Go Tell It on the Mountain

by

James Baldwin

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Mountains Symbol Analysis

Mountains Symbol Icon

Mountains are symbolic of the “narrow” and difficult way of the holy life in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Indeed, mountains are named directly in Baldwin’s title, and he repeatedly references them throughout the novel. The morning that Gabriel falls to his knees and is saved by the Lord, he is in “that valley where his mother [Rachel] had told him he would find himself,” beyond anyone’s help but God’s. Gabriel’s spiritual transformation occurs at the foot of a small mountain, at the top of which sits Rachel’s cabin, near a tree he passes each morning on his way home from nights spent with “harlots.” The tree marks the point “between sins committed and sins to be committed”—at the top of the mountain is the holy home of his mother, and at the bottom, past the tree, are the sins of whiskey and women. When Gabriel is saved that morning by the tree, the mountain symbolizes the uphill climb Gabriel has in resisting sin and remaining holy.

When John climbs the mountain in Central Park and looks down on the city Gabriel has warned him will only lead his soul to “perdition,” John stops at the “summit.” The people below bear the “marks of Satan,” and the movie houses “invite people to sin.” At the bottom of the mountain is sin and immorality, and at the top is righteousness. “If it’s wrong, I can always climb back up,” John thinks to himself as he runs down the mountain. Similarly, as Elizabeth repents and is saved after the birth of her “bastard son,” John, she begins an “upward climb—upward, with her baby, on the steep, steep side of the mountain.” As Gabriel says, the holy way “ain’t all in the sinning and the shouting—the way of holiness is a hard way,” and even after John himself is saved on the threshing-floor of their Harlem church, Gabriel claims John still “got the steep side of the mountain to climb.” Being saved by God is no simple task, the story suggests, and remaining saved is just as difficult. The “narrow way” of “eternal life” is littered with sin and temptation, and mountains signify the trials of resisting this temptation.

Mountains Quotes in Go Tell It on the Mountain

The Go Tell It on the Mountain quotes below all refer to the symbol of Mountains. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Faith and Religion Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of Go Tell It on the Mountain published in 2013.
Part 1: The Seventh Day Quotes

To sweep the front room meant, principally, to sweep the heavy red and green and purple Oriental-style carpet that had once been that room’s glory, but was now so faded that it was all one swimming color, and so frayed in places that it tangled with the broom. John hated sweeping this carpet, for dust rose, clogging his nose and sticking to his sweaty skin, and he felt that should he sweep it forever, the clouds of dust would not diminish, the rug would not be clean. It became in his imagination his impossible, lifelong task, his hard trial, like that of a man he had read about somewhere, whose curse it was to push a boulder up a steep hill, only to have the giant who guarded the hill roll the boulder down again—and so on, forever, throughout eternity; he was still out there, that hapless man, somewhere at the other end of the earth, pushing his boulder up the hill.

Related Characters: John
Related Symbols: Mountains
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: The Prayers of the Saints: Elizabeth’s Prayer Quotes

Richard said that they would marry as soon as he had saved some money. But since he was going to school at night and made very little money, their marriage, which she had thought of as taking place almost as soon as she arrived, was planned for a future that grew ever more remote. And this presented her with a problem that she had refused, at home in Maryland, to think about, but from which, now, she could not escape: the problem of their life together. […] She had kept, precariously enough, what her aunt referred to as her pearl without price while she had been with Richard down home. This, which she had taken as witness to her own feminine moral strength, had been due to nothing more, it now developed, than her great fear of her aunt, and the lack, in that small town, of opportunity. Here, in this great city where no one cared, where people might live in the same building for years and never speak to one another, she found herself, when Richard took her in his arms, on the edge of a steep place: and down she rushed, on the descent uncaring, into the dreadful sea.

Related Characters: Elizabeth, Richard, Elizabeth’s Aunt
Related Symbols: Mountains
Page Number: 190-191
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Go Tell It on the Mountain LitChart as a printable PDF.
Go Tell It on the Mountain PDF

Mountains Symbol Timeline in Go Tell It on the Mountain

The timeline below shows where the symbol Mountains appears in Go Tell It on the Mountain. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: The Seventh Day
Race and Racism Theme Icon
...like a man he read about who was “cursed” to “push a boulder” up a mountain, only to have it pushed back down again. (full context)
Faith and Religion Theme Icon
Sex and Morality Theme Icon
Race and Racism Theme Icon
...park,” outside the path where white women and men walk their dogs, is a small mountain. John knows the path to the hill as if “by instinct,” and at the top... (full context)
Faith and Religion Theme Icon
Sex and Morality Theme Icon
...to “humiliation forever” and life and job like Gabriel’s. Looking to the bottom of the mountain, John begins to run. “If it’s wrong, I can always climb back up,” he thinks... (full context)
Part 2: The Prayers of the Saints: Gabriel’s Prayer
Faith and Religion Theme Icon
Sex and Morality Theme Icon
One morning on his way home, Gabriel passed the tree that marked the small mountain beyond which was Rachel’s cabin. He thought “of all the mornings he had mounted here... (full context)
Faith and Religion Theme Icon
Sex and Morality Theme Icon
Gender, the Patriarchy, and Misogyny Theme Icon
...but Gabriel refused. He had another dream that same night of a “cold” and “high” mountain, and after a mysterious voice told him to climb, he did. Gabriel climbed higher and... (full context)
Part 2: The Prayers of the Saints: Elizabeth’s Prayer
Faith and Religion Theme Icon
Sex and Morality Theme Icon
...had begun her upward climb—upward, with her baby, on the steep, steep side of the mountain.” (full context)
Part 3: The Threshing-Floor
Faith and Religion Theme Icon
...shouting—the way of holiness is a hard way. He got the steep side of the mountain to climb.” Gabriel isn’t convinced John will remain saved, but his own “name is written... (full context)