Baldwin’s first novel, it opens with John’s recollections of church and his church community. The first part, “The Seventh Day,” shows John’s anger toward his stepfather, Gabriel (particularly given Gabriel’s obvious favoritism for his brother, Roy), and follows him to church, where he meets Elisha, an older boy who encourages him to turn his trouble over to God. In Part Two, “The Prayers of the Saints,” the prayers of Gabriel, his sister Florence, and his current wife (and John’s mother) Elizabeth. Part Three returns to the church service, where John has a dream vision which results in his religious awakening. John’s terrifying dream vision of Hell leads him to conclude that “the heart was a fearful place” (207), a statement which might be used to summarize the novel’s overall theme.
Over the course of the novel, the familial relations are revealed: John is Elizabeth’s child by Richard, her lover in New York who was falsely arrested for robbery, who committed suicide after realizing how doomed he was in the system. In Gabriel’s section, we learn that he fathered a child named Royal (not the one in the first section, who was stabbed) by a woman named Esther, and that he was also married previously to a woman named Deborah, who died barren. Gabriel fathered Royal while Deborah was still alive, and refused to help Esther once she discovered she was pregnant.
The novel addresses themes of righteousness, desire, and forgiveness through strong biblical allusions, especially in character names such as Gabriel, Esther, and John, and uses rhythmic language which is often evocative of the cadence of sermons. There’s also a recurrent subtle theme of homosociality which comes just to the edge of homoeroticism, in John’s persistence references to the sin of Ham and seeing his father’s nakedness, and his relationship with Elisha. Throughout John’s nightmare vision, Elisha prays for him, which John senses, such as when “In his heart there was a sudden yearning tenderness for holy Elisha; desire, sharp and awful as a reflecting knife” (194-5).
Though these themes are interesting, what’s most interesting to me in light of my own work is the characterization of the women in the novel. Ironically, it is Gabriel who is most often referred to as a “pretty man,” while women are often described as ugly. In fact, in John’s apocalyptic vision, Sin itself is personified as an ugly woman: “ he saw a woman, very old and black, coming toward them, staggering on the crooked stones. She was drunk, and dirty, and very old, and her mouth was bigger than his mother’s mouth, or his own; her mouth was loose and wet, and he had never seen anyone so black” (198). Once Esther announces her pregnancy to Gabriel, and threatens to tell of his infidelity to the community, Esther suddenly becomes ugly: “Her face was cold and hard—ugly; she had never been so ugly before” (132).
The most intriguing characterization of an ugly woman is that of Deborah, Gabriel’s first wife, who was gang raped by a group of white men before she married Gabriel. Her history is marked on her body:
there was her legend, her history, which would have been enough, even had she not been so wholly unattractive, to put her forever beyond the gates of any honorable man’s desire….she moved, therefore, through their small community like a woman mysteriously visited by God, like a terrible example of humility, or like a holy fool. No ornaments ever graced her body; there was about her no tinkling, no shining, and no softness. No ribbon falsified her blameless and implacable headgear; on her woolen head there was only the barest minimum of oil. (98)
Her history has interfered with her gender expression: the sexual crime perpetrated against her has made her barren, unsexing her to a certain extent. Her ordeal has made her less human, to a certain extent, as her community suspects that she might be “the greatest saint among them, the Lord’s peculiar treasure and most holy vessel” (99). Her biblical counterpart is the only female judge mentioned in the Bible, and Deborah is certainly set apart from the other women because of her past; she exemplifies the kind of history of racial violence written on the body as described by Patricia Yeager.