Themes and Meanings
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,...
(The entire section is 677 words.)