Who is Esther?

One of the most important female characters by the end of the book, in my opinion, is Esther. Gabriel and Esther engage in an affair that “lasted only nine days,” yet by the end of the novel this affair threatens not only Gabriel’s credibility but his very chance at salvation. Esther’s legacy is critical to the plot of the story, even if she is no longer alive to speak out against Gabriel herself. For that reason, I wanted to do a close reading of both Esther and her biblical namesake to draw out some of Baldwin’s messaging. 

From Part Two onwards, the language that surrounds Esther is associated with salvation (or a lack thereof). Gabriel describes his first sexual encounter with her as a “fall,” with the narrator explaining “so he had fallen: for the first time since his conversion, for the last time in his life. Fallen” (121). But it wasn’t the last time in his life by any means. We learn that Esther “contained in her narrow body all mystery and all passion” –– “sin, death, Hell, the judgement were blotted out” in her presence (121). It is clear that Gabriel views Esther as a seductress, and her beauty is vital to her character. When Esther flees North to Chicago, she flees with money “stole[n]” by Gabriel from Deborah (129). 

Esther’s flight offers an important parallel to her namesake, the biblical Esther. In the Bible, Esther is “a young Jewish woman living in exile in the Persian diaspora” (Crawford). According to Bible scholars, Esther’s story is important as an example for all those living in exile. The biblical Esther is beautiful (like Baldwin’s character), and she ultimately becomes the queen of the Persian Empire. There are notable similarities between the two women, but there are also notable differences. For example, both women are highly sexualized, they both flee from their home, and they are descended from enslaved peoples. The most marked difference between the two Esthers, then, would seem to be their success. The biblical Esther successfully saves the Jewish people from genocide by currying favor with the King of Persia. 

It might seem, on first glance, that Baldwin’s Esther is “unsuccessful” in her quest to live a happy life up North. Yet at the end of Go Tell It On The Mountain, her story offers a sort of salvation to Florence and all those harmed by Gabriel. Florence boldly declares, with Esther’s legacy as her witness, that Gabriel “done made enough folks pay for sin, it’s time you started paying” (208). Florence explains that she is “going to find some way –– some way, I don’t know how –– to rise up and tell it, tell everybody, about the blood the Lord’s anointed got on his hands” (208). In this way, Baldwin’s Esther offers salvation to Elizabeth, John, the congregation, and anyone who Gabriel claims to have power over. Esther’s tragic death and Gabriel’s abandonment of Roy is evidence that Gabriel is no prophet or anointed one. Hence, like the biblical Esther, Baldwin’s Esther is ultimately a woman who saves her people.

Fate, Dust, and Silence

Motifs of fate, dust, and silence appear to me as existing in an interconnected web of meaning within Go Tell It On The Mountain. I would like to explore these intersections, with special attention to what this might reveal of Baldwin, author of said web. 

As mentioned in my last blog entry, the ceaseless dust of John’s surroundings and the point to which John is affected by this filth reveals his inescapable terror of the consequences of afterlife. John feels the need to atone for the pronounced evil of his body and identity, tasking himself with cleansing the floorboards and walls of grime in his home and in the church. This job is endless and reaps little reward. John is nearly suffocated by the dust, it “fill[s] his mouth” and threatens to “bury” him, and later, “made him cough and retch,” appearing as film around his mouth during his conversion (24, 187-188). I’m struck by the notion that the dust is so incredibly powerful that it muzzles. It invades John’s throat, his mouth, incapacitating him. 

The dust transforms, however, coming to resemble the ashes of a fire. John’s throat, when filled with dust, burns as if filled with ash and becomes as “sharp as the fumes of Hell” (189). When a fire burns, ashes result. I contend that the dust that John consumes and gags on might mutate into ashes, part of the iconography of Hell. In the Old Testament of the Bible, God creates man from the dust of the ground and envisions a return to this origin: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust, you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). John is fated to this dust, yet is fighting to exist outside of this fate bequeathed to him by God and (in Baldwin’s view) is bequeathed to the American Negro. Simultaneously, John is fighting to escape the fiery Hell that he believes he is fated to. After his conversion, however, John finds reprieve. He escapes the silence symptomatic of his shame and finds a voice. Baldwin writes, “And the words came upward, it seemed, of themselves, in the new voice God had given him” (199). John is given a voice that transcends flawed human language, it comes from God himself. Baldwin may have felt a similar way when is called as a witness to the lived Black experience. This trajectory differs from the expectation of his stepfather, yet is a purpose Baldwin feels is truthful. He rejects the fate that Wright prescribes in Native Son and the fate prescribed to him by Christianity, which is “sealed forever, from the beginning of time” as a descendent of Ham (Down At The Cross 307). I’ve noticed time and time again that Baldwin is fighting to be understood for all the possibilities of his existence. He is an amalgam, a was, an am, and a will. Baldwin’s becoming is the inspiration for John’s own beginning. John is converted, yet is unfinished. As apparent in the last lines of the novel, he is still “coming” and merely “on his way” (215).

Essau and Jacob

Gabriel does not like John. He does not like that John is smart. He does not like that John is anointed. He does not like that John was born out of wedlock. We could even go further to say that Gabriel hates John. Now, many people could argue that it does not make sense that Gabriel would hate John. Gabriel beats the other children. Gabriel is mean to other people inside and outside of the house. It could be argued that Gabriel’s dislike towards John is just a part of his natural dislike towards everyone in Gabriel’s family.

However, the text shows that Gabriel is capable of showing love. When Roy is stabbed, it is said “His father muttered sweet, delirious things to Roy, and his hands, when he dipped them again in the basin and wrung the cloth out, were trembling.” (P. 40). Gabriel is capable of loving others, it is just that that love does not reach John. While it could be argued that Gabriel shows his love by clothing and feeding John, it seems more that Gabriel does these things for John because he promised Elizabeth that he would take care of John.

This makes me think about the story of Jacob and Essau. Isaac preferred Essau. Isaac would have given everything to Essau if he could have but God intervened. Essau did not follow the tenets of God. Essau did not act as a first born son should. So despite Isaac’s intentions, Jacob stole Essau’s blessings. The important word here is stole. Because it was not that Isaac changed his mind because of Essau’s faults and decided to give Jacob Essau’s blessings. Jacob pretended to be Essau to fool an old man. While Isaac did not hate Jacob, he did not want Jacob to have the birthright. 

Gabriel is the same as Isaac, except with more malice towards John. While the difference in these two stories is that both Essau and Jacob were legitimate sons and John is an illegitimate son, the tale still stands. Gabriel prefers Roy to John. Yet, Roy is the son that does not follow the tenets of God. Roy is the son who does not seek to be loved by Gabriel. Roy is the son who does not act as a first born son should. While John does not seek to steal Roy’s “birthright”, his simple actions of being anointed and acting within the church makes him a better candidate. Gabriel hates that. Gabriel would rather see John lying on the couch stabbed and bleeding.