At first glance, Gabriel is easy to dislike and easier yet to misinterpret. When the reader is introduced to Gabriel, he remains unnamed through the descriptive perspectives of his children, John, Roy, and Sara, and his wife, Elizabeth. We discover that Gabriel apparently endorses the popular, biblical notion of family structure at that time which dictated that the male has the power in the family. Gabriel interprets the father's role as protector: to feed, to clothe, to provide shelter, and to insure the holy status of his family's souls even if he must beat them into compliance. Any deed he does not approve he quickly classifies as wicked or sinful and, therefore, prohibited. In all matters, he holds his family's will subservient to his own. Disputes with his wife or children are often resolved by physical violence which he believes is not only condoned but mandated by God, and he enjoys his position as reverend, even though John views him as merely a "holy handyman" who is called upon when no one else is available.
Our first impression of Gabriel, however, is brought into question when, several pages into Part One, after we have just begun to solidify our judgment of him, we learn his name is Gabriel, an obvious allusion to the biblical Gabriel who was the prince of angels sent by God to make arrangements for the arrival of Jesus: Gabriel is the angel who informed Mary that she would give birth to the "Son of God" and probably the angel who was sent to Joseph and the shepherds; he is also the angel who earlier had informed Zacharias that he and his wife Elisabeth [sic] would parent John the Baptist.
Gabriel is an extremely important character in the novel, albeit not a complex one; he is more symbolic than realistic, and as such his character may appear to be flat and somewhat static because the reader does not see many sides to him, and he does not seem to change much throughout the novel. In terms of plot, Gabriel affects every character in the book. He is the unifying element that they all have in common. Thematically, Gabriel symbolizes first generation African Americans of former-slave parents, born free; therefore, he exhibits the heinous effects that the American slavery experience had on the generations of victims that followed the emancipation, the war, and the reconstruction periods.
Baldwin informs us of the biographical specifics that fashion Gabriel's character through descriptions of his impact on and relationships with the other characters — both past and present — throughout the novel. The reader is encouraged to pay particular attention to "Part II: The Prayers of the Saints" in which Baldwin uses the flashback technique to fill in needed biological and historic data generally and to give the reader insights into Gabriel's psyche and motives through Florence, his sister; Elizabeth, his present wife; and Gabriel himself.
We learn that most importantly Gabriel is, as we all are, the product of his environment(s) and his experiences: He is all of the potential he possessed in youth percolated through a lifetime of hate and hostility, of unfulfilled ambitions and dreams, of unrealized hopes and expectations, of heartbreak and humiliation, of being demeaned and devalued. In short, he is a product of a lifetime of being a black man in a racist America. The reality of Gabriel's situation was that no matter how his mother may have endowed him, no matter what great qualities he may or may not have acquired or had bestowed upon him, his life options, his opportunities for the future, his very existence — whether he lived or died and how and when — were dictated, not by ambition or by intellect or by sacrifice or by hard work or by good deeds or by perseverance or even, at last, by prayer; instead they were dictated by the color and hue of his skin. He could have success and a successful life, but only with the permission of and within the parameters set by the white establishment and systems.
This sort of oppression creates in individuals, as it does in Gabriel, a strange combination of contradictory expectations, values, and behaviors; a situation in which a behavior does not actually demonstrate a value typically or ostensibly associated with it. As a young adult, for example, Gabriel's wild nights were undertaken in an apparent spirit of self-indulgence, as much as one can be self-indulgent and oppressed at the same time. Again, his refusal to take responsibility for his actions appears to be another of Gabriel's conspicuous characteristics; for example, he sees the short affair with Ester and her subsequent pregnancy as a consequence of her manipulating him. He rationalizes that she is an evil woman, a "harlot" who tempted him, "the Lord's anointed." Ester, of course, tells a different tale of the days leading up to their liaison. Gabriel, however, refuses to consider his own actions as being as culpable as Ester's, and he makes an adamant argument for his positions.
In order to understand Gabriel's apparently flawed rationale, one must be capable of understanding how an individual — or, for that matter, a whole race — develops and practices responsibility absent power and authority as this generation of African Americans was required to do. Gabriel's argument makes as much sense — is as reasonable and logical — as most of the arguments that control him and the world in which he exists.
One way of reconciling such apparent contradictions is to reorder the context within which they are rationalized. One context within which the whole racist environment could in any way make sense to a sane, rational, Christian people, was that it was some sort of divine test of the soul's mettle. The ability to cope with and to survive the subjugation and persecution without destroying one's faith or damaging one's soul becomes requisite to a better life after death, making religion and the religious life both the test and the reward. As a young man, Gabriel became a popular, much respected minister in the South, and his reputation and position in the church were enhanced rather than diminished by his past. He would not have been so powerful if he had not lived such a wild life. Had he always been devout, no one would have thought much of his service in the church, but converting from a life of wickedness made his position all the more remarkable.
All in all, Gabriel has few redeeming qualities. He shuns his responsibilities; he abuses his wife and children; he is arrogant; he lacks empathy with others; and he lacks courage to live the good life of which he is fully cognizant. His lack of character as the reader sees him is mitigated only by his experiences with American racism, which seems to have produced him.