Literature Study GuidesGo Tell It On The MountainPart 2 The Prayers Of The Saints Elizabeths Prayer Summary

Go Tell It on the Mountain | Study Guide

James Baldwin

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Go Tell It on the Mountain | Part 2, The Prayers of the Saints (Elizabeth's Prayer) | Summary



During the service Elizabeth looks at all the weeping around her, and a hymn reminds her of her aunt. Elizabeth is eight years old when her mother dies, and her mother's sister deems Elizabeth's father unfit to raise a daughter, even though he loves her very much. The aunt takes Elizabeth to Maryland, where Elizabeth grows up in a very religious environment, always hoping that her father might come for her.

When Elizabeth turns 18 she meets Richard, a clerk in the local general store. They flirt while Elizabeth buys lemons, and they begin seeing each other. At the end of the summer when Richard plans to move to New York, Elizabeth convinces her aunt to let her move as well, saying she will have better opportunities for education and work in the city. The aunt, who does not know about Richard, agrees to the move on the condition that Elizabeth live with a very respectable relative in Harlem. Elizabeth takes a room with this relative, a spiritualist called Madame Williams. Although Madame Williams is respectable, she is surprisingly lax about monitoring Elizabeth's activities, so Elizabeth is free to see Richard as she pleases.

In the city Richard takes Elizabeth out to meet his friends, who make her a little uncomfortable with their free ways that are so different from her strict religious background. They go to museums together, and she is surprised when white people allow them inside. Richard, however, has educated himself and appreciates culture, so he wants to teach her about these things as well. The couple plan to marry when he has enough money.

When Elizabeth becomes pregnant, she does not tell Richard right away. She invites him to a Sunday evening dinner to meet Madame Williams, but he never shows up. The next day she checks at his apartment to find police officers there. Richard has been arrested for robbing a store, and was picked up on the subway platform while waiting on the train to take him uptown for their dinner. The three robbers were on the platform as well, and all four men were arrested because they were all black. The store owner, angry about being stabbed, includes Richard in his identification of the suspects. Richard is beaten and treated badly in jail. Even though Elizabeth's testimony, along with the robbers' testimony and the store owner's uncertainty, clear him of the charges, he returns home broken and weeping. Elizabeth tries to comfort him but does not tell him about the baby. After she leaves him on the night he returns home, he slits his wrists and dies in his bed.

After Richard dies Elizabeth gives birth to John and goes to live on her own. Because she can't afford a nursery for John she must work at night while he is sleeping and just hope the building does not catch fire. Elizabeth finds work as a cleaning woman in a building on Wall Street, and Florence is one of her co-workers. Even though Elizabeth avoids other people, she accepts Florence's invitation for a cup of coffee after work. This morning cup of coffee and conversation become their routine. Florence tells Elizabeth about Frank, and Elizabeth eventually confides in Florence about John, although she still wears a wedding band and claims to be a widow.

Florence comes to meet John, who is cheerful despite his mother's worries, and John takes to Florence right away. Florence announces that her brother, whom she has not seen in 20 years, is moving to the city. After Florence tells Elizabeth about her brother, Elizabeth worries about what will become of John. She reveals the truth about Richard, and Florence comforts her.

A few weeks later Elizabeth meets Gabriel at Florence's house. Gabriel is kind to John. Elizabeth feels attracted to Gabriel, and they begin seeing each other. Florence does not approve, but Elizabeth thinks this is because she does not like her brother, not because there is anything inherently wrong with Gabriel. She goes with him to church, and he asks her to marry him in front of the building. Then she goes into the church and kneels at the altar to pray, the same altar she sees John fall before in the service on his 14th birthday when he is overcome by the power of God.


Elizabeth's Relationship with Richard

In different ways Elizabeth's childhood primes her to fall in love with a man like Richard. She misses her father terribly after her aunt takes her to Maryland, and Richard's dashing manner and affection fill a space in a life that has been strict and lonely. It becomes clear that her unwillingness to regret having John is related to her feelings for Richard. She did not conceive John as the result of nights out boozing with many men, the kind of sin Gabriel is most familiar with. The novel never makes clear whether Gabriel knows the story of John's parentage and Elizabeth's relationship with Richard, but if he does not, he may presume John is the product of Elizabeth's loose morals in her past.

Although Gabriel may not believe that the circumstances surrounding sinful behavior matter, this story is presented in contrast to his own to illustrate that the circumstances do make a difference. Elizabeth's guilt about her relationship with Richard is based on her regrets about not telling him about the baby, which might have given him a reason to continue living. Although Gabriel was not directly responsible for Esther's death in childbirth, Elizabeth's inaction might have cost Richard his life. Both situations illustrate how the consequences of action or inaction are ultimately impossible to predict.

Richard and Racial Discrimination

Richard's treatment at the hands of the police is the clearest example of racial discrimination and violence outside of the South. Other than Deborah's assault, the incidents of racial violence in the South are limited to nameless victims and a general sense of menace. Richard, however, like so many other black men and women who moved North during the Great Migration, has come to New York in the hope of escaping a world in which he will be brutalized because of his skin color. Richard has taken great steps to present himself in respectable terms, has learned about culture, and has made it a point to stand on equal terms with white men. All that comes crashing down when he finds himself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong skin color. The facts of the case don't matter to the police or even to the victim of the robbery. When Richard is acquitted, the court treats him as if he has caught a lucky break not to be found guilty this time. All of Richard's efforts to better himself and his life come to nothing, and this deprives him of his will to live. It is unlucky that Elizabeth did not tell him about their child, but in the face of such heavy despair it may not have made a difference.

Elizabeth's Dilemma

Elizabeth's problems as a single mother are surprisingly modern and universal. Money is tight, and childcare is a problem for her. She resorts to the means available to her under the circumstances, working while her child sleeps and hoping for the best. Compounding Elizabeth's dilemma, however, is having a child out of wedlock. In this respect the anonymity of the city works in her favor. She wears a wedding band and claims to be a widow. She believes this is a lie, but in a sense her story is true, even though society might disagree. To avoid scrutiny Elizabeth avoids getting too close to other people. She is drawn to Florence because Florence is older and seems kind. Elizabeth's memory of Florence, in fact, provides a different perspective on the Florence who appears in the church years later, bitter and frightened by death, resentful of her brother and the husband who left her. The Florence who drinks coffee with Elizabeth in the mornings after their shifts is warm and forgiving, even though she cleans the offices of rich white men for a living—not too different from the washerwoman life of her mother. She offers Elizabeth her sympathy and encouragement even after she learns the full truth about John and Richard.

Florence's feelings of warmth toward Elizabeth and John may be the source of her opposition to Elizabeth's relationship with Gabriel. Elizabeth dismisses Florence's objections as sibling rivalry, but Florence knows her brother and knows he has been selfish his whole life, and as a preacher he is now judgmental and unforgiving. Elizabeth assumes Florence has "no evil to report" about her brother, yet previous chapters have shown that Florence has Deborah's letter, and later chapters confirm that she intends to show Elizabeth the letter. Florence's decision not to reveal specific details about Gabriel before Elizabeth marries him may indicate that she is less optimistic about Elizabeth's chances of finding a husband than she claims in their conversations, or perhaps she values Elizabeth's friendship too much to attempt to ruin her relationship with Gabriel in its early stages.

Elizabeth's conversion experience is not especially dramatic, and it takes place after Gabriel has proposed to her. Still, when he asks her to marry him he asks her to kneel at the altar and pray, implying that her salvation is a condition of marriage to him. She compares this experience of prayer to God with the day John was born, indicating that John is another kind of salvation for her, and those two kinds of salvation come together when she sees John on the threshing floor.

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