Part 2 - The Prayers of the Saints - 2. Gabriel's Prayer Summary
As with 'Florence's Prayer', Gabriel's past is recalled in this section whilst he is in church. His past sins, such as his decision to go drinking as his mother is dying and his use of 'harlots', are exposed. He remembers his mother's dying wish was for him to be saved and to join the communion of the saints.
The time of his spiritual awakening is described as is the voice of his mother singing which lifted him out of despair. Gabriel praised God for bringing him out of Egypt. This day is seen by him as a new beginning. From this time, at the age of 21, he moved into town, began to preach and went on to marry Deborah within the year. Deborah's saintly qualities are described as when she revealed to him that she and his mother always prayed for him when he was sinning.
His memories then focus on when he was asked to be an Elder at a huge revival meeting. This invitation was an honor, but Gabriel recalls his unease with the worldly attitude of some of the other Elders. One of them, for example, was crude about the rape Deborah suffered years previously.
The narrative shifts to the present and it is disclosed for the first time in the novel that Gabriel is not John's biological father. Gabriel's thoughts dwell on the fact that he has had only two sons and one of them is now dead; both were given the name Royal. It is evident that he regards John as living proof of sin committed by his wife, Elizabeth. He cannot resist thinking of John's illegitimacy and that he is not his son.
There is another switch to the past as the details of Gabriel's sins and the conception of his first son are related, beginning with his 9-day affair with Esther whilst still married to Deborah. Esther is characterized as lacking in piety, flighty even, and they met because they worked at the same house together. On discovering her pregnancy, Gabriel remembers how he refused to leave Deborah and instead stole money from her to give to Esther so she could leave the area.
Because of Esther's death, their son Royal was brought back to the area to be cared for by his maternal grandmother and step-grandfather. A brief encounter between Royal and Gabriel is described and it is mentioned briefly how Royal died two years later.
The narrative shifts back to the present to John's perspective and to him trying to pray. John questions the work of God: 'If God's power was so great, why were their lives so troubled?' He then considers the possibility of being born again, and of being raised by God in honor. The love of the Heavenly Father would make him equal with Gabriel in the eyes of God. John's thoughts change to consider how he does not want Gabriel to love him any longer. The death of his father, John believes, would liberate him.
The past is returned to again as Gabriel re-lives the day he was told of Royal's murder in Chicago. In this flashback, Gabriel's weeping opens the way for Deborah to reveal that she has always known that Royal was his son.
Back in the present day in church, Elisha is speaking in tongues from the floor of the church and Gabriel and John are staring at each other. Gabriel sees Satan staring out of John's eyes. He also sees the eyes of everyone who has challenged him, such as his mother's when she beat him and Deborah's 'when she prayed for him'. John continues to stare and Gabriel is amazed at what he regards as the brazenness of 'Elizabeth's presumptuous bastard boy'. Gabriel wants to hit him, but instead tells John to kneel down.
This is a crucial section for understanding Gabriel more fully. This is devoted to exposing his memories and prejudices with the continued use of the third person voice. It is revealed here, for the first time, that John is not his biological son, which is a fact that John never learns in the course of the novel, and he had another son, Royal, who was murdered. These details allow this character to be read in more complex terms because up to this point he has been demonized without an explanation for his conduct.
The shift between the past and the present is continued in this section. This choice of style emphasizes how influential history is in the shaping of identity and the impact bitterness has on stunting emotions. This movement between the past and present is also useful in highlighting how, for example, Gabriel cannot bear to think of the death of Royal. When the reader first learns of his death, there is a sudden switch to the present, as though this is too painful to think about fully.
As this section focuses on Gabriel, his cruelty to John is more open to understanding, but is not excused. The conflicts Gabriel has endured, including the murder of Royal, hint at an ever-present sense of injustice influencing his life, which he, in turn, inflicts on the innocent and powerless ones around him. His characterization is consistently negative throughout the novel, with barely any redeeming features, but this section spares him a little in that he is clearly imprisoned by his perceptions of sin and by a desire to dominate, and preach.
This section may be also perceived as offering an indictment of the pernicious effects of racism. The power Gabriel secures as a preacher and as the head of the household is abused as though to demonstrate he is not as subdued in the private sphere as he is in the wider, white-dominated society. His hypocrisy is also revealed in that he is exalted by his community for his religious fervor, but he has sinned as an adulterer and thief in the past.