Zora Neale Hurston’s first published novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), was loosely based upon Hurston’s parents. The main character, John Pearson, is the bi-racial son of a poor woman married to a brutal sharecropper in rural Alabama just after the end of the Civil War. The first half of the novel is taken up with his struggle to make his way in the world.
While working for his mother’s former master, Judge Alf Pearson (who is probably John’s father but the novel never says so), John gets an education and learns to read. John falls in love with Lucy Potts, the daughter of a well to do black family. Lucy’s mother strongly disapproves of John and refuses to attend John and Lucy’s wedding. After injuring Lucy’s brother in a fight, John is forced to flee Alabama. John re-locates to Eatonville, Florida, an all black town north of Orlando. Finally able to be re-united with his wife and children, John become a prominent preacher and a prosperous carpenter.
Jonah’s Gourd Vine refers to the biblical story of the prophet Jonah and the gourd vine. (Jonah 4:6-10). In the Bible story, the Prophet Jonah sleeps under a gourd vine which grows in a day and shelters him from the sun. A worm comes along and eats the gourd vine, leaving Jonah exposed. Most critics view John Pearson’s marriage to Lucy and his prosperous career as a minister as being the comforting gourd vine. Pearson’s sins, especially his affairs with other women, are the worm which destroys the fragile sanctuary of his marriage and career.
The Prophet Jonah asleep under the Gourd vine.
Just like John Pearson, Hurston’s father had remarried soon after the death of her mother. Hurston’s step mother was a cruel women who forced Hurston and her sister from the home. Lucy Potts, the character modeled on Hurston’s real life mother Lucy, is presented as a tragic figure who stayed loyal to her husband through all of his adulterous affairs and abusive behavior. On her death bed, Lucy says that she has been to sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. In the novel, John’s gold digging second wife, Hattie, brings him nothing but trouble and causes John to loose his position as a pastor. (Hattie goes to the local hoodoo “root doctor” to be able to cast a spell on John to make him love her and stay with her).
Although John tries to reform and is given another chance at a happy and prosperous life with his third wife, Sally, in the end his sinful and weak nature win out and lead to his death. Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a great work of American literature.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891 - 1960) was one of the black artists who formed the so-called “Harlem Renaissance” and was a novelist, playwright and anthropologist. Dying in poverty and anonymity in 1960, Hurston's work was re-discovered by students of literature and black feminist artists like Alice Walker, who found Hurston’s unmarked grave and put a marker on it proclaiming Hurston “A Genius of the South.”
I read Jonah’s Gourd Vine in the Library of America edition of Hurston’s novels and selected short stories. Highly recommended. There is definitely more Zora Neale Hurston to come on The Eclectic Reader.
Pax Et Bonum.