One of African American literature's most famous antagonists, Gabriel Grimes of James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) remains one of the author's most compelling characters. Modeled after Baldwin's own stepfather, Gabriel futilely attempts to exorcise demons from his reckless southern past.
The novel's opening section introduces Gabriel as a frustrated deacon in a Harlem Pentecostal church. Obsessed with control, he clashes with his entire family, especially with his stepson, John. Meanwhile, Gabriel embraces his and Elizabeth's son, Roy, who attacks Gabriel for slapping Elizabeth. Though Gabriel sees Roy as his hallowed son, the wayward youth is merely a replica of young Gabriel.
“Gabriel's Prayer,” the second section in part 2 of the novel, presents his past via flashback. Gabriel spent his youth drinking and whoring, though his mother attempted to reform him. He ostensibly repents, and Baldwin cleverly alludes to the Judgment Day in portraying his conversion. Although he attempts to expiate his sins by becoming a minister and marrying the barren Deborah, Gabriel quickly falls: his affair with Esther, a maid in the home of a white family for whom Gabriel also works, produces a son, Royal. Gabriel repudiates both lover and son and moves to Harlem after Deborah's death. Again, he vows to do penance by marrying Elizabeth and accepting her illegitimate son. Instead Gabriel continues to use religion to denigrate others and minimize his own transgressions.
Sin and guilt haunt Gabriel throughout his life. Reminiscent of Abraham and David, he can never claim the heir he so fervently desires: Royal dies violently, Roy continues his profligate legacy, and John reciprocates his hatred. The redoubtable Reverend Grimes remains one of American literature's most memorable ministers, a descendent of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Reverend Dimmesdale and Ralph Ellison's Homer Barbee.
[See also John Grimes.]
Michel Fabre, “Fathers and Sons in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain,” in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Keneth Kinnamon, 1974, pp. 120–138.Trudier Harris, Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin, 1985.
— Keith Clark