Sweet or Sour: The Sin of Pride in Baldwin's "Go tell it on the Mountain"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

13 Pages, Grade: 1


Sweet or Sour:

The Sin of Pride in Baldwin's

Go tell it on the Mountain

“Hatred of God comes from pride. It is contrary to the love of God .”[1] I chose this particular assertion of the Catholic Church because it serves adequately as an introduction to my following argument.

If this statement holds true, what can one make of Gabriel’s attitude in James Baldwin’s novel Go tell it on the Mountain ? Gabriel – although he himself believes he has a clean conscience before God – has sinned. His sin is pride, which is one of the seven cardinal sins. In his own opinion, Gabriel has become clean before God, he has been forgiven for his sins (215). He goes even further when he says that he considers himself to be the Lord’s anointed. How can he be so sure?

In my paper I will try to mainly discuss Gabriel’s, John’s, and Elizabeth’s proud emotions. I will show what it is they are proud of and what they have and do not have in common. Furthermore, I will cover some of the biblical symbolism in Baldwin’s novel and question whether all pride is necessarily sinful or if there are reasonable justifications.

In any respect, Gabriel is very judgmental. He judges people around him, for instance his sister Florence when he says, ”…she so proud the Lord going to bring her low one day…” or Esther, for whom he eventually loses all respect (125). Furthermore, he chooses to go the easy way when he has helpful explanations handy in any situation. When his son Roy gets stabbed by white people, it – of course – is the white people’s fault: This is what white folks does to niggers…” Roy’s behavior is explained by the fact that he has to suffer for the sins his mother has committed in the past (111). When Gabriel has an affair with Esther - according to Gabriel - he cannot be blamed for committing adultery. After all, Gabriel assumed that Satan tempted him to fall (130). By saying that, Gabriel gives away all responsibility for his own actions. In his own accord, he is merely a “poor, weak vessel in the hands of the Lord.”

Consequently, Satan is to blame for Gabriel’s sins, while God may take credit for Gabriel’s decent actions. Why do these standards account for Gabriel and yet he is ready to judge everyone else? Why is he needy of God’s forgiveness when it was truly Satan’s fault? And – more importantly – how justified is his clean conscience?

In my opinion, Gabriel is not aware of his confliction or – to use a stronger expression – hypocrisy. He is blinded by his strong faith and his believe in forgiveness that he does not realize his continuous sins: for instance his treatment of his stepson or his arrogance. He is the first one to judge the people around him but when it comes to himself it seems that because he has repented, he has every right and justification to have a clean conscience: “It was later to become his proud testimony that he hated his sins…He hated the evil that lived in his body, and he feared it…” (89). This statement in itself really brings it to the point: Gabriel has managed to manoeuvre himself into a viscous circle, literally. After realizing that he was going down the wrong path in his younger years (93), he repented and felt like God had forgiven him for his sins. But instead of living a preacher’s life not only on the outside but also on the inside, he fell back into committing sins. On the outside, he is a well respected preacher (46), but on the inside he is trying to hide his illegitimate son. His pride is the main sin he frequently voices openly. However, only his sister Florence seems to realize this and pick up on it. The fact that Gabriel states that he ‘fears the evil that lives in his body’ shows really well that on some level Gabriel is aware of his imperfections. In any respect, it makes sense for him to constantly point out other people’s flaws as it distracts from his own.

Pride is considered a sin in both the Greek and Biblical sense. Icarus comes to mind, who – although warned by his father not to do so – flew too close to the sun causing the wax that held his feathers together to melt. He was punished with death because he aspired beyond his reach.

Similarly, the Bible is very clear on human feelings such as pride. According to Psalm 34:19 it is said that “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, those crushed in spirit he delivers” but “Proud men, one and all, are abominable to the Lord” (Proverbs 16:5).[2]

Pride has its special status among the other deadly sins, which are envy, anger, lust, gluttony, greed, and sloth. As the other sins are usually easily recognized by a certain act, pride is mostly unseen and remains within a person’s thoughts. Unless verbalized, pride may not always be recognized as such. It may also be one of the more difficult sins to realize in oneself, as it cannot be proven, for instance, by an act of lust. Additionally, a proud person is not likely to be willing to admit to a personal flaw such as pride.

Today, many terms are associated with pride. Arrogant, haughty, conceited, egocentric, narcissistic, insolent, presumptuous, and vain[3] are all characteristics closely connected to pride. Pride, however, is often associated with positive traits as well and has, thus, undergone a change from vice to virtue. Children are encouraged to have high self-esteem and “to reach for the sky”. Modern society reaches for higher aims than it has in the past, for instance travelling into space would be one of them. We are proud of our achievements, our children, our cultures. Consequently, where should one draw the line? Who defines what is sinful pride or “healthy” pride?

Gabriel in Go Tell it on the Mountain seems go beyond a potentially acceptable – measured by societal standards - sense of pride. He indoctrinates his children with his contempt of white people. He tells his son John that “all white people were wicked and that God was going to bring them low”. From where does he get this insight? One can only assume this statement can be accounted for due to the fact that Gabriel considers himself to be the Lord’s anointed. At the same time, however, Gabriel puts himself on the same level as God, judging white because to him they are “wicked”. Of course, he does not explain his reasons for this resentment to John. Conclusively, Gabriel’s hatred of white people remains unapparent to John. Although he is aware of the fact that circumstances were very different when his father grew up, he does not connect the prejudice and horrible events directly to his father’s life. “John had read about the things white people did to colored people; how, in the South, where his parents came from, white people cheated them of their wages, and burned them, and shot them – and did worse things, said his father, which the tongue could not endure to utter. He had read about colored men being burned in the electric chair for things they had not done; how in riots they were beaten with clubs; how they were tortured in prisons; how they were the last to be hired and the first to be fired” (30).


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 2094

[2] Schimmel 1992:29

[3] Schimmel: 1992:37

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Sweet or Sour: The Sin of Pride in Baldwin's "Go tell it on the Mountain"
University of South Carolina
20th Century African American Literature
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Sweet, Sour, Pride, Baldwin, Mountain, Century, African, American, Literature
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M.A. Frauke Scheben (Author), 2003, Sweet or Sour: The Sin of Pride in Baldwin's "Go tell it on the Mountain", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/55773


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