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.