teachings. The teachings of the Old Testament and the New Testament are strikingly different. The former preaches discipline and submission to a wrathful God the Father; the latter teaches an appreciation of God as an all-loving Father who has endowed his children with the ability to love him and one another. The Old Testament prescribes punishment, meted out severely by patriarchal authority, as just retribution for sin. In Baldwin’s novel, Gabriel hypocritically assumes this duty, parading his piety and promising God’s wrath on Judgment Day for sinners. Analogously, Gabriel maintains strict authority in his home, dictating his family’s thoughts and actions and enforcing them with corporal punishment.

The battle between good and evil is another Christian idea prevalent in Baldwin’s novel. Gabriel’s Christian ideology—and therefore John’s, too, initially—precludes ambiguity. Walking on the street, John sees the devil’s handiwork everywhere: “the marks of Satan could be found in the faces of the people . . . the roar of the damned filled Broadway.” Initially, John is propelled toward salvation simply because he cannot stand the alternative, which can only be evil. Again, the orientation is toward the Old Testament emphasis on justice over mercy and forgiveness.

John’s uncertain relationship with his stepfather correlates with his ambivalence toward God the Father. In rearing John, Gabriel’s overemphasis on the patriarchal teachings of the Old Testament makes John, an illegitimate son, question his worthiness to be saved by God “the Father.” Deuteronomy (23:2), for example, denies illegitimate children entry into the church. Hosea (5:7) and Hebrews (12:7-9) describe illegitimacy as a desolate condition. The New Testament Jesus, who had no earthly father, should be a positive Christian example for John, but Gabriel’s omission of New Testament teachings leaves John without the knowledge required for Christian salvation.

At the end of the novel, John begins to enter a true Christian experience with a greater appreciation for the New Testament teachings. John says to his affectionate mentor Elisha, “No matter what happens to me . . . you remember—please remember—I was saved. I was there,” referring to his moment of salvation. John wants Elisha, and others, to know that his heart has changed because that intimate knowledge creates a communion of Christian believers. Gabriel, on the other hand, discounts such a communion. He says bitterly to Florence, “I done answered . . . already before my God. I ain’t got to answer now, in front of you.” At the novel’s end, John keeps his back to Gabriel in the shadows, but he’s facing the sun and the people-filled streets of Harlem.


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Baldwin's ultimate theme, here and in his other novels, is isolation. His characters explore, sometimes unconsciously, their isolation from others and from society in general. They struggle to establish an identity, to find an acceptable place in the world, and in Go Tell It on the Mountain they express their frustrations over not being able to do either.

John Grimes, a fourteen-year-old illegitimate child, struggles with the usual problems of an adolescent male and an oppressed individual. In trying to establish his own personality, he runs up against many barriers. Race is a barrier that prevents John from fully participating in the advantages society has to offer, and the young man finds himself forced to deal with his latent, and largely inexpressible hatred of Whites. John's position in the family also isolates him. As the oldest child and the only stepchild, he is doubly unique, and his attempts to form a relationship with his stepfather, Gabriel Grimes, reveal a crucial problem of the adolescent and the stepchild: the need for familial acceptance. Indeed, this need alone probably results in John's religious conversion; he wants desperately to please his family, particularly Gabriel, the fundamentalist storefront preacher in whose church John is finally converted. Finally, religion acts as a major theme in this book, for the novel centers around John's religious conversion in the Temple of the Fire Baptized. Baldwin explores what religion has to offer people in John's situation, positive and negative, and he reaches no conclusion in the matter. John is converted, but Baldwin does not reveal whether that conversion benefits or harms John in the long run.

Ultimately, Baldwin's main theme centers on the limitations of life as a Black person in the ghetto. His refusal to solve John Grimes's problems amounts to a personal statement that, at the time the book was written, those problems were unsolvable. Resolving John's difficulties would require a contrived, false, and reductive ending, and Baldwin refuses to betray his characters in that way. John's problems can be explored, even elucidated, but the society that dominates John will not provide a solution.


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Identity (Search For Self)

Go Tell It on the Mountain is primarily about John Grimes' quest to find out who he really is, to distinguish the values of those around him from the ones that he holds. It is no coincidence that the novel takes place on his birthday, which is the day representing a step forward into maturity, or that it is his fourteenth, marking the boundary between childhood and young adulthood because it implies the start of puberty. The point of growing up is discovering one's own identity.

John comes from a family that is involved in his life, but, because of his father's thoughtlessness and bullying tendencies, he cannot accept that his role in this family is who he really is. Even without knowing that Gabriel Grimes is not his real father, John holds him at a distance. This could be explained as a result of Gabriel's harshness, while Roy's wild ways, which reflect the childhood Gabriel had, might be the result of his father's narcissistic pampering.

The identity that John prefers is that of "Great Leader of his People," a fantasy clearly derived from his education in the Bible. With hope, he sees glimmers of this identity being possible in the praise he receives at school, but unfortunately his family's values are deeply ingrained and he views himself as a sinner. Looking at his features in a mirror, John does not know what to think of himself, "for the principle of their unity was indiscernible, and he could not tell what he most persistently desired to know: whether his face was ugly or not."

To settle the question of his identity, John goes beyond the features of his own personality and attaches his interests to someone outside of the family, Elisha. The loud, showy religious experience he has in the end is satisfying to his identity in several ways: it allows him to be like Elisha by having a seizure similar to his; it makes the strongly religious side of his family pleased by "converting" John into their religious life; and it satisfies his youthful ego by being loud and exotic and drawing everyone's attention to him.

Duty and Responsibility

In the middle of the novel comes a moment where Gabriel refuses to face his duty squarely, and the results of his action reverberate across time and end up affecting all of the members of the Grimes family. In this pivotal episode, Gabriel convinces himself that his responsibility to Deborah and to the people who value his preaching would be betrayed if he admitted to getting Esther pregnant. So he backs away from her, avoiding the touch of her hand, as if pretending that he is not responsible for the child could change his moral obligation.

As a result of his action, Esther left town to give birth, which probably causes the strain that made her die during labor. If his father had raised him, Royal would not have been spoiled the way his grandparents spoiled him, and his life would not have headed "towards the disaster that had been waiting for him from the moment he had been conceived." Florence might have been able to give up on the sibling rivalry of her childhood and concentrate on preserving her marriage if she had not received the letter that told her Gabriel had been unfaithful to her friend Deborah. If he had shared Royal's life, Gabriel would not have fooled himself and Elizabeth into thinking that he was willing to accept the duty of raising her child John, and they would therefore never have been married.

The novel certainly does not present responsibility as a pleasant thing, as seen in the way that John, feeling responsible for his family, feels like a sinner, while his brother Roy, who causes the family nothing but grief, sails along merrily with a clear conscience. In this book, where consequences carry on from one generation to the next, responsibility is treated seriously.

God and Religion

Although this book's main setting is a storefront church, and the strongest character, Gabriel, was once a successful preacher, and the main character, John, has a religious experience that helps him calm his greatest worries, it would be inaccurate to call this a book about religion. The truly devout characters, Elizabeth and Elisha, keep their religious feelings to themselves and only discuss them when asked. To Gabriel and John, religion is a matter of posturing, of behaving in certain accepted ways for the benefit of those watching. Gabriel's abuse of his family members indicates that he is aware of a difference between public and private life He seems to have no more faith in God's omnipotent power than Richard, who told Elizabeth, when she mentioned the love of Jesus: "You can tell that puking bastard to kiss my big black ass." Richard was at least sincere in his disdain for God, while Gabriel as a result of his difficult childhood, has learned to say things that people want to hear, just like the Twenty-Four Elders he joined, who he thought of as "circus performers, each with his own special dazzling gift"


The fact that the characters in this book are Black is undeniably significant, but, because they seldom interact with White characters, this cannot be considered a book that pretends to deal with race relations. The presence of racism and bigotry is felt throughout the story: in the rape of Deborah and the subsequent beating of her father; in Gabriel's nervousness about talking to Royal in the street; in John's belief in his own special gift because a White teacher showed interest in him; in the treatment of Elizabeth and Richard by White policemen. Functionally, race is used here as a tool to highlight characteristics that are already present: the meek seem meeker and the bold seem bolder when they let their personalities show in front of White people. There are very few positive White characters shown here, but Baldwin is not trying to portray reality, he is trying to show how things look from within this closed community. Blacks and Whites seldom have any reason to interact here unless there is trouble.