HomeLiterature Study GuidesGo Tell It On The MountainPart 2 The Prayers Of The Saints Gabriels 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 (Gabriel's Prayer) | Summary

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Summary

Gabriel sees Florence crying in the church and recognizes it as the crying of a sinner; then he remembers his own past before he was saved. After Florence leaves Gabriel and their dying mother, Gabriel becomes aware that Rachel is hanging on to life only to see her son change his drinking and womanizing ways. Rachel wants to see Gabriel's soul saved. Gabriel also wants to please his mother and become one of God's anointed, but he feels pressured by her watching eyes and high expectations. He escapes this guilt in bars and strange beds. One morning as he is returning from a vivid night with a northern visitor he identifies as "the harlot," he has an epiphany. He collapses next to a tree on his way home in the morning light, begging for God's mercy. He testifies later that when he rises he can hear his mother singing.

After his conversion Gabriel becomes a preacher and moves to a room in the house where he works. He later marries Deborah, who helped him care for Rachel after Florence left town. He doesn't plan to marry Deborah at first because she is unattractive and her history is a mark against her; however, Deborah is extremely pious. She tells him she has been praying for him and rejoices after his conversion. She helps him fast and prepare for his first important sermon at a revival meeting. He gives a successful sermon because he is able to see her in the congregation. Even so when he joins the elders for a Sunday dinner at the end of the revival, he is uncomfortable among them and thinks they are lazy in their faith. He doesn't want to be like them. After Deborah and a few other women come in to serve coffee and pie, one of the ministers makes a joke about Deborah's rape, making Gabriel furious. He points out the elder minister's hypocrisy and realizes what a gift and help Deborah has been for him over the years. He thinks about this for several days, and after a prophetic dream he asks her to marry him, and she accepts.

As the service at the Temple of the Fire Baptized continues, Gabriel thinks about his two sons, one long dead and the other, Roy, absent from the service because of his injury. He considers the sin that led to his first son's birth and eventual death, but he also feels fully repentant. He does not believe Elizabeth shares the same level of repentance for having John out of wedlock with a different man. When he asks her about her repentance, she refuses to regret her son's birth and insists that John is equal to their other children.

Gabriel remembers Esther, a woman he worked with as a house servant in the South. He is attracted to her right away but knows she and her parents live sinful lives. They drink and gamble, and Esther dates many different men. In an effort to save her, Gabriel invites Esther to one of his sermons. The community remembers this sermon for years to come as one of Gabriel's most powerful and fiery. Esther appears entertained by the sermon but is ultimately unmoved spiritually; she doesn't understand why Gabriel won't leave her alone to live as she pleases. The two of them talk about this one night in their employers' kitchen while the family is out of town. Alone in the house they have sex in the kitchen and commence an affair that lasts nine days before Gabriel ends it.

Four weeks later Esther reveals she is pregnant with Gabriel's baby and wants him to go away with her. He refuses, and she threatens to tell people in town what has happened between them. He says no one will believe her, but she knows enough people will listen to ruin his reputation. At the same time she does not want her parents to know how foolish she has been, so she agrees to keep the affair and baby secret if he will give her money to leave town. Gabriel steals the money from a box of savings Deborah has kept since they were married. A week later Esther leaves for Chicago.

After Esther leaves town Gabriel resolves to put the affair behind him, but that summer a letter arrives from Esther. She tells him he will one day suffer for how he has treated her, and she hopes her son will turn out better than his father. By the end of the summer, Gabriel goes to work in the fields and avoids other people as much as possible. He spends several months traveling to preach in churches away from home, but his guilt comes with him. He sees the sinful behavior of his people, dancing, drinking, and having sex, and he blames the white man for these problems.

That winter Gabriel returns home. A few days later Esther's parents bring her body back home for burial and her infant son to raise. The boy is named Royal, and his grandparents spoil him and let him run wild. Deborah becomes friendly with the family and wonders aloud to Gabriel why the child is named Royal. Gabriel knows why: he once told Esther he would like to name his son Royal, to reflect the child's place in God's holy, royal line. Deborah speculates that the name might have been the father's and that Esther moved north to look for him. As the child grows up, Gabriel occasionally encounters him with his friends around town, and sometimes he hears Royal and the other boys make jokes about him.

When World War I begins, Royal is 16 and wants to enlist, but his grandmother won't let him. Instead he goes to work on the docks in a neighboring town. One night shortly after a black soldier has been found brutally murdered, Gabriel goes out to get medicine for Deborah. He is nervous and aware of the danger of being the only black man out at night when he meets Royal on the street. They greet each other, and Gabriel cautions Royal about being out alone at night when the white men might be looking for an excuse to kill again. Royal jokes that they already met their quota for the week and he isn't bothered. Gabriel blesses him, tells him to be careful, and Royal tells Gabriel to be careful too.

Two years later a bedridden Deborah hears of Royal's death from one of her visitors. She tells Gabriel how Royal, who has been in Chicago for a year, was stabbed in a bar during a fight about a card game and is buried in the potter's field there. When she sees Gabriel weep at the news, Deborah finally confirms what she has known for years, that Royal is his son and that he sent Esther away with money from her savings box. Deborah asks why Gabriel let Esther go away and die when he wanted a son so badly. He says he didn't want a "harlot's son," and Deborah says Esther wasn't a harlot. Gabriel says he feared for his reputation, and Deborah tells him if he'd been honest she would have taken in Royal and raised him with Gabriel as her own. She advises Gabriel to pray for forgiveness.

Analysis

Comparing Gabriel and Deborah

Gabriel has never really forgiven Florence for leaving him to care for their dying mother, as indicated by his judgment of her as a sinner. At the same time, the story of his own conversion and final success at meeting his mother's expectations seems genuine. His encounter with the nameless woman, identified in his memory only as "the harlot," although it is unclear whether money actually changed hands, is presented in lurid terms with much trembling, groaning, and sweating. He remembers her body and her tongue specifically. Yet the total experience of this night also drives him to his conversion the following morning when he falls trembling, at the base of the tree. These descriptions are placed side by side, framing both the contrast and the similarity of the sexual experience and the spiritual one. His testimony about hearing his mother singing, even though he is not near her cabin when he falls by the tree, indicates his reconnection with his mother through this conversion experience.

In contrast to Gabriel's debauched experiences, Deborah's rape as a young girl has driven her to a life of sexless servitude. She is not attractive or brazen enough to embrace the shame her rape and her community have thrust upon her. Instead she has dedicated herself to the church, wearing simple sacklike clothing without ornament of any kind. She does not engage in gossip, only reading the Bible and praying. As such she has a kind of saintlike status, even though, as the preacher at the revival demonstrates, she is occasionally subjected to mockery for her forced experience with the white men. If she is aware of these jokes Deborah ignores them, but Gabriel is rightfully incensed by them after all she has done for him. Still, because this joke from the other preacher seems to spur Gabriel's marriage proposal, it appears he asks her to marry him out of a sense of duty to make her more respectable or, perhaps, to make himself appear more respectable and charitable. He believes, as Paul writes in the Bible, "it is better to marry than to burn," but he shows no indication of love or attraction to Deborah.

Gabriel's Temptation and Esther's Pregnancy

Gabriel's favoritism toward Roy over John is easily explained by the revelation that John is not Gabriel's biological son, and Gabriel still carries resentment toward Elizabeth for whatever activities precipitated John's birth. There is no evidence that John is aware of his parentage, though. At the same time Gabriel's hypocrisy is revealed as real, and not just a product of his sister's imagination, in an old letter from Gabriel's dead wife. Gabriel cheated on Deborah and fathered a child with Esther. For Gabriel the key difference between his past and Elizabeth's past is repentance, which for Gabriel hinges on his regret of his past actions. Elizabeth will not admit to regret, so in Gabriel's opinion her repentance is not genuine. As a result he punishes John and Elizabeth for Elizabeth's perceived sinfulness.

Before their affair begins, Gabriel is single-minded in his desire to "save" Esther from her wicked ways. This desire inspires a passionate and memorable sermon, but the real desire driving the sermon is Gabriel's desire for Esther and his desire to save himself from the temptation she represents to him. Esther, with her promiscuity and drinking, represents the kind of life Gabriel left behind at his conversion. Even as he makes his first move toward physical contact with Esther in the kitchen, he calls on Jesus to help him stand, which exposes his true motives in his concern for her soul. If he can get her to repent and join the church, then she will become holy to him and cease to be a temptation to return to the old life and ways.

When Esther tells Gabriel about her pregnancy, he questions whether the baby is his, and Esther reveals her own code of morality by swearing to her honesty. Honesty is more than Gabriel can claim, as his only desire is to keep Esther quiet. As badly as he wants a son, he does not want one with a woman who reminds him of the life he left behind, and he is not willing to risk his reputation as a minister. He claims his life is no longer his own, that he is doing God's work, which is bigger than the two of them or the baby. He even uses the same word—harlot—that he has used to describe other women from his past. Gabriel's actions, however, are so dishonorable and sinful—he steals from his wife to send his mistress away and conceal what he has done—that God seems to have little part in them. While Gabriel seems fully confident that God will forgive these actions in him, Gabriel himself is woefully unforgiving of Esther's sinfulness and of even the minor sins of others he encounters later in his life.

Esther's Death

Esther's letter to Gabriel is not a threat of personal retribution for what he has done to her. Rather the letter serves to remind him that Esther knows "right from wrong" and Gabriel does not, despite his holy exterior. The letter reminds him that God knows what Gabriel has done, and someday Gabriel will pay for his actions, which he does. The precise circumstances of Esther's death are unclear, whether she died during childbirth or shortly after, but when he sees her buried and sees the baby in his grandparents' arms he is racked by guilt and shame. He leaves town in an effort to escape this guilt, but it haunts him for as long as Royal is alive and beyond. Deborah recognizes this when she finally confronts him with the truth after Royal dies, saying Esther "mighty near has" dragged Gabriel down to hell with her.

Esther's decision to name the child Royal appears less of a tribute to Gabriel's wishes and more of a final jab at him. He wanted his son to be named Royal to represent his son's place in God's kingdom, so Esther's using the name for their illegitimate child undermines Gabriel's purpose. Even though he later gives the same name to his first legitimate son—Roy is short for Royal—he will always know who bore the name first. Gabriel's guilt is compounded by seeing his son grow up as wild as he was as a young man, if not more so. Gabriel worries for Royal's safety and well-being, and the final straw of guilt for him is Deborah's confession that she knew all along and would have raised Royal with him if Gabriel had said anything. Gabriel knows his lies might have cost his son a better upbringing, and possibly his life.

Deborah's defense of Esther, along with her unconditional love for Gabriel and willingness to accept Royal, is further evidence of her near-saintly nature. Her closeness with Esther and Royal's family after Esther dies becomes more meaningful when she reveals that she knew about the baby all along. This means she has attempted to, in whatever small way, care for Gabriel's child even though Gabriel does not acknowledge the boy. When Gabriel says he didn't want "a harlot's son," Deborah defends Esther, a reminder of the shame Deborah was subjected to by the community after her rape. Deborah knows all too well the damage of judgment and attacks on a woman because of her sexual history.

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