John is the major character in the primary action (plot) of the story that spans about a 24-hour period from the time he awakens on a Saturday morning in March, 1935 — his 14th birthday — to about dawn Sunday morning after he has "been saved." John is going through a very difficult time in his life. As if adolescence alone were not traumatic enough, he is confronted by a number of other dilemmas. First and most important in John's life and in the novel is his relationship with his father, Gabriel, who appears to harbor some sort of hostility toward John. The reasons for Gabriel's hostility have little or nothing to do with John; rather they are prejudices based on Gabriel's own past experiences and regrets that he projects on to John. Finally, although John does not know it, Gabriel is not his biological father.
The familial "sleight of hand" (first Gabriel is John's father, then he is not) not withstanding, Gabriel is, in every way but biological, John's father. He may not be the ideal, the best, or even a good father, but, by every standard we use to define fatherhood, save biological, Gabriel qualifies as, and John believes Gabriel to be, his father. Thematically, however, to whatever extent "the boy is father to the man," we are made aware, through John, of the potential that was likely once Gabriel's. John represents the potential man of subordinate status in the racist society of 1930s America (the setting of the novel) and, indeed, even 1950s America (when Baldwin published the work).
John does what he can to avoid what he perceives as his father's tyranny, and, when he realizes that his father will never be able to control him completely because he is reputed to have a good mind, John happily rationalizes that his intellect will someday lead him from his father's house. John is also bewildered by his lack of understanding of the biological (especially sexual) changes that are happening to him.
At this point in John's life, he does not endorse Gabriel's thinking related to matters of race, but the reader knows that John has many more years to accumulate knowledge based on experience before he will be in the position intellectually to challenge Gabriel's racial experiences, attitudes, and conclusions. Regretfully, however, there are already a few brief, but troubling and foreboding, references to John's unfortunate belief in the possibility that his own racial heritage is somehow inferior to that of whites. Nevertheless, at this juncture in his life, his overall attitudes toward race are much more optimistic if not more positive than Gabriel's.