Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.)

Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

(The entire section is 449 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Baldwin's ultimate theme, here and in his other novels, is isolation. His characters explore, sometimes unconsciously, their isolation from...

(The entire section is 348 words.)