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John Grimes is the hero of the novel, as the book relates his life and the lives of all those characters that influence him. At fourteen, John is at the crossroads of his life. His desires clash with his fatherís attitude. Everyone, especially his father, expects him to become a priest when he grows up but John wants to taste the pleasures of life before choosing his vocation. He is tempted to the luxuries and comforts of life and dreams of having them in the future. On his fourteenth birthday, he rebels against his father by going out into the world and indulging in his whims.
John is intelligent, sensitive and imaginative. He is aware of his ugly looks and is conscious of it but thinks positively. He observes people uglier to him and feels better. He knows he is intelligent and is happy about it. In school, when his teachers appreciate his work, he feels rewarded. He does not blindly believe in the words of others. He does not adhere to his fatherís views that all White men are evil. He considers a few white men like his teachers to be good and considerate.
John is as sensitive as a normal adolescent. As a child, he had felt bad whenever his mother had brought home her new born baby. He was jealous of his siblings because they diverted his motherís love from him. He is also angry with his father for being rude and arrogant. Thus, he decides to do whatever his father acknowledges as sinful. He hates his father for being harsh with his mother. His father had failed to give the love they deserved to both John and his mother. However, he loves his mother and siblings. He expects them to wish him on his birthday and when they fail to do so , he is disappointed. Later, when his mother gifts him some money, he is moved. He decides to make her happy in the future.
John is highly imaginative. He knows he is ugly but does not brood about it. Instead, he visualizes himself as a handsome and influential man in life. He admires Elisha for the latterís personality and talent and wishes to be like the young priest. He visualizes Elisha as an angel and his father as a devil. He dreams of escaping from the clutches of his father to go into the arms of the benign Elisha. Thus, with Elishaís encouragement, he achieves salvation and determines to fulfil his mission.
James Baldwin has succeeded in bringing alive the character of John Grimes as an emotional but precocious teenager. He is as human as any boy of his age. He feels restricted in the autocratic household of his father and desires to experience life on his own terms. He indulges in the temporary pleasures of life but later, experiences a feeling of guilt. Finally, he resolves his dilemma by surrendering himself to god. Unconsciously, John acts according to the wishes of his father and feels happy about it.