The Grimes family is central to this novel and the tensions between and across generations drive the past and present narratives. Violence and fear rather than love are the overriding experiences as Gabriel dominates Elizabeth and the children as the patriarch of the household. Through the tension created by Gabriel, there is a criticism of the lack of love in the family unit and in American society. This is made evident with the sympathetic characterization of John and his sense of isolation that is created ostensibly by his step-father.
As the past histories of Florence, Gabriel and Elizabeth are told in Part Two, the secrets of the older generation are revealed and, consequently, the reasons behind Gabriels cruelty to his current family are explored. One of the main negative influences on this familys structure is traced back to racism, as with the suicide of Johns biological father (Richard) and slavery, as with the references to Gabriel and Florences mother, Rachel.
The repression of secrets, such as Gabriels first child and Johns illegitimate birth, is also criticized through the negative portrayal of Gabriel. The decision to hide the past is expressed in this novel as an impossible action to perform, as the movement between the past and present narratives demonstrates. This technique of switching the time frame emphasizes how history cannot be erased when read in combination with the content; the past is ever present.
This novel draws on a history of the United States in that it offers an insight into the effects of slavery and the migration of African Americans from the South to cities in the North (Chicago and New York). With the older generation (Florence, Gabriel and Elizabeth in particular), their unhappiness and alienation from the wider white-dominated society is translated into bitterness and destructive behaviour. Johns battle with Gabriel is indicative of an antagonistic father-son relationship, and it is also representative of the divisive influence of racism as Gabriels impotency outside of the home is avenged on his family.
By using John as the central protagonist, a perspective of the third generation of African Americans who have never lived in the South is given. He cannot fully understand, nor appreciate, why Gabriel is so entrenched in his hatred of the whites. John accepts praise from white and African-American schoolteachers, whereas Gabriel (similarly to Richard) has no trust in white people. On an abstract level, Gabriel and Richards separatist positions are contrasted with Johns desire for integration. He is aged 14 and it is possible to see his views as being offered as a naive voice. It is also worth remembering, however, that Johns perspective underpins the novel as his views are returned to intermittently. In this light, his voice is favored. This is especially apparent when he is drawn in comparison with Gabriel.
This is balanced somewhat with the exposition of Gabriels background which, in turn, characterizes him as complex rather than simply evil as John tends to interpret him. Baldwin avoids completely demonizing Gabriel, then, because his identity is flawed, for example, by the murder of his first son Royal. Gabriel is a beneficial recipient of patriarchy, though, and his hypocritical treatment of Elizabeth, when criticizing her for sinning without admitting his own similar faults, is not explained by racist treatment directly. His cruelty is seen to be both formed by the influence of racism and by his opportunistic abuse of power.
Extensive references to the Old and New Testament are made with the use of certain themes, such as the struggle between father and son, and the language adopted. The title is taken from an African-American spiritual, the chapter headings draw on biblical language and the characters names often allude to biblical namesakes (as with Deborah, John, Gabriel etc). Furthermore, the evangelical store-front church, the Temple of the Fire Baptized, which the Grimes family attends, is central to the main plot.
As well as offering a structure for the novel, religious concerns dominate the content as John mulls over the expectations that he will follow Gabriels calling and be a preacher. Johns distaste of the thought of pursuing the same role epitomizes the conflict between the two. The conflict has infected Johns relationship with his faith, as the religion and hate for the father have become if not synonymous then twisted together. Adherence to God is often juxtaposed with Johns determination not to bow to Gabriel. Johns faith in God and his hatred for Gabriel have become inseparable until the point where he is saved. His new position as a saint may be read as distinguishing him symbolically as an equal to Gabriel.
Despite Johns lack of desire to be a preacher like Gabriel, his belief in God barely wavers. His fear and distaste for sin demonstrates his piety as well as highlighting his difference from Roy and Gabriel when younger. Johns faith is also a means to exemplify the extent to which he lives in fear (of God and Gabriel). Further to these examples, the climax of the novel is reached when John is saved in the local church. The response of Elizabeth to this awakening is guarded, however. This implies an ambiguity towards blind faith and offers a little towards questioning the passivity that is preached in the church, where it is the norm to expect to wait until the after life to be fulfilled.