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Summary of Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

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The story is told in ornate, biblical and beautiful language that single-handedly transforms the traditional American language. Go Tell It on the Mountain by J. Baldwin is a novel about the casual interior life of a black family, their interconnection with the past and ability to survive in new circumstances. It all happens against the background of the difficult economic situation in the country, when people were moving from place to place in search for a better life. The political situation also could not provideanysocial security. The novel shows the difficulties that immigrants had faced instead of asking pity from the white audience. It is a story of pathology and ecstasy, which demonstrates the influence of religion on the community of African Americans, their history and lives. It is also a tour-de-force prose, creating the original syntactical style by bringing together the English prose with the rhythms and language of the black church, for example, Harlem. The action is actually centered on the Harlem’s church, unresolved interior wounds and issues.

The action takes place around the Grimes, a highly religious black family. The general theme of the story is “Search for Identity” by the main characters and “Wages of Past Sins”. The novel is full of religious allusions and biblical symbols. John Grime suddenly faces a crisis of identity on his 14-th birthday. He is not sure in his future career choice. John is the main character of the story, a perceptive and insightful adult. Gabriel, his father, is an actual mixture of moral squalor and sanctimony. His wife, Elizabeth, had a son out of wedlock, so Gabriel treats the boy almost sadistically because of it. He loves Roy, the son he has with Elizabeth much more. Gabriel has a sister named Florence. She is like personal Jeremiah for him, a biblical reference in the story, reminding Gabriel about all bad things he has done during lifetime. Baldwin uses irony to show the hypocrisy of Gabriel. Author uses words from Bible “Set thin house in order” in the story as a reminder to the characters about their purpose. Gabriel often says these words to everyone in order to make them repent for their sins and correct their mistakes.

The first part of the book describes the ceremony and ritual of the church in Harlem, demonstrating John's status of an outsider in his new life. The action really starts, when Roy returned home beaten by white children. Filled with indignation, Gabriel goes on a rant about white people, quarrels with his sister Florence and gives a slap to Elizabeth. What events make Gabriel a rather chilling character? After spending his young years and adult life fighting and drinking, Gabriel finally finds his way to God, and, for a while, it calms him down. However, Baldwin does not show him as an archetype of evil, but presents the circumstances that forced him to change. He gets married and tends to a congregation, but after a small affair, the girl is getting pregnant, and Gabriel breaks all relations with her, however, acting like a moral person. His identity is at stake. He often uses a fake piety to cover the memory of his acts, and the results, as the novel progresses, are heartbreak, deceit and treachery, Although not with Gabriel's hands directly.

Other main characters, Florence and Elizabeth, are also in search for their identities. They are two different sides of the one same coin. They both were escaping from madness, pain and cruelty in search of a better life far from the south. Both did not find it there. Thus, they turned to god to fill their emptiness. Baldwin does not fetishize and sentimentalize their characters, giving a real picture of their lives and needs.

Deborah and Esther are two women, who are completely different in their temperament, looks and attitude. Esther is seductive and physically attractive girl. Her field of interest is only having fun with men and dressing up. She denies religion and any moral values. Thus, she falls for the mature charm of Gabriel and lures him to have an affair with her.  She asks him to marry her, after she has found out about pregnancy, even  knowing that he is married. After Gabriel refused, she started to demand money from him. Esther loves him, but she is clever enough to do it.

However, in the end, the story returns to John, a sensitive, heartbreakingly soul, on which nothing is lost. Devoted to Elizabeth and scarred from his father’s actions and environment in general, he turns off from religion and spends his time watching movies and studying in school. Nonetheless, in the end, the Grimes' history weighs on his person, forcing to make a difficult choice: to fully break away or join in nearly a sadomasochistic family with strange traditions and dance with religion. He goes through a surrealistic way to God, which brings a full circle to the novel.

Baldwin has shaped characters in the story. Some of them are alike in different situations, while other characters provoke contradictions between them. The author takes shared experiences of black people’s life and makes them undeniably powerful and beautiful.

There are some problem questions raised in a novel. Can John go through all his pain to the end? Can Gabriel even harmonize his personality by reconciling his dark side with his holy side? Can Elizabeth and Florence find their emotionally comfortable space and happiness? Author claims that in hard times like these, all Americans should listen to the voices of history, their roots and past. 

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