English Literature
Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain

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Discover the Brilliance of James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain

In his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin declared it a necessary foundation for all his future works. To fully appreciate Baldwin's writing, one must start with this masterpiece. Released in 1953, this semi-autobiographical tale delves into Baldwin's personal life and introduces recurring themes seen in his later works. Undoubtedly, Go Tell It on the Mountain remains one of the most celebrated American novels of the 20th century.

Set in 1930s Harlem, the story follows the journey of fourteen-year-old John Grimes, the oldest of four siblings. As John grapples with his own changing body, his family's dynamics, and his spiritual confusion, he struggles to make sense of his world. The novel takes place within a single day, yet Baldwin skillfully uses flashbacks and shifts in perspective to reveal the past of other characters, including Gabriel, Elizabeth, and Florence.

Split into three parts, with the second part divided into three sections, each section is narrated in the third person. This allows Baldwin to present a well-rounded and multi-dimensional view of the story by shifting the focus onto different characters. Among the key themes explored in the novel are religion, race, violence, family, guilt, and sexuality.

Though a fictional work, Go Tell It on the Mountain is heavily influenced by Baldwin's own upbringing in Harlem and his tumultuous relationship with his religious and aggressive father. Readers familiar with Baldwin's biography will recognize parallels in this novel.

Part One: The Seventh Day

The first part of the novel, titled "The Seventh Day," is narrated by John on his birthday. He reflects on his family's Sunday church routine and contemplates following his father's footsteps as a preacher. Filled with doubt about his own faith, John struggles to find meaning in religious rituals. Despite being his birthday, he doubts anyone in his family will remember, but his mother surprises him with a small gift. However, after disobeying his father's strict instructions not to go to the movies, John faces judgment from his strict religious community.

Part Two: The Prayers of the Saints

The second part shifts to the perspective of Florence, John's aunt. She reflects on her childhood with Gabriel, her mother's favorite child who she believes is wasting his potential through disobedience. After leaving home for New York, Florence recalls the events that led to Gabriel's transformation into a preacher.

Go Tell It on the Mountain is not just a story about one family, it is a story about the larger community of Harlem and the struggles faced by African Americans in the 1930s. Baldwin's honest and raw portrayal of the characters and their experiences makes this novel a literary masterpiece that remains relevant and impactful today.

Part Three: The Threshing-Floor

The third part centers on John's perspective as he undergoes a spiritual awakening. Influenced by his own experiences and the stories of those around him, John begins to understand the true meaning of faith. However, the road to self-discovery is not easy, and John must confront his past and present struggles to find his own salvation.

In Go Tell It on the Mountain, a powerful novel by James Baldwin, a young boy named John experiences a series of visions that lead him to the salvation he has been desperately searching for. As John grapples with his own identity and faith, he also finds himself caught in the midst of a family drama that threatens to tear them apart.

Meet the Essential Characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain

James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain introduces a diverse cast of characters, each dealing with their own personal struggles and triumphs.

  • John Grimes: The 14-year-old protagonist living in Harlem with his family. He is haunted by his father's rejection and questions about his beliefs and identity.
  • Gabriel: John's stepfather, a devout and violent man who values patriarchal authority and enforces it with physical force.
  • Elizabeth: John's mother and Gabriel's wife. She has endured love and loss in the past but is now trapped in an abusive marriage.
  • Florence: John's aunt and Gabriel's sister. Despite her failing health, she holds deep resentment towards her brother.
  • Roy: John's younger brother and Gabriel's only legitimate son. He exhibits the same aggressive behavior as his father and often gets into trouble.
  • Elisha: A youth minister who John admires and confides in.
  • Deborah: Gabriel's first wife who was raped by white men and rejected by her community. She later married Gabriel.
  • Ester: The woman Gabriel had an affair with and the mother of his illegitimate son.
  • Richard: Elizabeth's lover and John's biological father. After being falsely accused and violently attacked, he takes his own life before getting the chance to meet his child.

Key Quotes and their Meanings

"Their singing caused him to believe in the presence of the Lord; indeed, it was no longer a question of belief, because they made that presence real."

This quote reflects John's struggle with religious doubt as he longs to experience the same intense joy that he sees in his church community. Witnessing their transformation solidifies his belief in the presence of God.

"It was not only colored people who praised John, since they could not, John felt, in any case really know; but white people also said it, in fact had said it first and said it still."

This quote delves into the complexities of race and faith as John grapples with his mixed heritage and the differing opinions of those around him.

Individual Identity in Go Tell It on the Mountain

At only five years old, John becomes aware of his individual existence when his white teachers recognize him. This recognition becomes a way for him to assert his individuality and distinguish himself from his father, Gabriel. While Gabriel holds animosity towards white people, John welcomes their praise, possibly as a way to rebel against his father's beliefs. However, this also showcases John's belief that recognition from white individuals holds more value than recognition from his own Black community.

When Elisha's shouts on the threshing floor awaken Gabriel from his thoughts, Sister McCandless rises to assist in prayer. This scene highlights the constant need for rebirth in the soul and the significant role of the church and community in this never-ending process. It also illustrates the power of the church in aiding individuals on their spiritual journeys.

John's thoughts are compared to a turbulent sea, constantly churning up forgotten treasures and debris. As he attempts to pray, John is consumed by hatred towards his father and the urge to embrace this hatred. Despite the chaos in his mind, John is not bothered; he believes there is something he needs to uncover amidst it all.

Themes Explored in Go Tell It on the Mountain

Religion plays a pivotal role in the novel, from the title itself, derived from an old African American spiritual song, to the biblical names of many characters. The story revolves around John's quest for salvation and how religion shapes the experiences of others.

The novel also portrays a complex family dynamic, with the central conflict being the strained relationship between John and Gabriel.

Diving Deeper into the Themes of James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain

James Baldwin's novel Go Tell It on the Mountain delves into a complex web of themes, including guilt, sexuality, religion, violence, family, and race. Set in 1950s Harlem, the novel offers a vivid portrayal of the struggles faced by the characters in a society rife with injustice and oppression.

The Burden of Guilt

Guilt weighs heavily on the characters in the novel, impacting their thoughts, actions, and relationships. John, the main character, carries the weight of his perceived sins, while his father Gabriel is haunted by his past transgressions. Elizabeth, John's stepmother, is plagued by guilt over her inability to protect her brother from a tragic fate.

Exploring Sexuality

The theme of sexuality is intricately woven into the novel, often intersecting with ideas of guilt, violence, and religion. Baldwin also touches on the subject of homosexuality, represented through John's attraction to older boys at school and his brother Elisha's relationship with an older man.

The Influence of Religion

Religion plays a pivotal role in the lives of the characters, particularly John's strict Pentecostal upbringing. Throughout the novel, John struggles with the expectations placed upon him by his religious community, while also questioning his own faith. The church also serves as a source of conflict within the Grimes family.

The Harsh Realities of Violence

Violence is a prevalent theme in the novel, manifesting in various forms such as physical, emotional, and racial violence. From Gabriel's volatile behavior to Richard's tragic end, the characters' experiences with violence serve as a reminder of the harsh realities of life in 1950s Harlem.

The Complexity of Family Relationships

The novel also delves into the complexities of familial bonds, exploring relationships between parents and children, siblings, and step-relatives. The strained relationship between John and his father, as well as the tension between Gabriel and Elizabeth, highlight the deep-seated issues within the Grimes family.

Race and Identity in 1950s Harlem

While not the central theme, race plays a significant role in the novel, set in Harlem, a predominantly Black neighborhood. Baldwin portrays the impact of racism on the characters, their relationships, and their search for belonging in a society that discriminates against them.

About the Novel

Baldwin's semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain was published in 1953 and is set on the fourteenth birthday of its protagonist, John Grimes. Inspired by Baldwin's own childhood and strained relationship with his father, the novel offers readers a poignant coming-of-age story against the backdrop of 1950s Harlem.

  • Rosset, Lisa. James Baldwin: Author. Grolier Inc., 1991.

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