Summary and Analysis
The Prayers of the Saints — Three - Elizabeth's Prayer
While Elisha is speaking in tongues, Elizabeth fears that God is speaking to her, condemning her for her sins and warning her of trials yet to come. When Elisha rises and seats himself at the piano, the song he plays reminds Elizabeth of her aunt and how Elizabeth had come to live in her aunt's house.
Elizabeth had never been close to her mother, who was very beautiful but frail. Her mother had not been affectionate with her, and Elizabeth attributed this lack of affection to the fact that Elizabeth was much darker and not as beautiful as her mother. Elizabeth was, however, quite close to her father whom she had loved dearly and with whom she had spent much time.
Following her mother's death, Elizabeth's maternal aunt took her away from her father, who ran a house of prostitution, declaring that he was unfit to raise a little girl. Elizabeth was devastated and hated her aunt. She screamed and cried at the railway station when she was taken from him and had to be carried to the train that would take her to her aunt's house.
Elizabeth knew that her aunt would never love her, even though the woman professed that she did. Her aunt prophesied that Elizabeth would fall from grace because of her pride, but it was only Elizabeth's pride and bitterness against her aunt that allowed her to endure her life in her aunt's house. These thoughts make Elizabeth think of Richard, the man who took her out of her aunt's house, the man whom she had loved more than she had loved God — and she believes it was for this reason that Richard was taken from her.
Richard worked at a local grocery. Elizabeth met him when she went into the store to buy some lemons. He smiled at her, and they spoke briefly and she left, but it was the beginning of their romance. Elizabeth fought for and won permission from her aunt to move to New York City (with Richard, unbeknownst to her aunt). Elizabeth told her aunt that she wanted to take advantage of the greater opportunities the North held. In New York City, Elizabeth lived with a female relative and found work at the same hotel as Richard. The two planned to marry as soon as Richard saved some money, but, because he made so little and was also attending school, their wedding was not in the foreseeable future.
Despite her happiness with Richard, Elizabeth saw that there was little difference between the North and the South. The North promised but did not give, and what a person could take was snatched right back away again. Then one Sunday, Richard did not arrive for the dinner at which he was to meet the woman with whom Elizabeth was staying, and on Monday, he was not at work. Elizabeth shortly after discovered that Richard was a suspect in a robbery and had been arrested. She visited him in jail, and he told her what happened: The three young men who had robbed a store ran down into the subway and stood by Richard. When the police caught up with the three, the police assumed that Richard was with the robbers and arrested him too. The white storeowner identified the group as those who had robbed and stabbed him. Richard was beaten when he refused to sign a confession.
Elizabeth was terrified. She knew that she was pregnant and wondered what would happen if Richard was convicted and sent away. But Richard was found innocent of the charges and released. That night he wept in Elizabeth's arms, and she decided to wait to tell him that she was carrying his child. She never got the chance, however, because Richard committed suicide that night.
Back in the present, Elizabeth weeps for John, wondering what kind of trials he will have to face in his life. Would he be forced to pay for the sins of his mother and father? When he was born, should she have given him to another family who would have loved him more than her husband, Gabriel, ever had? She knows that if Gabriel loves her it is only because she is the mother of his son Roy. Then she remembers how she had come to know Gabriel.
Florence had been Elizabeth's friend. The two of them talked over coffee after work and talked about their lives. One Sunday, Elizabeth took the infant John to Florence's house. It was then that Florence told her that she had a brother who would be moving to New York soon. Though Florence had not seen Gabriel in more than 20 years, she was not looking forward to his arrival because she believed the years had not changed him.
Elizabeth met Gabriel a few weeks later, and he made her feel that there was hope that she could again be a woman worthy of respect. Florence did not approve of the developing romance and often said so. Yet Gabriel was very good to Elizabeth and treated John as if he were his own son. When Gabriel asked Elizabeth to be his wife, promising to love and honor her and to provide for and love John like a son, she accepted his proposal.
A cry from John interrupts Elizabeth's reminiscence, and she opens her eyes to see John lying on the floor, overcome by the power of God.
More so than any other character in the novel, Elizabeth represents love. Her children feel free to speak to her in a manner that they cannot communicate with their father. Roy says as much to her during their argument about Gabriel on the morning of John's birthday. He says, "[T]ell me how come he never let me talk to him like I talk to you?" Elizabeth is also the only person who remembers, or chooses to acknowledge, John's birthday. She is not able to give him much, but she gives him all that she can.
It is also significant that of all the marital and sexual relationships found in the novel, Elizabeth and Richard had the only alliance founded on love. Her marriage to Gabriel was based on hope that quickly disintegrated. Florence's marriage to Frank had affection and lust but nothing much deeper, and Gabriel's marriage to Deborah was more to spite the world than to love the woman. Although Deborah may have loved Gabriel — or at least respected him — the feeling was one sided. Richard loved Elizabeth just as much as she loved him, and their relationship was not built on lust or sex: They had been dating long before they began having intercourse. It is, perhaps, because of her love for Richard, that Elizabeth cherishes John as she does. He is all that she has left of the man whom she loved so desperately and the only reminder of the happy times she and Richard shared. Elizabeth's love for John is a natural continuation of her love for Richard. It should also be noted that Elizabeth is the only character the reader knows for certain to have had a healthy and loving relationship with her father. Gabriel's own father left shortly after his birth, just as Richard's had done. John never knew his biological father, and, as for the man he believes to be his father, he and his brother share a hatred for and a fear of him.
At first glance, Elizabeth and Florence seem to have little in common. The age difference between the two women alone would seem to be an insurmountable barrier. A closer look though reveals many similarities between the two women, but even their similarities belie their differences. The first and most obvious is the location of their birth. Both women are from the South, and both moved to New York City claiming a chance for better opportunities and looking to escape from unhappy homes. Florence had the strength and drive to leave by herself, while Elizabeth left on the arm of Richard.
The homes from which the two young women were running were headed by females who denied them what they most wanted. Florence's mother gave all the advantages that she was able to afford to the unthankful Gabriel, while Florence was helpless to claim any opportunities for herself. Elizabeth's aunt denied Elizabeth her father whom she loved to distraction. Even her own mother denied the young Elizabeth the love which is every child's right.
Both women were the strength in their respective relationship, but neither of them had any power. Florence failed in her attempt to control Frank (who also failed in his role as provider, never able to buy Florence the house or anything else which she really wanted). His attempts to compensate for this lack by buying her baubles and other useless knickknacks only served to infuriate his wife. For Richard, Elizabeth acted as a sort of emotional buoy. Even though their marriage was somewhere in the indefinite future and Elizabeth was not comfortable with Richard's godless ways, "She did not leave him, because, she was afraid of what might happen to him without her. She did not resist him, because he needed her." Still, in the end she was powerless to save him from false accusations and police brutality that brought about his suicide.
Finding themselves alone after the loss of their men, both women react in the same way. They lie. Florence claimed that Frank had died without having bought life insurance. Elizabeth bought and wore a wedding ring to disguise the real reason she has a child and no husband. If anyone questioned her, she explained that her husband had died. Elizabeth eventually told Florence the truth about her illegitimate son, but Florence never disclosed her own fabrication.
Florence and Elizabeth deal with their new-found status very differently. Florence remains single while Elizabeth marries as soon as an opportunity presents itself. Perhaps this different reaction can be explained by their very different experiences with relationships. Neither character has any reason to believe that a new relationship with a man would be any different from previous relationships. Of course, Florence would not want to enter into another union. Her experience with men has been less than perfect. Her father deserted her mother, she watched as the young Gabriel moved from woman to woman without a thought, and her own husband left her.
Elizabeth has had a very different experience with men. She has enjoyed happy and loving relationships with both her father and her lover. She believes that they were taken from her and that their separation is in no way the fault of the men. The loss of her father she blames on her aunt, and she shoulders the blame for the loss of Richard. She believes that if she had told him that she was carrying his child, "everything might have been very different, and he would be living yet." She also believes she loved Richard too much, and God took him from her for that very reason.
Despite their different experiences and choices, both women find themselves in very similar situations: beaten down and alone. Both have found that they are unprepared for the hardships that chance thrust upon them, and, by the end of their stories, we see that both women are overcome by their sorrows and ignorant of how to improve their situation. The reader sees also that they are both terribly disappointed and alone. Florence is alone in a literal sense. Unmarried and childless, she lives alone in a small apartment, and there is no mention of any friends. Elizabeth finds herself alone also despite the fact that she is surrounded by family. Gabriel is not someone in whom she can confide. He is physically and verbally abusive, someone more to be feared than loved. While she does care for her children, it is impossible to have a real friendship with one's very young child especially when the child is being brought up in a lie. It is also painfully obvious that none of the women in her church really know or understand her.
Furthermore, Elizabeth's friendship with Florence has been thwarted since Elizabeth's marriage to Gabriel because he acts as a barrier between the two women. There is a mutual trust, understanding, and respect between Florence and Elizabeth, but this is not allowed to grow because of the disrespect and distrust between Florence and Gabriel. Florence and Gabriel both hold the conviction that the other had led an unholy life, and Gabriel is not anxious for Florence to spend time with his wife (whom he also believes has also led an unholy life) or to be around his children whom he believes Florence will contaminate.
Florence and Elizabeth are character foils, enabling the reader to see how different experiences can lead two people in similar circumstances to perceive and react to their similar situations in different ways. They also serve to illustrate that those same people often find themselves in very similar positions despite different backgrounds. Elizabeth changed drastically (and for the worse) between the time when she was living with her parents and when the reader encounters her in her marriage with Gabriel.
The reader is made aware of these changes in Elizabeth by the narrator's descriptions of her, and her son, John's, observations of her. In her father's presence, for example, Elizabeth "pranced and postured like a very queen: and she was not afraid of anything," but John sees his mother with "dark hard lines running downward from her eyes, and the deep perpetual scowl in her forehead, and the down turned tightened mouth." He had seen a photograph of her once where she looked young and proud as if she knew no evil and was able to laugh. But the Elizabeth John knows never laughs, and he wonders how his mother had come to change so dramatically. John knows little about his mother and her hardships in her life and, therefore, cannot understand how such a change could have occurred.
The reader, on the other hand, is allowed into the entirety of Elizabeth's life and understands the events that have so changed her. It is through three separate, tragic events that Elizabeth changes. These events are significant not only in their own rite but also because they serve to illustrate how Elizabeth's separation from her father was an ongoing process, not just an immediate change in location, but a mental detachment and, finally, an ideological break as well.
The first blow to Elizabeth was her separation from her father — a relationship of love — and the consequent exile to the home of her aunt where her aunt, citing Elizabeth's pride as the causal factor, constantly prophesied Elizabeth's fall from grace. Living in her aunt's home was not just distasteful to Elizabeth, it was abhorrent. The reader knows almost nothing else of her time spent there. The aunt remains nameless, referred to only as "her aunt" or "she." During this first and most obvious separation from her father, which Elizabeth was forced to endure and in which she was physically removed from her father's side by her dead mother's sister and taken to live a great distance away, reunions with her father were few, and Elizabeth waited for him to come and take her away from her aunt as he had promised, but that long-awaited event never occurred.
The second event that jarred Elizabeth into a new world was the suicide of Richard because it was after his death that she was forced to become an adult: "Elizabeth, overnight, had become an old woman. . . . " Alone and pregnant, the young Elizabeth moved out of the home where she had been a border and found a squalid apartment of her own. This was the first time that she had lived away from family. First she was with her parents; then she was removed to her aunt's home; and then she was in the home of her aunt's relative. The diminishing consanguinity is indicative of the mental development into adulthood.
After Richard's death, Elizabeth found herself very lonely. She stopped associating with his friends because it was obvious that they had nothing in common and also because she didn't want them to know of Richard's child. She did not confide in her aunt; she was ashamed of her condition and could not go to her father for help because "she could not think of how to tell him, how to bring such pain to him who had had such pain already." Here the reader can see Elizabeth's quandary and mental separation from her father. That she was unable to think of a way to reach out to someone with whom she shared such a deep love shows that Elizabeth no longer knew her father and probably feared that he no longer knew her either.
After John's birth, Elizabeth saw almost no one and shunned the company of her coworkers. It was only Florence who was able to break Elizabeth's shell and befriend her. Perhaps, if she had had a greater network of friends or the help of her family, Elizabeth's life would have been much different. The loss of Richard separated Elizabeth from any support that could have given her strength. This tragedy set the stage for the next calamity in her life: her marriage to Gabriel.
When Elizabeth met Gabriel, she believed it to be a blessing for her; it turned out to be a bane. Elizabeth ignored her own fears when she first met Gabriel, the brother of her only friend, and entered into a relationship with him. She also ignored Florence's council against the union because Florence cited instances of his evildoings. Elizabeth relied on Gabriel for her strength, giving up her own self-sufficiency. Only after her marriage did Elizabeth discover the Gabriel that his sister hated. During their marriage, Elizabeth allowed herself and her children to be beaten by Gabriel, which is in direct opposition to her father's advice. Her father told her long ago, "if one had to die, to go ahead and die, but never let oneself be beaten." She endures her husband's rage because she has exchanged the pride that had carried her through her past trials for his empty promise of love. She is unable to stand up against her husband's brutality just as she is unable to leave him. That she has ignored her father's good advice proves that she has lost her final tie with him. She abandoned his ideology.
stable the group of women who work in a brothel, a house of prostitution.
chambermaid a woman whose work is taking care of bedrooms, as in a hotel.
elevator boy a man whose job it is to operate elevators which have to be manually controlled.
pearl without price Elizabeth's aunt uses this metaphore to refer to Elizabeth's virginity.
sleep-in job a job in which the worker is provided with room and board on the premises, as in the case of a live-in maid.
Gramophone a phonograph, a device for reproducing sound that has been mechanically transcribed in a spiral groove on a circular disc or cylinder. A record player.
Moonshine whiskey unlawfully distilled: often such whiskey made from corn and not matured in barrels.