Go Tell It on the Mountain | Study Guide

James Baldwin

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Go Tell It on the Mountain | Themes



Religious doctrines and spiritual needs and expectations are presented in constant opposition to physical needs and desires. The opinion of John's stepfather, Gabriel, and his church is that spiritual purity and adherence to faith is paramount to all else. In following his faith so zealously, however, Gabriel loses sight of his humanity, showing no compassion for those who do not believe exactly as he does. In Gabriel's hands faith becomes a source of alienation. On the other hand spirituality provides great comfort to characters such as Elizabeth, Rachel, and Deborah, who find their belief in God allows them to overcome and cope with the trials of their lives.

Sexuality and Misogyny

In direct opposition to the spirituality in the book is the human element of sexuality, and this conflict drives many of the personal tragedies in the novel. Within the church and within the community, sexuality is something to be feared and punished, and no one is immune, even though everyone seems to be exercising this element of human nature in one way or another. By denying his sexuality, Gabriel falls into an affair with a woman and then treats her terribly. Gabriel physically and psychologically punishes Elizabeth in their marriage because she will not renounce her love for a man who died before Gabriel met her, because that love produced her child, John. Florence's sexuality leads her into an unproductive marriage to a shiftless man who leaves her. Even Deborah, who does not choose to exercise her sexuality but is instead raped, is shamed and punished by her community.


Racism is not the central theme in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Instead it looms in the background, creating ugly scenes for the characters at different moments, forcing them all to live in an environment of constant fear and poverty. It functions like background noise until someone is killed or attacked. Segregation is apparent mostly in the family's relative lack of contact with white people. What little contact exists is overwhelmingly negative. John is afraid of entering stores occupied by whites. Much more alarming is Deborah's rape, Richard's unjust arrest and beating, and the lynching of an unknown soldier in the South. Gabriel insists throughout the novel that whites are evil, and he has had experience enough growing up in the South to support his feelings.


Family is an important element in the novel, and the ties are strong regardless of personal feelings. Florence doesn't like her brother, Gabriel, much, but she takes him in when he comes to New York and she is involved with his children. John and his siblings are very different from one another, but they still seem to care for each other. Family, however, does not guarantee acceptance. Florence leaves her mother on her sickbed, and while Gabriel raises John as his son, he never accepts or seems to truly love him. Additionally, even though Esther is pregnant with Gabriel's child, he refuses to acknowledge his responsibility to her or to care for Royal, his blood son. Sometimes those bonds of acceptance are found outside the blood family, as John finds with Elisha, or Florence and Deborah find with each other.


Every character in the novel wants to be free of something. For example, John wants to be free of poverty and his stepfather's heavy hand. Elizabeth wants to be free of her aunt's oppressive house so she follows Richard to New York. Florence wants to be free of her mother's life so she leaves her hometown. Gabriel spends much of his life trying to become free of the guilt he feels for the sins of his youth, causing him to become increasingly oppressive to those around him. The members of the church turn to religion, seeking freedom from lives that are hindered by the constraints of white society. Most of the action in the novel is driven by a quest to be free of something, whether a physical or psychological bond.

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