Though Florence resents the spiteful triumph she knows Gabriel feels at seeing her kneel down, as she sings she undergoes a conversion experience - the song and the act of prayer takes on for her the same thing it did for her mother, but she struggles with hatred and bitterness amassed over the sixty years of her life. She knows she is dying, unable to escape the verse the Lord sent her: set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live. She looked for healing everywhere else that she could, but when she saw death in her room one night she cried out to God. After that night, she experiences dreams wherein her mother, her dead former husband, Gabriel, his dead wife Deborah and more visit her. She wants to beg their forgiveness, but only God can do that, they tell her.
Florence remembers her mother praying more passionately than she had ever heard her pray one night for Florence. That day, white men had taken sixteen year old Deborah into a field and raped her. Deborah's father had gone to seek his revenge on white men but they beat him and left him for dead. That night, all were afraid that the white men would come and burn their houses down--so their mother prayed. Their mother had been born into slavery but had had indomitable hope, thanks to the story of the Hebrews, that the Lord would have mercy on them and free the slaves. When slavery was abolished, their mother had simply gathered her possessions and walked out the door, never to return to the plantation.
That became Florence's dream - to walk out and never return to her old life. Her mother had refused to go north like everyone else, content to take in washing and to manage Gabriel. She wanted Florence to do the same. Gabriel, as a male, was the apple of their mother's eye. Though he was wild and always in trouble, he was the one upon whom their mother's dreams were pinned. He was washed and sent to school and expected to have a future, while Florence's future was swallowed up in his. She hated him for that, hoping that the evil his mother prayed against would overtake him. She also became friends with Deborah at that time, united in their hatred of men and their bestiality. Deborah was no longer accorded the honor of being a woman because she was a harlot, and Florence was beautiful but had higher ambitions than to marry one of the local men and be worked to death.
Florence nurses her resentment of her brother. She remembers his baptism, how he came up sputtering and kicking, not wanting to have been baptized. She had been silent and uncomplaining upon hers. She remembers watching him stagger up to the house years later, drunk and covered in vomit. When she was twenty-six, watching her brother unable to change his nature even in response to their ill mother's pleading - and this after her white master proposed she become his concubine - she tells her mother and brother she is going to New York. Despite Gabriel and her mother's pleadings, she leaves, not intending ever to come back.
The narrative then reverts briefly to John's point of view, back at the church. His frustration with his father mirrors that of Florence with her family. He longs either for God to swallow him up, or to walk out of the church.
Florence remembers Frank, her husband. She had married him under the impression that he was so easy-going she could control him. After an unhappy marriage of ten years, they quarreled so bitterly that he left, living a long while with another woman before dying in the war, in France. It was his promise to do better that drove her irritation - his wasteful ways with money, his drunkenness, his desire to please that led to stupid decisions. Their marriage had lasted as long as it did because Florence was sure he would eventually become the man she wanted him to be. Even though he didn't, and they fought constantly, she loved him.
Florence, feeling her hard heart soften and break, wonders if she was wrong to have fought so hard against God. Now she is an old woman dying with nothing. She remembers Gabriel's first wife Deborah, who had written to her about her suspicions of Gabriel's affair with Esther and having a child with her. Florence tells Frank that she is unsurprised, as Gabriel has never thought of anyone other than himself. He's no better than a murderer, she avers, because he had let Esther go and die unsupported and alone. Anger flares up in her heart for a moment. She had held on to the letter for years, waiting for the opportune moment to devastate Gabriel, but he will watch her decline and die anyways.
Baldwin's rich use of language really shines in Florence's chapter, particularly through the use of layers of Biblical allusions and reference. The first example of this is in a reference we saw in the previous chapter to Isaiah 38:1 and also II Kings 20:1: "Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live" (pg. 73). Though we last saw it as Gabriel's theme verse, here it is the message that God sends Florence as a warning; she is going to die and needs to prepare. There are interesting and understated links to Gabriel here; in a sense it is foreshadowing the role Gabriel plays in Florence's life.
On page 74, Florence's mother prays, "Lord, sprinkle the doorpost of this house with the blood of the Lamb to keep all the wicked men away." This is a reference to Passover, which account is set in Exodus, the second book of the Bible. The main arc of the story is this: Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has enslaved the Hebrews, who are God's chosen people. God raises up Moses, a Hebrew boy who escaped the massacre of Hebrew boys the Pharaoh had commanded by the work of his mother who had set him afloat on the Nile. Moses was rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh and raised as her own child (assisted, though unknowingly, by Moses' mother). After killing Egyptian slave drivers who were punishing some Hebrews, Moses runs away to become a shepherd in the mountains. Decades later, he is sent by God to take the Hebrews away from Egypt to a promised land God had prepared for them. So Moses goes to the pharaoh, who refuses to let the people go. Moses does several miracles that fail to move Pharaoh. Finally, God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh: unless he lets the Hebrew people go, the firstborn of every Egyptian, from human to slave to cattle, will die. God tells Moses to tell the Hebrews to sprinkle blood of a sacrificial lamb on their doorposts and to eat a special meal together. Then the avenging spirit will pass by their homes and not kill their children.
The really breathtaking thing Baldwin does by bringing in this reference is to link the suffering of African-Americans with the suffering of the Hebrews in Exodus. The Hebrews were God's own people who suffered unjustly; the African-Americans, created equally in the image of God, also suffered unjustly. Though the parallels are obvious enough, Baldwin strengthens it by crafting the story of Deborah's rape and the subsequent revenge sought by Deborah's father, and murder enacted by the white people who raped her. To continue the parallel, Deborah is the Hebrew people. Her rape, and the subsequent murder of her father, mirrors the conquering and oppression of the Hebrews by the Egyptians. Deliverance has not yet arrived. The story is again referred to on pages 76 and 78.
On page 81, we see Gabriel's baptism. While dunking Gabriel in the river, the preacher cries, "I indeed have baptized you with water: but He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost." After bringing Gabriel back up, he tells him, "Go thou and sin no more." This is a reference to Mark 1:8 (echoed in other places in the gospels.) There, John the Baptist baptizes people in water, but points to the coming Christ as the one who truly saves people. Baptism is typically taken to be a picture of salvation; the water symbolizes cleansing, and the act of it is a public declaration of faith.
On page 88, we read: "Their faces, and their attitudes, and their many voices rising as one voice made John think of the deepest valley, the longest night, of Peter and Paul in the dungeon cell, one praying while the other sang; or of endless, depthless, swelling water, and no dry land in sight, the true believer clinging to a spar." This is a conflation of a couple stories in the New Testament. The apostles Peter and Paul were not in prison together, though both were imprisoned at different times for their uncompromising witness of Christ. Both often faced death with cheer and hymn singing, but it was Paul, not Peter, who was in several shipwrecks and in one instance, was carried safely to shore by holding on to a spar, the only survivor (see the book of Acts for all these stories and more.)
On page 89, we hear of "twelve men fishing by the shores of Galilee." That's a reference to the 12 Apostles of Christ.
On page 90, we read, "The fool has said in his heart, there is no God." This is a reference to Psalm 14:1.
Besides the allusions, Baldwin demonstrates his astounding facility with language through things like Florence's experience with death personified and through the richness of John's vision language.
The personification of death takes place on page 74. Florence knows she is ill, and is trying every means possible to get better. One night, she sees death standing in her room. "Blacker than night, and gigantic, he filled one corner of her narrow room, watching her with eyes like the eyes of a serpent when his head is lifted to strike." Beyond the startling image, the personification of death serves as a powerful motivator for Florence; with that image of death behind her, we see her as a scared but pathetically proud woman, embittered and yet determined to go out fighting. Florence is not a "nice" woman, but after this scene the reader has more sympathy for her.
Finally, John's vision language is breathtaking. In Paragraph 2 on page 89, Baldwin writes:
"My soul is a witness for my Lord. There was an awful silence at the bottom of John's mind, a dreadful weight, a dreadful speculation. And not even a speculation, but a deep, deep turning, as of something huge, black, shapeless, for ages dead on the ocean floor, that now felt its rest disturbed by a faint, far wind, which bid it: 'Arise.' And this weight began to move at the bottom of John's mind, in a silence like the silence of the void before creation, and he began to feel a terror he had never felt before." Though we know John as an ordinary boy more intellectually able than most of his other peers, Baldwin invests him with incredible weight and significance through metaphorical language investing his soul with the heavy and unmoving atmosphere of the bottom of the ocean. Something starts to move within; God has begun the first moves of "waking John up," so to speak: teaching him how to be truly alive, even to the unconscious depths of his psyche. Baldwin was an incredibly gifted author.