Study Guide

Go Tell It on the Mountain Plot Analysis

By James Baldwin

Plot Analysis

Exposition (Initial Situation)

Unbirthday

John wakes up on his birthday and is pretty excited because, c'mon, it's his birthday. Cake time! But only his mother remembers it… and his brother Roy gets stabbed. His father, Gabriel, is angry about the stabbing (naturally) and ends up screaming at John, Aunt Florence, and beating Elizabeth and Roy.

John gets out of the house and heads to church. All of these actions basically reveal what we need to know about the characters and their temperaments, setting us up for what's to come.

Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

I've Got a Secret

At the church that evening, Aunt Florence prays hard. She usually doesn't even come to church, but it turns out she's got an illness (dang) that will probably kill her (double dang) and she's scared.

She thinks back on her life, and remembers that her brother—Gabriel—had a child with a woman (not his wife!) who died in childbirth. He kept it a secret from everyone, and she wonders whether she should use the information to destroy him as she's heading towards the grave. Talk about a grudge… and a conflict.

Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

My Side of the Story

Gabriel is surprised at his sister Florence's newfound holiness, and remembers his own version of his adulterous tryst and his out-of-wedlock kiddo. He thinks he's been forgiven for his infidelity and doesn't have time for anyone's judgment of his character but God's. Fair enough.

When John is overcome by the Spirit, instead of being a happy father, Gabriel is angry because, dun dun dun, John isn't his biological son.

Now we get why Gabriel is such a jerk to him. This is a turning point in the novel, because if John is saved it will be almost as if he wins… if John isn't saved it will be like Gabriel wins.

Falling Action

Oh, Now We Get It

In the falling action, all is finally revealed. We find out that Elizabeth had John before she met Gabriel, and that John's father had committed suicide before John was born. Gabriel thought that John would be like a replacement son for his own out-of-wedlock bouncing baby boy (who died, by the way) but when he and Elizabeth have another boy he forgets about that and starts treating John badly.

Back in church (and the present day), John is overcome by the spirit after all, further frustrating mean old Gabriel.

Resolution (Denouement)

Heading Home

All the loose ends get tied up in the resolution: John is saved (point 1, John), everybody goes home, and the rivalry and hatred between Gabriel and John is now a feud between adults instead of a father-son conflict. Hey—we didn't say it was a happy ending.