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Go Tell It on the Mountain | Study Guide

James Baldwin

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Go Tell It on the Mountain | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What about Elizabeth's father makes him an "unsuitable" parent in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 2, The Prayers of the Saints (Elizabeth's Prayer)?

Elizabeth's father makes his living by owning a "house," which is, in reality, most likely a whorehouse. Elizabeth's aunt describes it as a place where men and women drink, gamble, and carouse. The aunt says it is a place for "wicked" and "low, common" people. The aunt uses the word "nigger" to describe the patrons of the house, implying that this is a term the aunt uses for other black people she judges to have weaker moral fiber than herself. The aunt's statement that Elizabeth's father is not fit to raise an "innocent little girl" implies that, at best, Elizabeth might have passing exposure to this house and its patrons and, at worst, Elizabeth's father might involve the child in the house's business in some way. Elizabeth's love for her father and his reciprocation of that love indicates such interference between father and daughter is unlikely, but the aunt has a clear moral authority that Elizabeth's father lacks.

How does Elizabeth's love for her father influence her love for Richard in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 2, The Prayers of the Saints (Elizabeth's Prayer)?

Elizabeth's father spoils his child, buying her gifts and taking her to the circus and puppet shows, and on walks in the country. He treats her with total affection and is described as "gentle, and proud." These same words could describe Richard, who is kind and affectionate with Elizabeth and proud of his self-taught knowledge of culture and history. He takes Elizabeth to different places, especially once they get to New York, and gives her gifts as he can afford them. When Elizabeth was taken away from her father, she was heartbroken, and no evidence suggests that she received much love or affection from her aunt. She fears her aunt will take her away from Richard if she discovers the romance, just as she took her away from her father. The aunt disapproves of Richard and thinks he is lazy, even before he has any involvement with Elizabeth.

How is Elizabeth's aunt similar to Gabriel in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 2, The Prayers of the Saints (Elizabeth's Prayer)?

In many ways Elizabeth's aunt is a female version of Gabriel. She is highly religious and morally strict in her thinking. She shows Elizabeth little affection or acceptance, and instead is highly critical of Elizabeth, just as Gabriel is with John. The aunt also places a high value on appearing respectable and harshly judges other people who do not live up to her standards, such as Elizabeth's father, his customers, and, later, Richard. Indeed it is this judgmental attitude that leads her to take Elizabeth into her care in the first place. Although Elizabeth does not like these aspects of her aunt's personality, no more than she likes these aspects in Gabriel years later, her childhood has made this kind of pious and judgmental behavior normal for Elizabeth and has prepared her to tolerate it from her husband. She is used to Gabriel's heavy-handed religiosity because of the environment she grew up in.

Why has Richard gone to great lengths to educate himself in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 2, The Prayers of the Saints (Elizabeth's Prayer)?

Richard grew up an orphan, and he went to school very little as a child. Elizabeth is surprised by how much he knows when he takes her to the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She is surprised they are allowed into these places, even as Richard moves through these white spaces with confidence. Her fear of the museums and institutions is similar to John's fear of entering the main branch of the public library during his day out in New York City. Also similar to John are Richard's reasons for educating himself, as he is constantly reading. He wants to feel confident going into these places, wants the white people to treat him as an equal, and so he makes it a point to know as much as they do. His ambition echoes John's resolution to read all the books in his local library so he can feel confident about stepping into the main library.

Why doesn't Elizabeth feel remorse about her relationship with Richard, based on Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 2, The Prayers of the Saints (Elizabeth's Prayer)?

Elizabeth's love for Richard, and his love for her, is deep and genuine. She feels some guilt about losing her virginity to him after they move to New York, but they were planning to marry even before they left Maryland. They live separately in the city, waiting only for Richard to save money before they marry. The relationship is not a casual affair, and John's conception and birth are not the result of a careless one-night fling. Richard is good to Elizabeth, and he expands her worldview once they get to the city. He provides the affection she has been missing for most of her life, and she does the same for him. She sympathizes with the trials and suffering he has endured as a child and young man. Elizabeth continues to love Richard and regret his death after he is gone, and she loves their child by extension. To do anything less would dishonor his memory, and had he lived she would not be with Gabriel now. Her commitment to John also reveals the depth of love that exists between mothers and children, something Gabriel perhaps does not understand as he demands from her repentance and regret for her illegitimate child.

Why is Florence's account of Frank to Elizabeth different from reality in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 2, The Prayers of the Saints (Elizabeth's Prayer)?

When Florence tells Elizabeth about her marriage to Frank she says, "he had adored her ... and satisfied her every whim, but he had tended to irresponsibility." Perhaps this was true in the beginning of their marriage, but the description stands in sharp contrast to Florence's own recollections of Frank as a man with no ambition who could not be trusted with money. Florence never tells Elizabeth that Frank left her before he died, does not mention the fights, and minimizes the problems they had. She does not tell Elizabeth that Frank died in the war, only mentioning that he never took out life insurance because he thought he would live forever. The sugarcoating of her marriage indicates Florence's embarrassment at her failed marriage and an attempt to explain her current poverty and position as a cleaning woman in a way that appears respectable. It is an understandable lie between relative strangers, but it makes Elizabeth's confidence in Florence—telling her the truth about John and Richard—seem one sided and misplaced.

How does the courtship of Elizabeth and Gabriel contrast with their marriage in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 2, The Prayers of the Saints (Elizabeth's Prayer)?

Gabriel is kind to John when he first meets the child, joking and playing with him. He is gentle and loving toward Elizabeth during their courtship, and he promises to love and honor Elizabeth. He also swears an oath to God that he will love John like his own and provide for all of them. His swearing before God exposes the hypocrisy that escapes Gabriel's self-awareness. It is unclear when Gabriel's attitude toward John changes, but certainly by the time the boy is able to understand he knows that Gabriel does not love him. The child grows up craving Gabriel's love and approval, and he does not know that Gabriel is not his biological father. Likewise Gabriel's treatment of Elizabeth, his judgment and abuse, does not demonstrate his promise to love and honor her his whole life. His reasoning is likely related to what he believes is her lack of repentance for her previous "sins," but he is clearly not truly a man of his word.

Why does so much of John's vision on the threshing floor relate to Gabriel in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 3, The Threshing Floor?

Much of John's conflict about God, about his religious beliefs, and about his desire to be saved is tied up in his feelings about Gabriel. John sees salvation as a way to replace the love Gabriel doesn't show for him with the love of God. John also hopes that by being saved he might finally win his stepfather's approval. At the same time his hate and fear of his stepfather are the sins John believes keep him from fully knowing God. As a result Gabriel becomes the primary threat in John's vision that leads him to salvation. John must overcome his fear of being beaten or killed by his stepfather, and he must overcome his desire to destroy Gabriel. He must understand the rage and injustice of history and how that has shaped Gabriel and himself in order to overcome and find a way to forgive his stepfather. When John emerges from his vision, he is hopeful and happy that he might have finally earned an equal footing with Gabriel, but this feeling is short-lived as Gabriel responds to John's experience with indifference. The end of the novel, with John smiling at his unsmiling stepfather, indicates that John's day of salvation may be only a respite in the ongoing war between John and Gabriel.

What evidence reveals that John's visions are a genuine spiritual experience in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 3, The Threshing Floor?

When John is on the threshing floor in the throes of his spiritual conversion, he envisions himself in a dark pit like a grave, but he also sees other things. At the same time John's visions reflect aspects of his family's story that he does not consciously know. His encounter with his stepfather in the vision, in which he accuses his stepfather of being a sinner underneath his holy exterior, is not based on John's feelings about how Gabriel treats his family. John tells Gabriel, "I know what you do in the dark," which reveals how John has heard his father and mother together at night, but also calls up the sordid details of Gabriel's early life. Likewise the vision of the old woman—whom Gabriel calls "sin"—staggering and drunk, with a large lascivious mouth, "loose and wet," recalls the "harlots" of Gabriel's youth. Similarly the suffering of the masses of downtrodden servants and slaves, the generations that have come before him, tap into a kind of collective memory for John and for his entire race. He is able to see and know things about his history in this vision, hints of things that he does not know in any conscious way, that indicate he has tapped into a higher power during the vision.

How is John's relationship with Elisha changed after his conversion experience in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 3, The Threshing Floor?

Elisha's is the voice that guides John out of his vision, creating a special bond between the two boys. The saints of the church recognize how Elisha, speaking in tongues during the service, inspired John to fall to the floor to his own salvation experience. Now that John has been saved, it places him and Elisha on a more equal footing. The saints say that John now has two brothers, one in the blood and one in the spirit, and of course Elisha is the brother in spirit. Elisha accepts this role as John's spiritual brother and walks him home from church. At the same time John makes comments that indicate a divide between the two of them. John says he won't forget he was in the valley of God and asks Elisha to remember that this day happened, no matter what takes place in the future. These statements show that John may have changed in other ways after his conversion, in ways that may possibly drive him away from Elisha and the church in the years to come; or these statements may show that John will later be pulled away from his salvation experience by his worldly desires for education and a life different from his stepfather's.

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