Kneeling before the altar, Florence recalls her mother and remembers that it was she who first taught her how to pray, how to humble herself before the Lord. Now, however, Florence feels more bitter than humble because she knows that she is dying. She remembers all the people who influenced her life, for better or worse, and wants their forgiveness for injustices she believes she perpetrated against them.
Florence looks back on her life, beginning with a night when she was 13, huddled in the small cabin that she shared with her mother and her brother, Gabriel. They feared that their home would be burned down by white men in a way of retaliation for a father's threat of retribution for the gang rape of his daughter Deborah. The horses and riders passed, and they knew themselves to be safe for the time being.
Florence's mother, Rachel, had been a slave before she was freed by the Civil War and had suffered all the miseries and injustices of her position. She had lost several children through death or auction; she had even had one, whom she was never allowed to see, taken away to live in the master's house. For these reasons, Gabriel and Florence were especially precious to her. However, being a boy in a male-centered society, Gabriel was even more special to her.
Gabriel had been their mother's favorite since his birth, and Florence feels cheated of the things that she wanted but that were given to Gabriel instead. He had a chance to attend school, he had the best clothes and food that the family was able to afford, and he had the care of his mother and sister. Yet Gabriel never appreciated what he was given and carelessly squandered it all. When Gabriel was young, he made mischief around town. As he grew older, he took to drinking and loose women, coming home blind drunk and covered with his own vomit.
When Florence was 26, after her employer made an improper sexual advance toward her, Florence bought a ticket to New York City, packed a bag, and left home. She left behind her dying mother, her drunken and bewildered brother, and her good friend Deborah.
In New York, Florence married a man named Frank. Their marriage lasted for more than 10 years before he left her after an especially bitter argument. Rather than being depressed over this turn of circumstances, however, Florence was relieved. Frank moved in with another woman and later died overseas during WWI. Florence thinks now that she would like to find Frank's grave and place flowers on it, and she wonders how he died.
Florence weeps for the lost Frank and hears Gabriel's voice behind her. The sound of his voice triggers thoughts of her friend and his first wife, Deborah. Once, Florence had received a letter from Deborah telling of Deborah's suspicions that Gabriel had fathered a son by another woman. For years, Florence had planned to show that letter to Gabriel; even tonight, at the church service, the letter is in her purse. Now she wonders whether Deborah had ever confronted Gabriel with her suspicions, and she wonders if she will ever show him the letter that she has carried for over 20 years. Florence has been waiting for a time when revealing the letter could do the most damage to her brother. She realizes that she will probably be dead before the long awaited day when her evidence could bring about his destruction.
Florence is suddenly furious at God for loving her mother and brother more than loving her. She is angry that she, "who had only sought to walk upright," was to die while her brother, who wallowed in sin, was allowed to live. And she is angry that her mother in heaven will see her daughter's descent into hell. Florence collapses sobbing at the altar and feels the hand of death upon her and hears its voice warn her that her time to die is approaching.
After the incident in which Florence sees death by her bedside, she is haunted by thoughts of people from her past and how she has betrayed and hurt them. To the reader, this remorse is unwarranted. Florence is, or at least at one time had been, a strong-willed, independent woman and one of the most blameless characters in the novel.
Her desertion of her mother came only after her employer's sexual advances, when she realized that her time in that place had come to its inevitable end. Her moving north and leaving her family had nothing to do with having a cold heart. She simply wanted something better for herself than she believed she could find where she was. She didn't want to exchange her mother's cabin for one of her own and work herself to death as her mother had. Besides, Gabriel was still at home, and it seems only fair that he would have to return to his mother some of the care that she had lavished upon him for so many years.
Florence's guilt concerning Gabriel also seems out of place. That she "held him to scorn and mocked his ministry" is, to some degree, justified. No one knows Gabriel better than Florence does. She has seen Gabriel at his very worst and is not impressed by his best. She sees him as a liar, a hypocrite, and even as a murderer for letting the mother of his baby run off to die alone in childbirth. In short, according to Florence, Gabriel is not fit for the ministry.
Why the ghost of Deborah should come to haunt the only friend she ever had is a mystery. Their friendship lasted long after Florence left home. It was Florence to whom Deborah wrote when Deborah needed council. The letter that Florence carries in her purse testifies to that fact. Deborah trusted Florence enough to speak of her horrible fear. That only Florence knows the truth indicates that, obviously, Deborah felt that she could trust this secret to anyone else. Florence's feelings of guilt concerning Frank are the most understandable. Frank left after 10 years of bitter fighting, disappointments, and misplaced efforts on both sides. However, that Florence shoulders all the blame for a failed marriage is unrealistic and unfair. Florence's desire to place flowers on his grave in France so many years after their break is proof that there was affection and tender feelings in her relationship with Frank.
As the title of the novel suggests, each of the characters has an obstacle or mountain to overcome to reach his or her own salvation. Florence's mountain arises from her feelings of powerlessness. All the advantages that her mother could afford were given to Gabriel, and Florence could only watch helplessly as he squandered those gifts that she so desired but was unable to acquire for herself. In a desperate attempt to empower herself, she left her mother and brother and struck out on her own to New York City where she believed that she could find better opportunities and advantages. Once in New York, Florence married Frank because she believed that she could change him. At her insistence, he was willing to do small things such as shave, change his clothes, and go to "Uplift meetings," where speakers talked about the "future and duties of the Negro race." Yet Florence's marriage failed when she realized that she had no power to change Frank's personality and that she could not transform him into the man whom she truly desired.
Her coming death is another way Florence's powerlessness manifests itself. Her own body has betrayed her by becoming filled with an unnamed sickness for which she is powerless to find a cure. Despite the hope that she invested in her female acquaintances, doctors, and herbal teas and powders, her pain becomes stronger while her body becomes weaker.
Florence carries in her purse a letter that she hopes will give her power over Gabriel. The fact that she has never used the letter to her advantage hints that she fears that this proof of his infidelity will be ineffective against her brother, who has for so long been such a powerful force in her life and in the lives of others. No one but Florence knows of the existence of the letter, and she has never revealed its contents to anyone — not even Elizabeth, who was her friend before Elizabeth's marriage to Gabriel and who could have been saved from a marriage built on lies and full of brutality if she had realized the true nature of the man she chose to marry. Even Elizabeth's son John could have been saved from a life of heartache and rejection. Florence has not taken the advice she gave to Deborah so long ago to confront Gabriel with the truth. Now she sees that her opportunity to gain power over her brother is almost lost.
The irony of this situation is that Florence is the only character with any power over Gabriel. Even their mother, with all her beatings, could not control the young Gabriel. Recall the scene at John's house after Roy has been stabbed. Florence argues with and stands up to Gabriel with impunity; Gabriel simply tells her to shut up. But when Elizabeth speaks her mind to Gabriel, he strikes her. When Gabriel beats Roy, it is Florence who stops him by grabbing the belt. Her words to her brother after that awful scene mirror her own world view, "You can't change nothing, Gabriel. You ought to know that by now."
Florence is unable to see her own strength, not only in her relationship with her brother, but with others in her life as well. Her friendship with Deborah undoubtedly gave Deborah comfort and succor after the trauma of her rape. A weak woman would not have been able to leave friends and family behind and move hundreds of miles away in the year 1900. Florence was able to support herself after being abandoned by her husband, and she provided not only friendship but also strength and support to the unwed Elizabeth. Her real weakness comes from not being aware of her own power and accomplishments.
The desire for freedom plays an important role in the novel. The reader learns very early in Florence's story that her mother had been a slave. The story that the old woman tells of her emancipation from slavery is the only tale that held any meaning for the young Florence. Her mother's departure from her place of bondage was a story that Florence would never forget, and it became her own dream "to walk out one morning through the cabin door, never to return." While Rachel's freedom was from the bondage of slavery, Florence's was from her home, which held no future for her except that of unrewarding toil and thankless labor. And she departed, just as her father had done so many years ago, to the promised land of the North. Despite her mother's protests, Florence "knew that her mother had understood, had indeed long before this moment known that this time would come."
The allusions of Bathsheba (Rachel's friend who brought the news of freedom) and Rachel to Egypt and the plagues give their own plight greater meaning and tie them to ancient suffering. The slaves identified themselves with the Israelites who were also slaves in a foreign land. Because God delivered the Israelites into freedom as he had promised, the American slaves felt the assurance that God would deliver them from bondage one day, as well. By incorporating these biblical allusions into their plight, Baldwin makes their story more universal and, probably, more tolerable.
Finally, we see the impact of systemic racism on Florence in her aversion to blackness; she uses skin whiteners (symbolic of self hatred) for Frank's pleasure, but Frank tells her, "black's a mighty pretty color." She dislikes "common niggers," a symptom of a racist cataloguing within the race. Without knowing how or when, Florence has bought the racist lie.
abdicate to give up formally (a high office, throne, authority, etc.).
Hezekiah a biblical king of Judah in the time of Isaiah: 2 Kings 18-20.
forsaken abandoned; desolate; forlorn.
armies had come from the North to set them free reference to Union forces that fought in the South during the U.S. Civil War and, as they traveled between battles, freed southern slaves.
Slaves done ris "Slaves have risen," a reference to a slave revolt at another plantation in which one or more slaves had turned against an oppressor.
judgment trumpet one of seven trumpets that will herald the apocalypse.
plagues with which the lord had afflicted Egypt reference to the ten plagues that God sent to Egypt so that the Israelites would be released from slavery and allowed to leave.
He done brought us out of Egypt God has set them free from slavery; a biblical allusion to the Israelites being led out of Egypt and slavery.
switch a thin flexible twig or stick used for whipping.
Peter and Paul in the dungeon cell reference to two Christian apostles who were martyred, probably during the reign of Nero.
the war WWI.
bleaching cream a lotion used to lighten the skin.