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Go Tell It on the Mountain: Essay Q&A

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1. Examine John's relationship with Gabriel.
The relationship between step-father and son is central to the plot. The hatred that both feel is returned to repeatedly as is their lack of understanding of each other. The secret of John's illegitimacy is never revealed to him and the novel may be read as criticizing such acts of suppression and repression in the name of so-called decency. On a simple level, their antagonistic relationship offers a critique of secrets, lies, and a loveless upbringing. The reasons for Gabriel's mistreatment of John are suggested as the novel proceeds. The ostensible reason is that he is not his biological father. It is also hinted, however, that another factor for this abuse could be that his first-born son, Royal, was murdered and Gabriel is jealous of John's existence. This latter point is never made explicit in the text; it is only ever suggested.
The conflict between Gabriel and John is also used figuratively, particularly in Part Three, to represent a battle between good and evil. As John lies on the threshing-floor and looks up to God, his disconnected thoughts keep coming back to the way Gabriel dominates his life. It is as though Gabriel symbolizes the obstacle to John's awakening. In Part One, it is stressed that Gabriel's association with God, as he is a preacher, entails that John's loyalty to his faith has become divided. Parallels may be drawn with Florence's similar distaste for religion because of Gabriel's calling. Gabriel comes to represent both the dangers of hypocrisy and the obstruction to gaining happiness in the after life.
Gabriel and John are depicted as representing an ancient problematic relationship between father and son and this is made explicit in the references to Noah and Ham in Part Three. This generational conflict has been drawn on by countless authors across the centuries and is one of the central themes of Freud's understanding of the Oedipal complex. For the son to mature and individuate, the father becomes an enemy to conquer. John's spiritual awakening is the signifier that announces his maturity and his separation from Gabriel.
2. Consider the effect of how this novel uses the past to interrupt the present.
The stylistic device of shifting between the past and present dominates Part Two, but occurs throughout the novel. This movement is effective in revealing Florence, Gabriel and Elizabeth more fully and in a more abstract sense this technique insists that identities are shaped by history. The bitterness that they feel for those around them, and the prevailing sensation of self-loathing, are both understandable once their lives are given substance. Furthermore, as details of their formative years are explained, John's earlier sense of isolation is also contextualized. It becomes more possible to understand why John is disengaged from his family.
The linearity of the narrative is, therefore, always under threat of being interrupted by memories from the past and this indicates that the past can never be fully forgotten. Actions taken in the past haunt the present lives of the older generation. This style enables the reader to understand the background of the characters only gradually and also has the effect of undermining the objectivity of each life presented to the reader. It is made clear, then, that perspectives are subjective and are constructed by personal and national histories.
By refusing the straightforward linear framework, the storytelling process becomes more complex too. The plot is deceptively simple, and superficially straddles only two days, but the weight of the past complicates the main narrative strand of John's rite of passage. The beginning of Part One demonstrates the reliance on memory and interiority rather than simply dramatic action as John lies in bed on the morning of his birthday. A further example of Baldwin's ability to use different times and interpretations to examine the present can be seen in the shift to hallucinatory prose in Part Three.
Finally, the movement between different moments in time also questions the concept that time is linear. The various narrative strands that are used here, such as the continuous present and the memories of different characters, are all given precedence and this is a modernist indication that time, and progress, do not occur in straight line.
3. How does this novel treat religion?
The Old and New Testament are alluded to constantly. The framework, chapter headings and title depend on the Bible and spiritual songs. Many of the characters names are also biblical and are, thus, symbolic of their status. In addition to this, the plot, based over two days, draws heavily on John's spiritual awakening and Gabriel's religious hypocrisy.
The store-front church the family attends is Pentecostal in faith and depends on the belief of spiritual awakening and the necessary day-to-day battle with temptation. Happiness in the after life, rather than the here and now, colors the outlook of many of the central characters. Fear of God's wrath clouds the actions of Elizabeth and John in particular. Gabriel uses this fear as a weapon to criticize Elizabeth's past 'sins', although he is not as troubled about his own choices in life.
This work depends on Christianity for its framework and plot, but it is debatable whether the novel adheres fully to Christian ideology. It is truer to argue that Baldwin draws on Christian motifs and evangelical worship both for purposes of content and for exemplifying the struggle between Gabriel and John. References to Noah and his accursed son are used to embellish their anger towards each other which implies that their battle, which is between generations, is ancient and universal.
The response of Elizabeth to the news that John is saved is notable for its ambiguity and this may be interpreted as emblematic of the novel's treatment of Christianity. Obvious, outspoken criticisms of the faith they follow are rarely made, and this mainly occurs in the past with the memories of Richard's contempt for God. In comparison, Elizabeth's equivocation is only a gentle attempt to destabilize the Word of the faith. It is notable, however, that her concerns are raised through the memories of both talking with Richard and John's first introduction to Gabriel.
4. Explain the representation of family life in this novel.
The structure and myth of the unified family is undermined throughout this novel. John's relationship with Gabriel is based on a lie, in that he believes Gabriel is his biological father. As well as criticizing the patriarchal dominance of Gabriel, this work is also a Bildungsroman that traces John's development. His thoughts, perspectives and actions are pivotal to the content of Part One and Part Three and he is an adolescent who feels detached from his family and his step-father in particular. According to John's perspective, this family is barely held together.
The Grimes family is fragmented and the name alone is a signal that this is a degraded unit. It symbolizes the poverty each member endures and represents their low position in society's hierarchy. John's feeling of unhappiness and isolation is epitomized in his belief that his mother has forgotten his birthday, as this has happened before. His desire to escape the bonds of his family and community are evident when he runs up his favorite hill in Central Park. His ambition is to have material wealth and to be respected and admired. This dream is soon questioned by John, however, once he remembers the racism of his society, which he has read about and as Gabriel has informed him. It is at this point that John's hatred for Gabriel allows him to remain naive about the prejudices he is bound to encounter in 1935 American society.
Gabriel's violence rather than love is the dominant feature of the family unit. Once Gabriel and Florence's childhoods are revealed in Part Two, it is made clear that Gabriel has learned his form of discipline from his mother, Rachel, who was taught her version of discipline as a slave. A connection is made in the content, from Rachel to John, from slavery in the South to living in New York, which exposes how the love between parent and child has been diminished through the system of slavery and the violence of slave masters.
5. Consider how this novel criticizes racism
This work is set in 1935, in the present, and shifts back to the late nineteenth early twentieth century when the backgrounds to Gabriel, Florence and Elizabeth are told in Part Two. Their histories counterbalance John's innocence with regard to the effects of racism and their separate migrations to the North are necessary reminders that the impact of slavery (and Gabriel and Florence's mother was a former slave) has had long-reaching effects that have become manifest in various ways.
With Gabriel, his violence and impotency are indicated as remnants of his past, although he is also individually characterized as weak and hypocritical by Florence and John. His hatred for white people appears to be elemental to his misanthropy in Part One as this is John's perspective. As the reader learns more about Gabriel, however, his distrust for the dominant society becomes increasingly vindicated.
For Florence, her legacy from her mother has been one of misery and bitterness. That she used to try to lighten her skin, as though to eradicate her self, is indicative of racist intolerance of black skin and of the damaging effect this has on one's sense of identity. At various times in the past and present narratives, Florence tries to distance herself from other African Americans as though this will spare her from the insidiousness of racism. The act of separating herself from others can also be interpreted as collusion with the dominant ideology.
It is through Elizabeth's memories that the spectre of Richard is invoked. His anger at racism and desire to raise the consciousness of African Americans is evident in the memory of their trip to the museum. The introduction of Richard allows for the most overt criticism of racism. Because this comes from John's biological father, rather than the feared and despised Gabriel, weight is added to Gabriel's earlier cited anger aimed at white people as a whole. The combination of Richard and Gabriel's responses to racism has the effect of balancing John's views. It also allows the novel to be read in more politicized terms. Richard negates God and white rule; his false imprisonment and suicide offer strong indictments against racism, and against living in fear of the Almighty.


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