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Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain Summary


Here you will find a Go Tell It on the Mountain summary (James Baldwin's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Go Tell It on the Mountain Summary Overview

Set in 1935 Harlem, the story centers on the fourteenth birthday of John Grimes. The narrative seamlessly weaves in flashback episodes to delve into the lives of John’s parents and aunt while also drawing a connection to his slave grandmother from a previous generation. The narrative perspective shifts between characters, with the first and fifth sections from John's viewpoint, while the second focuses on his aunt, the third his father, and the fourth his mother. The narrative is deeply rooted in biblical references, mirroring the constant presence of religion in the characters' lives. This often adds a layer of complexity to understanding the story. The narrative is fraught with three interconnected conflicts: a strained father-son relationship, the trials of growing up, and a religious crisis. Although issues of race and racism are not overtly discussed, they subtly underpin the three main issues of the narrative. John finds himself grappling with his father's apparent hatred towards him and his preference for John's younger brother, Roy. He is conflicted between the desire to win his father's love and his resentment for his father's stringent religious world. Convinced he has committed a grave sin, John goes through a spiritual crisis that leads to a transformative religious experience at his family's local Harlem church. Unfortunately, this does not win him his father's approval. Unbeknownst to John, the reader is aware that Gabriel, the man he believes to be his father, is actually his stepfather. Gabriel's resentment towards John is rooted not in the boy's actions but in his own secret past.

part 1

The narrative starts on John Grimes' fourteenth birthday in March 1935. John resides in Harlem with his strict preacher father, Gabriel, his mother, Elizabeth, younger brother, Roy, two younger sisters, Sarah and Ruth, with another baby on the way. The family is deeply involved in the local church, the Temple of the Fire Baptized. The story commences with John's internal monologue about sinners, the church, Sunday services, Sunday school, and Brother Elisha, an older boy who John greatly admires. John's struggle begins when he wakes up on his birthday and remembers committing a sin by masturbating in the school bathroom. This triggers a spiritual crisis, enhanced by his strained relationship with his father. John dreams of a different life. He excels acadically and is commended for his intelligence, which gives him hope against his father's harsh treatment. John's family is in the kitchen when he joins them. The kitchen appears filthy in John's eyes. During breakfast, Roy and Elizabeth argue about Gabriel. John's birthday is not acknowledged. Roy disagrees with their father's strict religious policies and particularly his physical punishment. Elizabeth defends Gabriel, asserting he is trying to save Roy's soul and keep him out of jail. After the argument and breakfast, John is given the chore of cleaning the front room. John reflects on family photos while cleaning, which makes him think about his father's first wife, Deborah. He finishes his chores, and his mother gives him a little birthday money and some encouraging words. John senses his mother's sadness. Elizabeth sends him out to buy a present with the money. John heads to Central Park, climbs his favorite hill and fantasizes about a future life of success in the city rather than the religious life his father upholds. After these thoughts, he moves to Fifth Avenue, where he observes the wealthy (white) people, dreaming of a prosperous life for him and his future family. He sees these people living without the strict religious practices his father insists upon and finds it hard to imagine them suffering eternal damnation. He has met kind white people at school, which makes him question his father's assertion that all whites are evil. However, he remembers the racial atrocities in the South and accepts he doesn't belong in the world he is observing. John goes to a movie despite fearing the judgment of his church members. The movie leads him to think about Hell, redemption, and the hard decision between a religious life or a worldly one. When he returns home, he finds his family and Aunt Florence caring for Roy, who has been injured in a knife fight. John's father uses the incident to warn John about the dangers posed by white people, a claim disputed by Elizabeth and Florence. Gabriel blames Elizabeth for not controlling the children, and following an argument, strikes her. Roy stands up to his father, who starts to whip him until Florence intervenes. John goes to the church that evening for his usual chores, upset with his father. His spirits lift when Elisha arrives, leading to a playful wrestling match. After this, Elisha discusses salvation with John. When two women from the church arrive, they all sing a spiritual song. Gabriel, Elizabeth, and Florence then enter the church. It is Florence's first time in their church, which surprises John. He senses something significant might happen that night.

part 2

Florence makes her first appearance at her brother Gabriel's church, aware that her presence gives him satisfaction, not for her potential salvation, but because it highlights her struggles. Despite her fear, she participates in the church service. She's plagued by an incessant message: "Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live." She's sick and fears death. She recalls her mother's prayers after Gabriel's first wife, Deborah, was raped. Their mother, a former slave, often shared stories of slavery and their connection to biblical tales. Florence's dream was to escape to the North, like their father did after Gabriel's birth. Even though Florence was older, their mother prioritized Gabriel's future, forcing Florence to serve him and denying her education. Gabriel, despite being wild and sinful, remained the center of their mother's world. Tired of this, Florence left home for the North at age 26. The focus shifts to John's perspective in the church before returning to Florence's memories of her life with her husband Frank in New York. Frank was a terrible drinker and irresponsible with money, causing many fights between them. Florence recalls a letter from Deborah revealing Gabriel's illegitimate child. Florence has kept this letter as a weapon against Gabriel, contemplating whether to use it now. Gabriel reminisces about his rebellious youth and his transformation to a religious preacher. After a prophetic dream, he married the rape victim Deborah. Elisha's voice brings him back to the present, triggering worry about John, who isn't his biological son, experiencing a religious awakening before his own sons did. He views John as the result of Elizabeth's sin, and insists there's a difference between John and his own sons. He recalls his affair with Esther, who bore him a son, Royal. After their short-lived affair, he paid her to leave and have their child elsewhere. Esther died after childbirth and named their son Royal. Gabriel watched Royal grow up, never acknowledging him as his own. Royal was eventually killed in a fight, leading to an emotional confession from Gabriel to Deborah. John is internally battling with his resentment towards Gabriel while Gabriel struggles with accusations he feels from everyone around him. Gabriel orders John to kneel. Elizabeth’s flashback begins with her mother's death and her aunt taking her away from her father. She met Richard, fell in love and followed him to New York. She became pregnant with Richard, but he was wrongfully arrested, leading to his suicide. Through Florence, Elizabeth met Gabriel who revitalized her faith and promised to love John as his own. As she recalls John's birth, she's startled by a real cry from John, who's on the church floor, experiencing a powerful religious moment.

part 3

John experiences a terrifying, spiritual vision. He battles with his father, his fears and doubts, and horrific illusions. Finally, it concludes when John believes he sees the Lord. It's morning, and John is saved. His family and Church brethren, including Brother Elisha, stood by him throughout his ordeal. The Church members are ecstatic. John is overwhelmed with tears. His mother and aunt are proud, but his father Gabriel is skeptical. Gabriel challenges John to prove his salvation through his actions. The congregation leaves as dawn breaks. Elizabeth, John's mother, is congratulated by the praying women of the Church. They assume her tears are of joy, but her happiness is tinged with bitterness. Florence, Gabriel's sister, confronts Gabriel. Their past animosity comes to the surface. She questions his claims of holiness and presents Deborah's letter, which she's kept all these years. Florence accuses Gabriel of making Elizabeth and her 'illegitimate' son pay for their sins to save his own son from paying for his. John, meanwhile, walks with Elisha. Everything seems different to John. He seeks comfort and guidance from Elisha, asking him to pray that he doesn't falter. Elisha reassures John that he will support him. They reach John's house. Florence and the praying women are waving from afar. As Elisha leaves, he kisses John on the forehead. John greets his father with a smile, which isn't reciprocated. His mother awaits in the doorway.

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