Go Tell It on the Mountain | Study Guide

James Baldwin

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Course Hero. "Go Tell It on the Mountain Study Guide." January 12, 2017. Accessed April 20, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Go-Tell-It-on-the-Mountain/.

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Course Hero, "Go Tell It on the Mountain Study Guide," January 12, 2017, accessed April 20, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Go-Tell-It-on-the-Mountain/.

Go Tell It on the Mountain | Plot Summary

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Summary

Go Tell it on the Mountain is the story of John Grimes. All his life John Grimes has been immersed in the Temple of the Fire Baptized in New York City. The oldest child in a family of four children, he feels the weight of high expectations from his family, his church, his teachers, and himself. John learns he must walk a narrow path of righteousness to get to heaven, and his stepfather, Gabriel, demands John be saved to serve God. At the same time, John wants no part of the poverty and guilt that is his stepfather's legacy. He struggles to resolve his desire for a better life with his desire for his parents' approval and God's love. These conflicts come crashing together for John during a tumultuous Saturday night service on his 14th birthday in 1935.

The Saturday that changes John's life starts out as an ordinary day. He wakes with the guilt of his adolescent sins—sexual thoughts, disrespect for his parents—weighing on his mind, but he has breakfast with his family and commences his chores with his half-brother, Roy. His disappointment that his birthday has been forgotten is assuaged when John's mother, Elizabeth, gives him some spending money as a birthday treat. Set loose with the possibilities of New York City before him, John wanders from his home in Harlem to Central Park and then down Fifth Avenue to 42nd Street. He admires the glittering wealth around him and indulges his own fantasies of an adulthood spent as a prosperous and respected man, even as he feels mildly intimidated about being the only black person in the stores and landmarks he passes. He goes to a movie, which leaves him feeling both exhilarated about the vision of life it presents and guilty about having been to a movie about wicked people.

When John returns home, he finds his brother injured from a knife fight and his stepfather, Gabriel, raging at everyone, looking for someone to blame. Unable or perhaps unwilling to accept that Roy brought the injury on himself, Gabriel's rage culminates when he slaps Elizabeth, leading Roy to threaten his father in his mother's defense. John remains quiet but broods through the chaos, nurturing his own hatred for Gabriel. He then escapes to the church to help prepare for evening services.

At church John bonds and works with his friend and Sunday School teacher, Elisha. Elisha encourages John to take the path of salvation, and his encouragement provides a balance to Gabriel's threats and fearmongering. Then the congregation, including John's parents, siblings, and Aunt Florence, arrive and the service begins.

Unbeknownst to John, the adults in his family spend the service grappling with their personal demons. Florence, after learning that she is dying, has come to the church looking for solace. She remembers her childhood, her mother's history as a former slave, and the favoritism toward Gabriel that sowed the seeds of discord between them. She thinks of her friend Deborah, censured by the town and blamed for her own rape at the hands of violent white men. Florence remembers how her own white employer propositioned her for an affair, spurring her to finally leave the South and move to New York City. In New York Florence marries Frank, a blues singer who leaves her for a younger woman. Through all of this, Florence envies and resents her brother, and that resentment comes to a head as Florence faces her own mortality and wants finally to confront Gabriel about his own sinful past.

Gabriel's sinful past is on his own mind during the service, as he remembers his drinking and womanizing youth, his spontaneous conversion to follow God, and his marriage to his first wife, Deborah, as he built his reputation as a minister in the South. He also remembers his brief affair with a woman named Esther, whom he paid to leave town when she got pregnant and who died giving birth to their child, Royal. He remembers watching Royal grow up with his grandparents, his fear for the young Royal's soul and safety, and his despair when Royal died in a bar fight in Chicago. Gabriel moved to New York after Deborah died, but his experiences, his failures and guilt, haunt him and harden him against his family. He clings to his faith in God, and he resents the old sin his wife, Elizabeth, brings into their marriage.

The old sin Elizabeth has brought into her marriage to Gabriel is John, the product of Elizabeth's relationship with a man named Richard. Raised in Maryland by a strict aunt, Elizabeth moved to New York with Richard after the two of them fell in love. The couple planned to marry, but Richard's implication in a crime he did not commit left him broken and hopeless, even though he was acquitted. He committed suicide before Elizabeth could tell him she was carrying their baby and left Elizabeth a heartbroken single mother. She met Florence at work, and the two became friends. Elizabeth then met Gabriel, who promised to marry her and raise her son as his own.

All of these elements of family history have shaped John in ways he does not even realize, and they converge in the church during the Saturday service. While Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth muse on their respective pasts, John is overcome with the power of God. He falls to the church floor, plunging into a frightening vision of sin, fear, the history of his family, and his race that bring him through the fire to see the face of God while Elisha talks him through it all. When he emerges from the vision, John declares he has been saved and eagerly awaits his stepfather's approval at last. The entire congregation, especially Elisha, is eager to congratulate John, but Gabriel's approval never comes. As he returns to his home, John feels transformed by his experience at church but seems uncertain of what that transformation will mean in the time to come.

Go Tell It on the Mountain Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 John does chores on his birthday and then explores the city.

Rising Action

2 John finds Gabriel raging at the whole family about Roy.

3 John goes to church with Elisha before service begins.

4 Florence remembers her youth and failed marriage.

5 Gabriel remembers his sins: marriage and affair with Esther.

6 Elizabeth remembers Richard, John's birth, and her marriage.

Climax

7 John has visions of ancestors.

Falling Action

8 John emerges feeling transformed.

Resolution

9 The congregation congratulates John on his salvation.

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