Summary and Analysis
Part 3: The Threshing Floor
Without knowing how it happens, John finds that he is lying on the floor of the church, and he feels something foreign possess his body. He is filled with a bitter anguish, and an evil voice tells him to rise and leave the church forever, but John finds that he cannot rise; instead, he feels himself falling away from the light.
John sees Gabriel looking at him with hatred and recalls that he had seen Gabriel naked, just as Noah's son had seen his father naked, and John wonders whether he, too, would be cursed as his predecessor had been. John then experiences several visions culminating in his journey to a river and a glimpse of God. John is saved, and he opens his eyes to the light of a new morning. He realizes that these people who surround him are protected by God just as he is now, and Elisha calls out to John to tell of his experience.
John finds himself unable to speak because of the joy that fills him, and the congregation begins to sing for him and his new found salvation. He knows he is an equal among the others, and when he finds himself in front of his mother, she says how proud she is of him. Gabriel, on the other hand, is stony faced while John searches for words that will bring the two of them together. He quotes part of Gabriel's own sermon of salvation to him, but Gabriel is unconvinced and unmoved. Florence ends the standoff between the two men by embracing John.
The churchgoers move out into the dirty streets and head for home in small groups. The older women discuss the events of the service and congratulate Elizabeth. They interpret her tears to be proof of her happiness and pride. They are not. Elizabeth is crying for John and the trials that he must face and for her lost love, John's biological father, Richard.
While Elizabeth talks to the other women, Florence speaks with Gabriel about John's salvation and future. She brings up the death of Ester and tells Gabriel that he can't fool God the way that he fools mortal men. Florence brings out Deborah's letter, which she has had for years and which tells of Deborah's suspicions of Royal's paternity. Florence then chastises Gabriel for his treatment of the dead woman. Gabriel counters that he has sought and received forgiveness, and it is not Florence's place to pass judgment on him. Florence promises that before she dies she will make the truth known to Elizabeth so that Elizabeth will know that she is not the only one who has sinned and that John is not the only illegitimate child.
Walking down the street where he grew up, John sees that it is different than it was before his religious conversion and knows that it will never be the same. The same people are there and the same things happen, but he is different. He is free. He begins to cry again. Elisha gives him words of encouragement and admits, after John asks, that it was he, Elisha, who leaned over the suffering John and prayed for him. Elisha tells John that salvation is a constant and difficult struggle, but one need only to call upon Jesus for help. John asks Elisha to pray for him.
Everyone says their good-byes and separates until Sunday morning service. John turns and smiles at Gabriel who does not smile back. And then John speaks, "I'm ready. I'm coming. I'm on my way."
Elisha plays an important role in this part of the book. John has resisted religion for so long because he believes that it would be Gabriel who would act as his intermediary to God. Instead, it is Elisha who stands in Gabriel's place beside John, helping him through his ordeal. It is Elisha whom John first sees upon opening his eyes after his visions. It is Elisha who helps John up from the threshing floor while Gabriel refuses to acknowledge that his stepson is saved. It is Elisha who rejoices that John has been reborn while Gabriel resents the fact that it is his stepson and not his son who has been redeemed.
Gabriel parents through power, not through love or example. When Florence asks Gabriel if he will help John live a holy life, Gabriel does not respond as one might expect a loving father to. Gabriel can only react to situations as they pertain to him: "The Lord done put his soul in my charge — and I ain't going to have that boy's blood on my hands." His sullen, authoritarian answer is "I am going to see to it. . . . " Gabriel is loath to help John on his journey of righteousness.
Elisha, on the other hand, rejoices for John and the opportunity to help him. He reassures John that, "I ain't going to stop praying for the brother what the Lord done give me." He cements their brotherhood with a "holy kiss" to John's forehead. Elisha promises to be something that Gabriel never has been and never will be: a positive role model who leads through example.
John's recollection of the story of Ham reflects his concern that he is cursed for having seen Gabriel naked and alludes to the often-cited biblical justification for slavery. The biblical Ham was the youngest son of Noah. After the great flood, Noah planted a vineyard, made wine, and became drunk. He fell asleep naked in his tent. Ham saw his father and mockingly told his brothers. Unlike Ham, his brothers — good sons — walked backwards into the tent which housed their father. Not looking at his nudity, the two brothers covered their father and departed. When Noah awoke and learned what had happened, he cursed Ham and Ham's descendants to be the slaves of his filial brothers ("servants of servants"). In a meager attempt to justify slavery biblically and morally, some contended that the Africans used as American slaves were descendants of Ham. No doubt Baldwin intends both of these references.
John realizes that time doesn't worry itself with curses. A curse is reborn every moment and given from a father to his son. It does seem, however, as though John has been cursed with at least part of Gabriel's attitude. When John stands at the top of a hill in Central Park, "he felt like a tyrant" and a "conqueror" that he would be "the most beloved, the Lord's anointed." Gabriel felt the same way on the morning of his own conversion. "He wanted power — he wanted to know himself to be the Lord's anointed . . . He wanted to be master. . . . "
The order is changed but the sentiment is the same. Both young men had a desire for power and a Holy position. Gabriel has been consumed by his distorted view of religion and has hurt those closest to him through his insistence on his absolute supremacy. It is certain that John does not want to inherit his father's ways. Perhaps Florence said it best when she tells Gabriel that his children are "going to do their best to keep it (his life) from becoming their lives."
In the church, just as in his home, John is surrounded by dirt. Though he and Elisha just finished sweeping and mopping the floor, it is still dirty. Here the dirt represents sin and corruption, and no amount of soap and water can wash those away. John finds himself lying on the "filthy" floor and "going farther and farther from the joy, the singing and the light above him." Above him is the church and beyond that heaven, below him the dirty floor and past that hell. John finds that the dust which is "sharp as the fumes of Hell" causes him "to cough and wretch," and he struggles to rise only to find that his body will not obey him. It is not his body that John must have charge of, it is his soul. His body obeys him only after his terrible visions and his glimpse of the Lord. It is then that John cries out to be saved and his new life begins.
John must struggle on the threshing floor to be saved from hell. He must ask God to raise him out of the dirt and into the holy light. Just as a baptism washes away sin, John is only able to come through his ordeal after his tears "sprang as from a mountain." His tears wash away his sin so that he is able to rise up from the dirty floor, purified and renewed for the kingdom of Heaven.
There is no real sense of closure in this novel. Each of the main characters (John, Gabriel, Elizabeth, and Florence) must come to an understanding of and make peace with not only each of the other characters but also themselves, including their decisions and their pasts. Although John attains salvation and a new outlook on life, he is still just embarking on his road to understanding. In the final pages, John does not suddenly become a self-actualized and content man; he is still a youth who is searching for happiness. He has just been shown the road that he must follow, and it is a long road. Elisha's final words to John echo this truth. He says to the boy, "Run on, little brother. Don't you get weary."
Elisha knows from personal experience that salvation does not come in one great blinding experience, but that it is a daily struggle. John himself seems to have a glimpse of the road ahead of him as witnessed by his final words: "I'm ready. I'm coming. I'm on my way." Perhaps he doesn't understand the depth of his struggle, but he does realize that there is a struggle ahead of him.
Elizabeth's future looks just as bleak as it did in the first pages of the novel. She has undergone no epiphany that has allowed her to take her life back into her own hands, and her past is still a weight that anchors her to sorrow. As the saints leave the church and begin their way home, the other women in the church misinterpret Elizabeth's tears as those for her son and his rebirth in the church. Instead, Elizabeth weeps for her lost Richard and the happiness and love that died with him. She has undergone no change by the end of the novel. Our last glimpse of her is as she "stood in the doorway, in the long shadows of the hall." She will never regain her pride and self-confidence, just as she will never cross the figurative threshold of Gabriel's dominance and come into her own light. She will live forever in the shadow of Gabriel.
Gabriel is just as self-righteous as he was in the beginning, dismissing his sister's admonishment of his hypocrisy with "I done answered already before my God. I ain't got to answer now, in front of you." He refuses to admit any guilt when confronted by Florence with his dead wife's letter. He doesn't deny that he had a child with Ester, but neither does he admit any remorse over the event. His feelings for his stepson have changed only in degree but not in kind. Gabriel still refuses to accept John and is not gladdened by John's conversion. He continues to treat John with a mixture of repugnance and disdain. His contempt of the boy has only been heightened in reaction to John's religious experience. He fails to accept John as holy, still insisting that it is the rebellious and angry Roy who will one day be lifted up to a place of honor in the church. Gabriel looks at John as having usurped Roy's rightful place in the kingdom of heaven. Gabriel believes that salvation is Roy's birthright, as he was born into a sanctified union, not John's, as he was born out of wedlock. Instead of bringing the two of them closer, John's experience seems to have had just the opposite effect. Gabriel is even more resentful of John than ever.
Florence sees this renewed tension in Gabriel and uses her only weapon — the letter — to protect John from his stepfather's unholy wrath. She has carried Deborah's letter for 30 years, never telling anyone but her husband of the damning contents. She exposes the letter now in an attempt to blackmail Gabriel on John's behalf. She makes Gabriel, and only Gabriel, aware that she knows the truth. Florence hopes that out of fear of exposure, Gabriel will not torment her nephew with renewed animosity.
Nor is there any change in Florence's character by the end of the novel. Florence still detests her brother and is still waiting to see him humiliated and exposed for his sins. She, however, is unlike the other characters because she doesn't lie to herself about her life. She may have a distorted image of the past and her place in it, but she does not ignore facts. Gabriel says to her, "You ain't never changed. You still waiting to see my downfall. You just as wicked now as you was when you was young." Florence doesn't deny his statement, she just elaborates on it. "No, I ain't changed. You ain't changed neither." Florence is a fatalist. She not only doesn't dispute that she has not changed; she has no expectations to do so in the future. She fully believes that with her impending death she will go to hell, but makes no effort to change her behavior.
Baldwin gives the reader no ending to the struggles of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and Florence, and for John he only gives us a new beginning. None of John's family members have found any solutions for their disagreements or found any way to end their strife. They are all the same people, living their same lives with the same problems they had at the onset of the novel. Florence says it best when she tells Deborah, "I reckon the Lord done give them those hearts — and honey, the lord don't give out no second helpings. . . . "
threshing floor Traditionally an area in which grain is beaten from its husks; here it is an area in the church where the saints pray. Metaphorically, it represents separating the sinners and the saved, just as the chaff is separated from wheat and is an allusion to the biblical passage, "His [God's] winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12)."
ineffaceable impossible to wipe out or erase.
Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego the three biblical captives who came out of the fiery furnace miraculously unharmed: Daniel 3:12-27.
David the biblical king of Israel and Judah, reputed to be the writer of many Psalms.
Jeremiah a biblical prophet of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.
the accursed son of Noah Ham, who had laughed at his father's nudity and who had been cursed by his father to be "a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren" (Genesis 9:18-27).