Go Tell it On the Mountain

Go Tell it On the Mountain Metaphors and Similes

"And the darkness of John's sin was like the darkness of the church on Saturday evenings" (pg. 18) (simile)

Here Baldwin paints a simile that is startling and yet singularly fitting at the same time. Nobody thinks about a metaphysical darkness being like the darkness of a church before the people come in--and yet, the church is a place where sin is exposed. It is, in some ways, a very dark place (made especially so not only by the significance of events that happen there like the threshing floor, but also by the weightiness of Baldwin's writing). The church is just a building; there's no inherent lightness or darkness in a building. It's the people and the experiences in the building that shape associations, and Baldwin uses that to his very effective advantage throughout the book, as the church becomes a place of great emotional turmoil and finally, in the morning, of catharsis.

"Her mother had taught her that the way to pray was to forget everything and everyone but Jesus; to pour out of the heart, like water from a bucket, all evil thoughts, all thoughts of self, all malice for one's enemies; to come boldly, and yet more humbly than a little child, before the Giver of all good things. Yet, in Florence's heart tonight hatred and bitterness weighed like granite, pride refused to abdicate from the throne it had held so long" (pg. 72) (simile and metaphor)

In this richly written section, note the two contrasting similes: "like water from a bucket" and "like granite." With his incredible writing, Baldwin anchors us firmly in both the physical and metaphysical worlds, and uses specific images to help us understand them more fully. Water is fluid, and wet, and changes; in this simile it suggests cleansing (water from a mop bucket, perhaps?), and in others it might suggest refreshing. Granite is ugly, solid, and unmoving.

"Then there was only silence in the church. Even Praying Mother Washington had ceased to moan. Soon someone would cry again, and the voices would begin again; there would be music by and by, and shouting, and the sound of the tambourines. But now in this waiting, burdened silence it seemed that all flesh waited--paused, transfixed by something in the middle of the air--for the quickening power" ( pg. 102) (metaphor)

Baldwin's metaphorical language makes the very air come alive with meaning, promise, and prescience. Even in the silent spaces when nothing is actually happening, within the church there is without words this feeling of waiting for the Holy Spirit to come.

"She heard weeping near her--was it Ella Mae? Or Florence? or the echo, magnified, of her own tears? The weeping was buried beneath the song. She had been hearing this song all her life, she had grown up with it, but she had never understood it as well as she understood it now. It filled the church, as though the church had merely become a hollow or a void, echoing with the voices that had driven her to this dark place" (pg. 173) (simile)

This simile suggests that the church itself is both a place of darkness and a place where darkness is expiated and brought into some kind of light. Elizabeth understands more broadly the grief that had followed her all her life; the church amplifies the grief and adds her grief to the thousands of believers of previous ages as well as the others in the church. The church provides a community to share grief.

"Dust was in his nostrils, sharp and terrible, and the feet of the saints, shaking the floor beneath him, raised small clouds of dust that filmed his mouth. He heard their cries, so far, so high above him--he could never rise that far. He was like a rock, a dead man's body, a dying bird, fallen from an awful height; something that had no power of itself, any more, to turn" (pg. 219) (simile)

We see a series of similes here: a rock; a dead man's body; a dying bird fallen from an awful height; something lacking the power to turn. Each one cements the idea of John's fall, both literally and spiritually, and the long hard road ahead of him before he could rise again as a free, saved man.