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Literature Study GuidesGo Tell It On The MountainPart 2 The Prayers Of The Saints Florences 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 (Florence's Prayer) | Summary



Florence does not usually come to church, but she is here now because she knows she is dying. During the service she thinks of her childhood growing up in a small cabin in the South. Her mother, Rachel, was a slave, and Florence and Gabriel are the only children who were not taken and sold. Florence has heard her mother's stories of life on the plantation and her mother's enduring faith that God would one day set her free. When that day comes, Rachel finds the plantation destroyed and decides to move on. She doesn't want to go North like so many other former slaves, so she moves into her cabin and does laundry for white people.

Florence is five years old when Gabriel is born. As a boy he is their mother's favorite. He gets to go to school, even though he doesn't want to and Florence does. He gets the best of their food and whatever new clothes are available. Rachel thinks Florence is better off this way, learning to look after a man as preparation for her married life, but Florence dreams of a life different from her mother's. Gabriel fights when he is baptized at age 12 and grows up running wild, drinking, and chasing women.

The only time Rachel shows more concern for Florence than for Gabriel is after a black girl named Deborah is raped by a group of white men in a field. Deborah's father threatens to kill the men who did it, and the whole community fears the white men will come to burn their houses in retaliation. As they wait in the night, Rachel prays for God to protect her daughter. Deborah's trauma and Florence's hatred of her brother lead them to a close friendship based on their aversion to men.

At the age of 26 Florence leaves town. Her mother is bedridden and dying, but Florence decides to leave after the father of the family she works for sexually propositions her. She decides she has had enough and uses her savings to buy a ticket to New York City. Gabriel is furious with her for leaving him alone to care for their mother, who is heartbroken about her daughter leaving.

In New York Florence marries a man named Frank, a blues singer who drinks too much. The marriage lasts more than 10 years, but they fight frequently. These fights usually end when they are in bed together at night. During the days Florence is frustrated by Frank's inability to save money or spend it wisely. He drinks often and buys useless objects and clothing. When he buys groceries they're impractical—a whole turkey or several pounds of coffee or cereal. He hangs around with unsavory men and brings them home to play cards and drink. When he returns home after being gone for three days, Florence unleashes years of her anger at his lack of ambition in a final fight. When Frank leaves, she thinks he will come back later, drunk, presumably to make up as they usually do. Instead he moves in with a younger woman. He dies in France fighting in World War I, which Florence learns from the other woman. She is angry that she has to receive the news of his death this way but is also curious about how he died and where he is buried.

While in church Florence has an old letter from Deborah in her purse, written when Deborah was married to Gabriel and Florence was still married to Frank. The letter reveals Deborah's suspicions that Gabriel had a son out of wedlock while they were married, and Florence believes this letter is proof of Gabriel's selfishness and hypocrisy. When the letter arrives she talks to Frank about it, saying her brother is no better than a killer because the child's mother died while giving birth. In church Florence thinks about showing Gabriel the letter. She is angry because she feels she has tried to live a good life but she will die alone and poor, while God has blessed Gabriel in spite of his sins. She weeps before the altar but feels only death coming for her.


Florence's illness is not specified, but her symptoms—"burning in her bowels," vomiting, and extreme weight loss—indicate cancer of some kind. Doctors are unable to treat her, and she turns to "men or women who traffic with the Devil" in a desperate effort to find relief. Seeking treatment from such unconventional sources stands in contrast to Florence's efforts to put her soul right and her resentment toward what she believes to be Gabriel's hypocrisy, but Florence has never pretended to be especially religious. She recognizes that her prayers in the church are a last-ditch attempt to set her spiritual affairs in order before she dies, and she ultimately feels these efforts will be fruitless.

Growing up the daughter of a former slave, Florence's experience holds many parallels with John's. Her mother's stories of life and suffering on the plantation are as abstract to her as the accounts of racial violence in the South are to John. As John looks at his father's life and longs for something different, so Florence looks at her mother's life and longs for the freedom her mother never truly had. Even though Rachel has been freed from slavery on the plantation, she remains conscripted to a life of extreme poverty, her cabin and her work as a washerwoman only a small step up from the life she had on the plantation. The important consolation for Rachel is that she is able to raise her last two children. Yet Rachel, and by proxy Florence, live in a kind of servitude to Gabriel, making sacrifices to his needs as a male. As a result of this servitude, Florence grows to hate men and loses any desire to marry. Rachel does not mean to mistreat Florence, but Florence's experience with her brother reflects the secondary place all women hold to men in her world, and Florence attempts to resist her designated role by leaving.

Gabriel's childhood also bears some similarity to both John's and Roy's experiences. Gabriel's mother invests all her meager resources in him; like John, Gabriel faces high expectations for leading a productive and respectable life. Like Roy, however, Gabriel actively rejects the opportunities he is given and his mother's expectations. He is headstrong. As a boy Gabriel rises from the baptismal waters with flying fists and moves on to more unsavory pursuits as he grows older. His close similarity to Roy provides some explanation as to why Gabriel may feel a closer connection with his younger son.

Even though Florence left the South seeking a life better than her mother's, one that would not include servitude to a man in marriage, Florence ends up in a deeply unhappy marriage. She has greater freedom in her marriage to Frank than she might have had with a husband in the South, but his spending habits and lack of ambition leave Florence in a caretaking position with him. His efforts to contribute to the household create only more trouble and work for her. When Frank leaves, Florence experiences both relief and regret. She wonders about his death and fantasizes about visiting his grave in France dressed in mourning, which indicates that even years after his departure she harbors feelings for him, or at least about her status as a married woman. Her irritation with the younger woman he lived with after leaving her amplifies Florence's regrets. She does not seem to miss Frank himself, but she misses the idea of him and resents being replaced.

The full force of Florence's venom and resentment, however, is directed toward Gabriel. After spending the first half of her life playing second to her younger brother, she knows she is going to die poor and alone. Gabriel may also be poor, but he is not alone. He has a large family. Even though that family brims with its own tensions, it is more than Florence has. Florence's lack of family may be due partially to her own choice of husband, but her sexual history with Frank combined with her current medical problems hint that she may have been unable to conceive children. In any case she views Gabriel and her mother as blessed by God in a way she hasn't been, given that she has never had children. But she is also angry because God blessed her mother with a long life, and she knows Gabriel is going to outlive her, despite his unsavory history. Florence recognizes that both her mother and brother possess a level of belief that she lacks, and she believes she will find no salvation for her soul despite her attempts to find God's favor.

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