Guid Essay

Guid Essay

Go Tell It On The Mountain Analysis English Literature Essay

This novel is not organized into chapters like most novels. It is organized into different sections named “Part One: The Seventh Day”, “Part Two: The Prayers of the Saints,” and “Part three: The Threshing-floor.” This novel is 263 pages. I believe the plot is complex because you get a sense of John’s past as well as the present through descriptions of the other three main characters lives. There are times in the story where James Baldwin will give background information on a character like the flashbacks of Gabriel’s childhood or Elizabeth’s life with Richard. The book centers on the day John turned 14, but covers decades starting from 1900 when describing the back-story for Elizabeth, Florence, and Gabriel. In the beginning of the story Baldwin writes in chronological order moving from one scene to the next whether it be John at the movies or in church on this day in March. There are different streams of consciousness as John will ramble off in thought about the sin he will or won’t commit and the consequences that could arrive from them. Such as when he is sweeping the rug and he imagines it as his eternal duty like a man “whose curse it was to push a boulder up a steep hill.” He goes on to describe this in detail even though it isn’t actually happening or a part of the plot. This and the events of the main characters lives are presented back and forth to the present time, which are the characters in church.


The characters in this novel are round and dynamic; their lives have multiple layers and are revealed throughout as complex. John for instance doesn’t feel loved by his father and this explains his actions as a character that is stand offish towards the people around him. There are only a few main characters, John, Gabriel, Florence, Elizabeth and Roy. John would be the protagonist while his stepfather Gabriel would be the antagonist. The minor characters act as voices of reason and the picture of the outside world for John who feels as if he is stuck in a bubble of strict Christianity and a harsh family life.

John- 14 years old, shy, curious, and complicated, averagely built, African American teen, always asks questions but is reserved about his confusion with religion and sin, main character.

“Yes, Mama. I’m going to try to love the Lord.”

What this quote reveals is that John doesn’t genuinely feel what the rest of his family already has in God. He is desperate to please those around him and a God that he doesn’t know if he believes in only to gain acceptance and love.

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Gabriel- 30s-40s, harsh, strict, religious, tall and hard African American man with dark eyes. Born-again Christian who makes excuses to cover up the guilt he has about his sinful life, antagonist to John.

“What they see is a poor man trying to serve the Lord. That’s my life.”

Gabriel says this after another instance of yelling at John for something Roy did and taking out his aggression on him. This reveals that he continues to say that he is just trying to serve the Lord when in reality he does care about what others would think of him if they knew how he treated his stepson and about the sin he did when he was younger.


This novel takes place in Harlem, New York in the 30s. The environment is described as two-fold. One part of the city is full of life, art, movie theatres, and things that are seen as sinful to the other side of the city. The other side is very religious with churches on every street corner, households of black families just trying to get by with what money they have. The author uses the setting to give a contrast of the surrounding John lives in and the surroundings he desires to live in. The setting creates an atmosphere of curiosity and wonder by Baldwin’s continuous descriptions of the bustling cities and beautiful people as opposed to the homely, god-fearing and slow atmosphere of the other side of Harlem. The setting is important to novel because it gives the story a rich, cultural background since the Harlem Renaissance was happening at this same time, and it gives more motives to why John in the story would want to escape to this place.


Segment 1

God gave men time, but all the times were in His hand, and one day the time to forsake evil and do good would all be finished: then only the whirlwind, death riding on the whirlwind awaited those people who had forgotten God. In all the days that she was growing up, signs failed not, but none heeded. “Slaves done ris,” was whispered in the cabin and at the master’s gate: slaves in another county had fired the masters’ houses and fields and dashed their children to death against the stones. “Another slave in Hell,” Bathsheba might say one morning, shooing the pickaninies away from the great porch: a slave had killed his master, or his overseer, and had gone down to Hell to pay for it. “I ain’t got long to stay here,” someone crooned behind her in the fields, someone who would be gone by morning on his journey north.

Segment 2

Elisha let fall the stiff gray mop and rushed at John, catching him off balance and lifting him from the floor. With both arms tightening around John’s waist he tried to cut John’s breath, watching him meanwhile with a smile that, as John struggled and squirmed became a set ferocious grimace. With both hands John pushed and pounded against the shoulders and biceps of Elisha, and tried to thrust with his knees against Elisha’s belly. Usually such a battle was soon over, since Elisha was so much bigger and stronger and as a wrestler so much more skilled; but tonight John was filled with a determination not to be conquered, or at least to make the conquest dear. With all the strength that was in him he fought against Elisa, and he was filled with strength that was almost hatred. He kicked, pounded, twisted, pushed, using his lack of size to confound and exasperate Elisha. “I always get it. Ain’t everybody as clumsy as you.”

Analysis: The diction in this novel is neutral by the narrator and informal between characters and dialogue. For example, the narrator will say something neutral such as “a small, malicious smile, watching his slow bafflement,” and then a character will speak with informal diction that goes with the uneducated background of some African Americans in this time period, “She gots you, she don’t need me.” The dialogue of the characters seems to blend together because they are all from the same social status in Harlem and speak with common grammar mistakes. In the first segment you see the theme that finding religion when you still are trying to find yourself is difficult, being defined through the story of the slave who killed their slave owner to become free but others being told they are going to Hell for this when they only did it to save their self. The diction of the dialogue in both segments once again is informal using the would “ain’t” and “ris.” Also in the second segment, Baldwin uses heavily connotated words for fighting to increase the intensity of the moment. Words like “struggle” “pound” “push” “twist” “grimace” give the reader a specific image of a heated battle between characters. When speaking of God and prayer, the story’s diction become more lyrical as the Bible itself already is.

Point of View

The novel is written from 3rd person omniscient. It is set on John’s birthday and the events that happen after it, but the story reminisces and speaks about several decades in the past. The narrator is omniscient and when the story gives way to flashbacks, he is in the mind of every character knowing exactly how they are feeling each moment. Writing the story in this way creates suspense and more interest in the story since the reader can get a better insight on the characters from what they are thinking. The reader is able to draw their own conclusions on the characters through the unbiased view of the narrator. When the narrator gives histories of each character they aren’t ruined by the feelings of the character itself. There are shifts in focus on each character but no shifts in point of view.


The sentences in this novel are predominately complex and long. Baldwin rarely uses fragments in the story. Most of the novel is built up with parallel structure in paragraphs and repetition of words. “The astonishment with which she stared at Florence’s bag was not altogether astonishment, but a startled, wary attention.” The sentences are more periodic because of all the commas and lists of words used to describe events and places. The author uses syntax to create rhythm by having long complex sentences complemented with simpler ones separated by a semi-colon. Baldwin also uses syntax to enhance effect and support the meaning of the novel by not having the narrator ask rhetorical questions so the story is more informational than conversational. The meaning is more powerful when you can see how complex each story of the characters is through italicized words in dialogue and the variety of sentence pattern.

The author is using syntax to create an effect of a continuous, strenuous battle between Elisha and John. It is a quest for dominance, so Baldwin refrains from using many periods and instead uses semi-colons and commas. These choices define the character because it reflects more of a male, ego-boosting quest for dominance rather than a normal quarrel between friends. The flow of the story gets faster at this point in the story because of the continuous action in the periodic sentences. The syntax is being used to further the plot because he started with short, loose sentences in the teasing dialogue between Elisha and John and then when he starts using longer sentence patterns to describe the fight, it is moving the scene from friendly banter to a fight that will eventually be broken up by an adult thus causing more conflict. The tone changes from carefree to tense.

Concrete Detail/Imagery

Sight- “The wound described a kind of crazy half-moon and ended in a violent, fuzzy tail that was the ruin of Roy’s eyebrow. The wound was now very ugly, and very red.”

The function that the imagery seems to have is to paint a blunt picture of what Roy did to himself for being disobedient. It’s the exact opposite of something John would do to his face solely because of being strong-willed.

Hearing- “Around her she heard the saints’ voices, a steady, charged murmur, with now and again the name of Jesus rising above.”

The function that the imagery has here is to put the reader in Florence’s shoes when she was in church for the first time in years, and could only hear their low prayers. This makes the experience all the more surreal for her.

Smell- “She had climbed stairs all over town to rooms where incense burned and the smell of herbs and tea were there to take the sickness away.”

This imagery functions to make the flashback of Florence’s tribulations in life more concrete. She remembers even the smells of incense and herbs when she went to witch doctors to heal her even though she could’ve just gone to church.

Touch- “She sighed in helpless fury, and felt tears springing to her eyes, tears as difficult an slow as blood, began to trickle through her fingers.”

This imagery functions as help to create a somber tone. The reader feels as hopeless and defeated as Florence does as she cries and feels the tears on her face and hands.

Taste- “They ate flat, unsalted Jewish bread and drank tart red grape juice.”

This imagery functions as a fundamental description of a Christian practice, which is communion. Anyone who has every taken part will have a good image of what this tastes like in his or her mind.


This novel is definitely highly symbolic, from the title to the symbols of the church that reoccur throughout the story. Examples of images used as symbols would be the cross, which is already a universal symbol for Christianity and Jesus, but in the story it represents repentance and salvation. We see it a couple of times referring to a backsliding Christian coming back to the church like in the cases of Gabriel and Florence. “Going down before the scarlet cloth at the foot of the golden cross, it came to her that she had forgotten how to pray.” Baldwin makes sure to describe the alter and the red cloth as Florence prays in front of it for the first time in many years. The symbolism seems to serve a function bring everything that is surrounding John to a forefront as he tries to discover where he belongs. Other symbols in the story would be the song lyrics. They are all Negro Spirituals and seem to symbolize struggle and overcoming adversity through God. “Steal away, to Jesus. I ain’t got long to stay here,” “Go tell it on the Mountain that Jesus Christ is born,” “Walk in the light, the beautiful light, Jesus the Light of the World.” Also Elisha seems to serve as a symbol of strength and religion in John’s life. This is evident when John confides in him by the end of the novel about his “being saved” and asks Elisha to pray for him.

Figurative Language

This novel is full of figurative language used constantly to give life to the words spoken in church and to the very real feelings of John and other main characters. Simile and Allusion are used the most to clarify meaning in the story and its effect on the novel is evident in how it sometimes reads like poetry or song-like such as in the book of Psalms in the Bible. Some examples of simile are “name of Jesus rising above like the swift rising of a bird into the air of a sunny day”, “her hand like fiery tongs”; “his mind was like the sea itself, troubled and too deep.” The allusions in the novel are always to Biblical heroes and stories to give examples of the goodness of God and his characteristics or to compare John to. The novel alluded to “the accursed son of Noah” to how John sinned by cursing his father. Other allusions like this were to “Judas” who had betrayed the Lord and “Thomas” who had doubted Him. Personification is also used throughout the book to give human characteristics to death. John feels as if this inevitable idea is haunting him and is the ultimate punishment for sin which helps push the novel to the climax of John’s salvation. Examples of this are “death riding on the whirlwind,” “death come creeping on him from behind,” “the hands of death caressed her shoulders,” “death’s got a warrant out for you.”

Ironic Devices

The ironic devices used in this novel are dramatic irony, oxymoron, and understatement. The novel as a whole is quite ironic because John spends the first 13 years of his life being told what to do and be and when he turns 14 he starts to do the opposite such as sinning by cursing his parents and not having a true conversion to Christianity because of his own struggles with doubt. The dramatic irony comes when Baldwin tells the story of Elizabeth and us as the readers find out that Gabriel is not the father of John even though he has been made to believe this all his life. We know this, but John does not. An example of this is in the Threshing Floor section when Gabriel goes on a rant with Elizabeth and he yells, “And little Johnny, there-he’ll know he ain’t the only bastard.” Oxymorons are usually used only a few times to described sinners in the church with phrases such as “holy fool” or “man child.” Then there is the ironic device of understatement that is also used in character’s dialogue to conform to others ideas. Twice John says, “I’m going to try to love the Lord ” which is an understatement because he spends the entire novel working extremely hard to get right with God and to cleanse his sinning soul.


The book’s tone shifts throughout from sincere and reflective to intense and dark. This is evident especially towards the end of the novel when John is seeing visions of Heaven and Hell and other divine images. Baldwin’s use of italicized writing and personification creates the intense tone because it speeds up the plot and leaves the reader wondering what will happen next. “Then I looked in the grave and I wondered. And the grave looked so sad and lonesome. Love is as strong as death, as deep as the grave.” Also the increased talk of death makes the author’s attitude toward John’s conversion darker than in the beginning when Baldwin described John as full of life and expectant of the future. Now he talks of John’s “startled soul, of boundless melancholy.” The use of repetition in the author’s syntax is another tactic to create the intense tone. “I, John, saw the future, way up in the middle of the air,” and “Who are these?” is repeated multiple times with intensity. Most of all the imagery of darkness and parallel structure shifts the tone to dark. “Struggle in darkness,” “perils of waters” “perils by the heathen,” and “cold and nakedness,” are all heavily connotated to give dark images of hopelessness.


The theme of this novel that “True maturity comes when one can be their own person without the influence of others.” Other secondary themes would be that one’s past inevitably shapes one’s future so it shouldn’t be hid from. John becomes the mature person he’s always wanted to be on his 14th birthday when this story takes place. Although his brother Roy is disobedient and described as “crazy” and “wild” by the family he doesn’t let that influence the way he acts. He faces adversity due to the constant psychological attacks from his father who resents him but instead of cursing him like he used to “he turned to face his father-he found himself smiling, but his father did not smile.” This embodies the whole theme of John finally becoming mature because he converts by his own will and makes a sort of peace with himself concerning his father. The secondary theme is shown through the skeletons in Elizabeth, Florence, and Gabriel’s metaphorical closets. They all are trying to run away from their past but the guilt and shame becomes too much and it impacts the way they treat each other and how they come back to church. They constantly reassure themselves that the past is gone such as when Gabriel said, “that’s all done and finished,” when Florence brought up his past sin. A common motif in the story is sin and it’s horrible wage, which is death. The author’s intention with repeating this would be to emphasize how this is a burden on the souls of all the characters.

Significance of the Title

The title of the novel is Go tell it on the Mountain. I recognized this right away as an African American spiritual that is sung in churches all over the world including mine. The song that this book is named after is about telling the world about the wonders of Christ’s birth. I think the message that the author is trying to convey with the title is that being “born-again” in Jesus is a wonderful event that should be told to everyone around you. This is what happens when John accepts Christ as his personal savior and the whole church congratulates him. The meaning of the title does change from pre to post reading because at first glance one might think the novel is about a more evangelical Christian spreading the Word of God when in actuality after reading you find that it is about a teenage boy struggling with his faith who only accepts it as the truth at the very end. Since there are spiritual lyrics sprinkled throughout the whole book it makes the title even more significant due to it’s foreshadowing of the musical nature of the book and the words that surround John and his family.

Memorable Quotes

“On the threshing-floor, in the centre of the crying, singing saints, John lay astonished beneath the power of the Lord.”

In this part of the novel, it has been firmly established that John is now saved and he did it within his own timing. Finally he can say that he is apart of the saints and not just a stranger in the realm that is Christian living. He can’t move but he feels accomplished which is something he has been striving for throughout the novel.

“Praise the Lord,’ said his father. He did not move to touch him, did not kiss him, and did not smile. They stood before each other in silence, while the saints rejoiced; and John struggled to speak the authoritative, the living word that would conquer the great division between his father and himself. But it did not come, the living word; in the silence something died in John, and something came alive.”

This quote is memorable because it reinforces the idea that Gabriel was really running from his past and his aggression and guilt is what made him so harsh on John. It had nothing to do with if John was saved or not which explains his inability to show emotion at such an important time in John’s life.

“Elisha,” he said, “no matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember – please remember – I was saved. I was there.”

This quote is memorable because it is yet another time when John feels that Elisha is the only one he can confide in for his struggles with his soul and salvation. The difference now is that he is saved and wants Elisha to keep that in mind if he continues to sin. He has finally accepted that when he sins God isn’t going to strike him down or send him to Hell because on his 14th birthday he gave his life up to Christ.


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