Part 2 - The Prayers of the Saints - 1. Florence's Prayer Summary
For the most part, this section concentrates on Florence's past and only returns to John's perspective in the present briefly. It begins in the present with Florence attending Gabriel's church for the first time. Her dislike for him his expressed in a similar fashion to John's in the previous section because she believes she would rather go to hell than bow before him. She sets her pride aside momentarily and remembers how her mother taught her to pray to Jesus and forget everything else, but then slips back to thinking how it is common to kneel before the altar for so long and allow oneself to cry openly.
She has come to the church through fear as she knows that her death is imminent. References are made to Hezekiah because she has received the message to set her house in order before her death. Memories of her upbringing in the South and her subsequent move to New York then re-surface.
As the past unfolds, the rape of Deborah is alluded to. This occurred when she was aged 16 and was perpetrated by a gang of white men. The fear the African-American community experienced the night after the incident is described through the reaction of Gabriel and Florence's mother, Rachel. Florence recalls this as the first time, from her perspective, that her mother prayed for the protection of God for the daughter rather than the son.
Rachel's life is explained, including how she used to be a slave who worked on a plantation. Florence looks back to how, over the years, her mother gave birth to many children, but these two were the only remaining ones at this time of the flashback. The civil war is referred to and a connection is made between the Hebrew slaves of the Old Testament and the African-American slaves who prayed for emancipation. The story of the day her mother gained the freedom to leave the plantation behind is recalled by Florence as one that she has always equated with leaving for the North.
The favoritism shown by their mother towards the younger Gabriel is exposed and it is made explicit in the education he was allowed to have because of his sex, whereas Florence feels bitter, in the past and present narratives, because she has been overlooked for being female. Gabriel's childhood sins are recounted: he scarcely went to school anyway and most of the neighbors complained about his behavior as he grew up.
Florence's friendship with Deborah at this time is referred to as is Deborah's treatment by the community years after her ordeal of rape. Gabriel's baptism at the age of 12 is recounted and his anger at this is revealed. It is related how, as adults, Florence tells Deborah she hates Gabriel after they have both seen him drunk. Deborah's patient reaction, hate the sin not the sinner, typifies her saintly character.
The concrete decision to leave the South and begin a new life in New York is remembered as being finalized when Florence's mother is dying. Florence recalls Gabriel and Rachel's attempts to dissuade her with emotional blackmail, but Florence is shown to resist with pride. The narrative is briefly interrupted by John, in the present, in church looking at the others in the congregation. The return to Florence's past leads to a description of her fraught ten-year marriage with Frank. Whilst married, the reader learns that she received a letter from Deborah which tells of Gabriel's infidelity and first son, Royal.
The final return to the present day reiterates how Florence feels powerless and angry and that, again, she does not have long to live. She has had Deborah's letter for years and has wanted to use it to humiliate Gabriel with her knowledge of his sinful past. With death approaching, Florence is afraid she will not be able to act on this opportunity. This section ends with Florence crying at the altar, 'as she had never in all her life cried before'.
With the use of flashbacks, Florence and Gabriel begin to be more fully developed characters. The main focus shifts from John to Florence, but the third person narrative voice continues to be used. This maintains a distance on the subject's position and also allows for Florence's perspective to be seen.
By focussing on the experiences and emotions of an older, female character more dimensions are given to the family conflicts that have been revealed in Part One. Prejudices of white and African-American people aimed against African-American women are also highlighted in that Deborah is raped by white men and then virtually ostracized by her own community. In addition to this, it is demonstrated that Florence has been marginalized by her mother in favor of Gabriel. The novel exposes and vilifies the inequalities perpetuated by racism and sexism in different strata of American society. The results of such unfair treatment are evident in Florence's bitterness towards her brother and her self-loathing. Parallels may be drawn with John's similarly narrow examination of the effects of racism.
Her resentment of Gabriel is well established and it is also a metaphor for her sense of powerlessness. The chance to regain some control is symbolized by the letter from Deborah that she has kept for years. The anger Florence experiences is explained by the lack of support of both family and society, but is directed most obviously at Gabriel. Her desire to succeed and escape the poverty of her upbringing has only been partially brought about and her sense of impotency impinges on her view of events. This includes her anger at the color of her own skin and her desire to bleach it and her negative attitude to other African-Americans in the church. Her bitterness is emblematic of one who has battled, and failed, to achieve equality on an individual level only.