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Tragic Elements in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain

Updated on December 8, 2016
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I am a high school English teacher who is passionate about writing, theater, directing and enjoying a positive life with family and friends.


James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain contains many elements of tragedy. It is the story of a young boy, Johnny Grimes, who is struggling with his belief in God. It is also the story of his stepfather, Gabriel Grimes, who lives a false life in the blinding glory of God. It is Gabriel’s story that exemplifies the tragedy of the novel.

Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, found in the Poetics, has held out as the standard definition of tragedy for centuries. According to Aristotle, a tragedy contains six main elements: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. Plot is the most important element, and song is the least important. A tragedy occurs in a time period that is not too short and not too long, which is usually interpreted as a twenty-four hour period. A tragedy is the story of a tragic hero who is a man of high social class, such as a king, who has a change of fortune, usually from good to bad. Action, not narrative, creates tragedy which must evoke pity and fear in the audience.

Aristotle’s definition of tragedy is a good place to start when considering a work as a tragedy, but it is a bit out of date. Arthur Miller believed this as well. He believed that the definition of tragedy is open for interpretation. According to Miller, “It is now many centuries since Aristotle lived. Things do change, and even a genius is limited by his time and nature of his society” (Miller 164-165). Equipped with Aristotle’s definition and an open mind, one can consider the tragedy in Go Tell It on the Mountain.

The fact that this work is a novel would lead many to never even consider its tragic elements, because tragedy usually comes in the form of a play. The fifth element of tragedy is spectacle, or the display onstage. This element is second to last in importance in Aristotle’s definition. Aristotle himself said that “the power of Tragedy… is felt even apart from representation and actors” (Aristotle 43). Even though this work is in the form of a novel, one can appreciate the tragedy of it without seeing it enacted on the stage.

Plot - "the soul of tragedy"

The most important element of tragedy is plot. Plot is the “arrangement of the incidents” and “the soul of the tragedy” (Aristotle 41). One important aspect of the plot is the length of time of the action. Most tragedy occurs within a twenty-four hour period. The plot of this novel fits into the definition perfectly in this case. This story takes place within twenty-four hours on John Grime’s fourteenth birthday. The action begins in the morning, goes on through the night, and ends the next morning. Within this time frame, “the unraveling of the plot…must arise out of the plot itself” (Aristotle 48). By the end of the novel, the reader knows much more than what occurred in that one day. Incidents in the novel spark memories in several characters giving the reader important background information. In part two, Florence, Gabriel and Elizabeth all go back into their past through memories in order to relate important information to the reader. Florence’s singing, praying, and concentration on the Lord make her remember her mother and her life before moving to New York City. Gabriel’s memories also bring him back to that time. Gabriel’s memory brought him back to the time before he was a preacher. This information is important in showing the reader Gabriel’s true character. The incident that sparked his memory was in the church when he was watching Florence pray for the first time in many years. In that moment all the singing stopped, and “the silence, continuing like a corridor, carried Gabriel back to the silence that had preceded his birth in Christ” (Baldwin 92).

The other important aspect of the plot is that the action must occur between two characters that have a close relationship. Aristotle believed that people would not be interested in conflict between strangers who had no connection. Most of the time the relationship is within a family. In this case, the action occurs between a step-father and a son, Gabriel and John Grimes.


Character and the Tragic Hero

“Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids” (Aristotle 42). Aristotle considers character the second most important element of tragedy. The man facing this moral dilemma is called the tragic hero. In this novel, I would consider Gabriel a tragic hero. A tragic hero is “a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error frailty” (Aristotle 46). Gabriel is not a completely bad man. I believe that when he got his call to the Lord, he truly meant to fulfill his calling to the best of his ability. He shows this quality t the dinner with all of the other preachers. When the elder preachers are putting Deborah down, Gabriel says, “ I don’t think it’s right to talk evil about nobody. The Word tell me it ain’t right to hold nobody up to scorn” (Baldwin 108). At least in the early part of his career as a preacher, Gabriel wanted to go down the right path. The tragic hero is supposed to have a change of fortune from good to bad. Gabriel’s fortune turns bad when he has an affair with Esther, impregnating her. This act represents the point when he loses the morality he gained when he was saved. The tragic hero also is supposed to have a flaw that represents the ‘error or frailty’ that Aristotle discusses. Gabriel’s flaw is that he is unable to accept that other people, good people, sin. He holds their sins against them rather than forgiving them. This action brings him down.

Aristotle’s definition points out that the tragic hero is a man of high status, such as a king. Gabriel is really just an ordinary man. Some may say that being a preacher raises his status, but this seems irrelevant to me. As Miller points out, the character’s “stature as a hero is not so utterly dependent upon his rank…providing that [he] engages the issues of , for instance…the relationship of man to God – the questions, in short, whose answers define humanity and the right way to live…” (165). This is a piece of Aristotle’s definition that is a bit antiquated. Much of today’s tragedy is about ordinary men. If the hero in question is an ordinary man who is struggling with important issues, he should not be disqualified as a tragic hero. Gabriel is struggling with man’s relationship to God.

"The General Truth" and Song

The fourth element of tragedy is thought, or a “general truth enunciated” (Aristotle 41). This ‘general truth’ comes out in Gabriel’s struggle with the relationship between man and God. Baldwin shows through Gabriel that a person can’t truly have religion without morality. Gabriel is living with the false belief that he is somehow exempt from the moral standards that he thinks everyone else should achieve. Since Gabriel doesn’t live within this morality, he fails as a preacher and a man. This failure may not be obvious to all of the characters, for example Elisha and some of the parishioners, but it is obvious to John, Florence, possibly Elizabeth, and the reader.

Song is the final element of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. Song is supposed to be used to enhance the tragedy. The concept of song has definitely changed since Aristotle’s time. However, song can still be used to enhance the tragedy. Baldwin uses song throughout the novel to support and add to the themes and Biblical allusions of the novel. For example, in part III, the saints are singing hymn that says, “Lord I ain’t no stranger now, “ when John is being called to the Lord (Baldwin 205). He is supporting the fact that john is no longer a stranger to God. Also, the title comes from a religious hymn. This hymn says, “Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ was born…” The title may be a foreshadowing of John’s decision to accept his call to God.

Fear and Pity

An important aspect of tragedy that is not named as one of the main elements is the quality of a tragedy to evoke pity and fear. According to Humphrey House, “Aristotle’s pity and fear are the sympathy for the good part of mankind in the bad part of their experience: this…is the emotional side of justice” (51). The evoking of pity and fear comes through reversal and recognition. I believe that Baldwin achieves this aspect of the tragedy in the novel. In the end, the reader may feel pity and fear for Gabriel, because he knows he has been defeated. The reader can feel pity for him, because he has fallen. The reader can fee fear, because the possibility of being personally defeated is real. Florence confronts Gabriel with Deborah’ letter that she has been carrying around for thirty years. Gabriel recognizes that the righteous attitude he has been living with for years has kept him from truly knowing the Lord. Gabriel realizes that he is a hypocrite. The reader also sees this recognition of Gabriel’s defeat in the second to last paragraph of the novel when Gabriel doesn’t return John’s smile. The reader doesn’t see a reversal since the recognition comes at the end of the novel.

Gabriel’s story illustrates the tragedy in Go Tell It on the Mountain. The elements of his story compare favorably with Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. He is a man who falls from his moral path because he is unable to accept that people sin. He believes that he has religion, but he is not a moral man. Religion cannot exist without morality. In the end, Gabriel begins to realize the truth.

Written by Donna Hilbrandt.

Works Cited

Aristotle. "Extracts from the 'Poetics." Tragedy: Developments in Criticism. R.P. Draper, editor. London: Macmillan, 1980; 41-50.

Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Dell Publishing, 1953.

House, Humphrey. "Catharsis and the Emotions." Tragedy: Developments in Criticism. R.P. Draper, editor. London: Macmillan, 1980; 50-56.

Miller, Arthur. "The Tragedy of the Common Man." Tragedy: Developments in Criticism. R.P. Draper, editor. London: Macmillian, 1980; 164-168.

© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt


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