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Study Questions and Essay Topics

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Study Questions

Characterize John's relationship with Gabriel.

The relationship is mutually destructive, but there seems little that John can do about it. His father doesn't love him, and John has little power to change his father's heart, not knowing the source of Gabriel's revulsion for him. In fact, the revulsion is twofold. First, John is a reminder first of Elizabeth's sin; Elizabeth's refusal to regret John's birth troubles Gabriel because Gabriel believes Elizabeth must repent fully in order for her to bear him the royal line he feels God promised him. How can the seed of the prophet be carried in an unholy woman? John's presence undermines Gabriel's faith in Roy as a chosen one. Second, John serves as a reminder of Gabriel's own bastard son, Royal, who died young and unacknowledged by his father. John is, thus, a double threat to Gabriel's belief that he (Gabriel) is the progenitor of a holy line starting with Roy.

Florence's mother taught her the right way to pray. Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth each have extended "Prayers" in Part Two. Have they learned how to pray?

All three characters seem to have mistaken ideas about religion, prayer, and even the way to live a good life. If the way to pray is "to pour out of the heart... 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," then each has failed in one respect. Florence clearly has failed to forget her malice; she hates her brother, she hates "common niggers," she ultimately hates her own blackness (she claims she uses skin whiteners for her husband's sake, although he has never asked her to and tells her that "black's a mighty pretty color"). Elizabeth, for her part, does not come boldly—she is too humble, too broken, too unsure of herself and her worth in the face of Gabriel's holier-than-thou example. Gabriel, on the other hand, does not come humbly before the Lord. He is too proud, too sure that his way is the right way and his sins are forgiven.

Compare John's feelings about white people to those of Gabriel and those of Richard.

Gabriel tells his family that white people can never be trusted, that all white people are "wicked," that none of them have "ever loved a nigger," and that God will "bring them low." Richard, similarly, nurses an abiding hatred for white people. He educates himself so that no white person will be able to talk down to him. Richard's humiliation at the hands of a white justice system pushes him to suicide. John, of course, knows nothing of Richard or Richard's experiences and knows little of Gabriel's past. But he does not trust Gabriel's statements; white teachers at his school have been friendly and supportive, and he is sure that white people are kind, that "on the day that he would bring himself to their attention they would surely love and honor him." But how durable is this certainty? He has read of the atrocities committed in the South, where his parents (and Richard) come from. Gabriel tells him that he will come to understand what white people are capable of when he gets older. And John is not so naive as to feel welcome as he walks down Fifth Avenue. He begins to recognize that he could come to harbor hatred if he does not undergo some change.

Suggested Essay Topics

What are some of the main parallels to the Old and New Testaments to be found in the novel? How do they enhance one's understanding of the story and its characters?

How does Baldwin integrate Biblical language and the lyrics of traditional black spirituals into his text? What is the effect of this technique?

How would you describe the book? As a commentary on religious conversion? As an analysis of a father-son conflict? Or as an indictment of a racist society? Give your reasons for characterizing the novel in this way.

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