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11-PEL-26. N.L BENO II M.


A Critical Analysis of the Novel Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin The Novel Go Tell It on the Mountain saw its publication in 1953. Baldwin emerged as a prominent voice in the Civil Rights Movement during 1950s. Hence this novel cannot be devoid of the influences of racism and its evil consequences, the conflicts in the minds of characters to name a few. This presentation aims to analyse the narrative technique, the auto-biographical elements and themes employed in the novel in a critical way. Narration Go Tell It on the Mountain is a multifaceted novel that tells many different stories and confronts many different themes. On the simplest level, it is the story of a young boy coming of age. The boy's story gains complexity as it is interwoven with the stories of his mother, father, and aunt. Go Tell It on the Mountain is also the story of religion and racism and familial expectations and perceptions and how these forces impact people struggling to survive.

Go Tell It on the Mountain doesn't follow what many would consider to be the standard style of narration in which the events in the novel are presented sequentially and move, as the characters do, through a semblance of real time. Instead, Go Tell It on the Mountain is set on the birthday of John Grimes, but the story spans several decades. The flashbacks of John's aunt, his mother, and his father give the reader insight into the lives and minds of the characters. Such insight was important to Baldwin who was most interested in the person behind the persona. He believed that to truly know a person and to understand why a person reacts or behaves in a certain way, you have to know the important events that shaped that person's life. By the end of the novel, the manner in which the characters react to any


given situation can be extrapolated not only from their past actions but also by the understanding that the reader has gained of the character's motivating force. By using the frame story, Baldwin is able to tell many stories in such a way that the readers essentially go on a voyage of discovery, learning about the characters as they are revealed by themselves and by the others. Had Baldwin told the story in traditional linear style, much of the impact would have been lost. By withholding key information and surprising the reader with it throughout the novel, Baldwin builds suspense and is better able to hold the interest of his audience. This style of narration also imitates the way people learn about each other in real life. Upon first meeting, a person does not truly understand the motivation behind another person's actions. In the novel, for example, the reader cannot comprehend the actions and reactions of the characters in Part One because so very little is known about them. By reading through, though, the reader gains an understanding of the characters and the events that shaped their lives and, therefore, gains an understanding of why they behave as they do. Baldwin believed that the only way to happiness was to truly know the people in one's life. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, it is painfully obvious that none of the characters really know each other. It is only the omniscient narrator who has a full and unbiased knowledge of all events of significant importance. The use of the omniscient narrator is, in itself, vital to the novel because no single character knows the full and true story of every other character. In fact, the individual characters cannot be trusted to give an accurate description of their own personal histories, colored as these histories are by their own feelings and perceptions. By using the omniscient narrator, Baldwin is able to give an accurate and complete description of the lives of his characters. The reader is shown their emotions, actions, and reactions and is therefore able to understand their personalities. Although individual characters may interpret and react to the same situation in different ways according to


their own preconceptions and prejudices, the reader is given the opportunity to see events as they actually happened. AUTO-BIOGRAPHICAL ELEMENT: Go Tell it in the Mountain is an autobiographical text that reveals the complicated relationships that Baldwin had with his stepfather David Baldwin whom his mother had married when Baldwin was a toddler. As Trudier Harris argues in James Baldwin (2001), Not only did his [Baldwins] stepfather assert that James was ugly and bore the mark of the devil, but he refused to recognize Jamess native intelligence of his sanctioning by white teachers. This painful autobiographical material would provide the substance of Baldwins first novel

James Arthur Baldwin was born to Emma Berdis Jones and an unknown father on August 2nd in 1924 in Harlem, New York. He never knew the identity of his biological father which haunted him all his life. In 1927, Emma marries David Baldwin, a storefront church preacher who has recently moved to Harlem from New Orleans. Both Emma and David were a part of the great migration in 1919, coming from the south to the industrial north seeking better social conditions and economic opportunities. James Baldwin was the eldest of nine children, he was forced to assume a kind of maternal role towards his brothers and sisters. He desperately tried to receive love, but was constantly required to give it. His stern, distant and authoritarian stepfather insisted that the children devote as much time they could to his views of Christian teachings. At the age of fourteen James experienced a profound religious crisis which broke down his previous opposition to become a preacher: I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life afraid-afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without quoted James Baldwin.

The life of Baldwin gets reflected through the character John Grimes. Johns life stands as a testimony to the life of the author himself. John and Baldwin become the victims of


identity crisis because of their inability to recognise their biological fathers. Both Baldwin and John try to escape the isolation by way of expressing zeal in acquiring modern education. Both Baldwin and John are expected to be good role models for their respective siblings.


Family conflicts The Grimes family is central to this novel and the tensions between and across generations drive the past and present narratives. Violence and fear rather than love are the overriding experiences as Gabriel dominates Elizabeth and the children as the patriarch of the household. Through the tension created by Gabriel, there is a criticism of the lack of love in the family unit and in American society. This is made evident with the sympathetic characterization of John and his sense of isolation that is created ostensibly by his step-father. As the past histories of Florence, Gabriel and Elizabeth are told in Part Two, the secrets of the older generation are revealed and, consequently, the reasons behind Gabriel's cruelty to his current family are explored. One of the main negative influences on this family's structure is traced back to racism, as with the suicide of John's biological father (Richard) and slavery, as with the references to Gabriel and Florence's mother, Rachel. The repression of secrets, such as Gabriel's first child and John's illegitimate birth, is also criticized through the negative portrayal of Gabriel. The decision to hide the past is expressed in this novel as an impossible action to perform, as the movement between the past and present narratives demonstrates. This technique of switching the time frame emphasizes how history cannot be erased when read in combination with the content; the past is ever present.


Racism: This novel draws on a history of the United States in that it offers an insight into the effects of slavery and the migration of African Americans from the South to cities in the North (Chicago and New York). With the older generation (Florence, Gabriel and Elizabeth in particular), their unhappiness and alienation from the wider white-dominated society is translated into bitterness and destructive behaviour. John's battle with Gabriel is indicative of an antagonistic father-son relationship, and it is also representative of the divisive influence of racism as Gabriel's impotency outside of the home is avenged on his family. By using John as the central protagonist, a perspective of the third generation of African Americans who have never lived in the South is given. He cannot fully understand, nor appreciate, why Gabriel is so entrenched in his hatred of the whites. John accepts praise from white and African-American schoolteachers, whereas Gabriel (similarly to Richard) has no trust in white people. On an abstract level, Gabriel and Richard's separatist positions are contrasted with John's desire for integration. He is aged 14 and it is possible to see his views as being offered as a naive voice. It is also worth remembering, however, that John's perspective underpins the novel as his views are returned to intermittently. In this light, his voice is favored. This is especially apparent when he is drawn in comparison with Gabriel. This is balanced somewhat with the exposition of Gabriel's background which, in turn, characterizes him as complex rather than simply evil as John tends to interpret him. Baldwin avoids completely demonizing Gabriel, then, because his identity is flawed, for example, by the murder of his first son Royal. Gabriel is a beneficial recipient of patriarchy, though, and his hypocritical treatment of Elizabeth, when criticizing her for sinning without admitting his own similar faults, is not explained by racist treatment directly. His cruelty is seen to be both formed by the influence of racism and by his opportunistic abuse of power.


Racism shatters the lives of Florence and her mother. Florence looks back on her life, beginning with a night when she was 13, huddled in the small cabin that she shared with her mother and her brother, Gabriel. They feared that their home would be burned down by white men in a way of retaliation for a father's threat of retribution for the gang rape of his daughter Deborah. The horses and riders passed, and they knew themselves to be safe for the time being. Florence's mother, Rachel, had been a slave before she was freed by the Civil War and had suffered all the miseries and injustices of her position. She had lost several children through death or auction; she had even had one, whom she was never allowed to see, taken away to live in the master's house. For these reasons, Gabriel and Florence were especially precious to her. However, being a boy in a male-centered society, Gabriel was even more special to her.

Memory: Memory becomes an important theme in this novel. Each character goes back to his/her past and one finds Memory haunting the Grimes family throughout the novel.

Feminism: Patriarchy is questioned in this novel thereby bringing out feminist consciousness among the women characters.

Gabriel had been their mother's favorite since his birth, and Florence feels cheated of the things that she wanted but that were given to Gabriel instead. He had a chance to attend school, he had the best clothes and food that the family was able to afford, and he had the care of his mother and sister. Yet Gabriel never appreciated what he was given and carelessly squandered it all.