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.

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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 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...

(The entire section contains 2500 words.)

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