Part 2 - The Prayers of the Saints - 3. Elizabeth's Prayer Summary
This final 'Prayer' begins in the present in church with Elizabeth listening to Elisha speaking in tongues and being afraid that the Lord is giving her a message. Tonight, she is weeping for John's deliverance. The song they all sing reminds her of her aunt's harshness, which leads the narrative into an exposition of her background. The events of the past that follow are, again, clearly influenced by this central character's interpretation of events.
Elizabeth remembers being eight years old and recalls the effect the death of her mother had on the family unit. It is stressed that prior to her mother's death, no love was felt for her and reference is made to her mother's lighter skin color. The lack of affection between mother and daughter appears to have been reciprocated. Her relationship with her father, however, is portrayed in idealized terms.
Continuing in the past narrative, Elizabeth's aunt took her to her home after the death of her mother. This is because she believed Elizabeth's father ran a 'house' (a euphemism for a brothel). The time shifts forward to when Elizabeth aged 18 met Richard in 1919 and fell in love with him. In the present, she is troubled that she is now paying for the love for Richard, as she would have chosen him over God. She also remembers the warning that pride 'goeth before destruction; and a haughty spirit before a fall.' This was also said of Florence, by Deborah and Gabriel, in 'Gabriel's Prayer'.
It is then described how Elizabeth moved North to New York (specifically Harlem) in 1920 to be with Richard. She gave her aunt the pretext that there are more opportunities in the North, but he was the reason. They find work in the same hotel and Richard spoke of them eventually marrying. Elizabeth recalls how, in New York, the temptation to lose her virginity was heightened as she was no longer under her aunt's jurisdiction.
Richard is John's biological father and this is the first reference to him in the novel. He is depicted as mostly self-taught, as well as studying on a night, and this education was a matter of pride and a personal barrier for him against racism. This love for knowledge is exemplified in the description of a free Saturday afternoon on which he took Elizabeth to a museum. His atheism is described as unswerving, which Elizabeth found terrifying. He was wrongfully arrested for robbing a white man's store and was held in prison. The police are critically drawn as racist and sexist in their treatment of Richard and Elizabeth. On his release, Richard committed suicide by cutting his wrists and remained unaware of Elizabeth's pregnancy.
The meeting of Elizabeth and Gabriel, through Florence, is explained and came after John's birth. It is related how the two women became friends whilst working as night cleaners on Wall Street. At the initial stage of first meeting Elizabeth and John, Gabriel is remembered as being kind to both of them.
Elizabeth's thoughts turn to when she gave birth to John and how alone she felt. She remembers him crying and this connects the narrative to the present as John is also crying now. When she opens her eyes she sees John lying 'astonished' on the threshing-floor of the church.
Elizabeth's story is one of poignant desperation. Fear is seen to dominate her past and present actions, be that fear of God or of being perceived as shameful by others in her family or community. Her struggle to make the right choices have been thwarted and this is particularly in evidence in the cruelty inflicted on John by Gabriel. Elizabeth's thoughts reveal that the decision to marry Gabriel had been based on the desire to give her son a name and to gain respectability. This choice to marry is clearly described as being made in good faith, but is essentially flawed because of Gabriel's cruelty.
The fear of disgrace is explained as her overt reason for marrying him and because of his later sadism it is possible to see the novel attacking the dominant values of society that use shame to castigate the so-called sinners. Both John and Elizabeth are particularly concerned with the guilt associated with perceived sinful behavior, and both are susceptible to Gabriel's willingness to use their religious beliefs as a weapon against them. John and Elizabeth have internalized the ideology of their faith.
'Elizabeth's Prayer' resembles Florence's and Gabriel's in that this, too, is marked by the decision to move to New York - the city of destruction. This migration to the North from the repressive South is not idealized, but is represented as initially being a dream of liberation and a place to escape to. Elizabeth has turned away from her upbringing, similarly to Florence, and does not look back unlike Lot's wife. However, the decision to live in Harlem becomes a mixed blessing.
This perspective of events enlightens the reader finally with the identity of John's biological father. The introduction of Richard is also of particular interest as this offers a different insight into John's internal derision of Gabriel's hatred of white people in Part One. In this final 'Prayer', the justice system is depicted as biased against African Americans. Richard and Elizabeth are both humiliated by the purveyors of this system and his consequent suicide is one of the few instances in this work of obviously negative criticisms of an institutionally racist society. Both Richard and Gabriel question endemic racism, whereas John symbolizes equivocation. It is also through Richard that this novel broaches the subject of the consciousness-raising of African Americans in relation to the effects of racism.
Elizabeth's memory of their trips to museums, where they were often the only African Americans present, demonstrates Elizabeth's fear, once more, of questioning authority. Her fear may also be paralleled with John's in Part One as he dare not enter the shops that are dominated by whites.