Jonah's Gourd Vine
is the debut novel of Zora Neale Hurston, which tells the semi-autobiograpical account of her father's fall from grace and her family's subsequent move from Alabama to the small town of Eatonville, Florida, where she was raised. Though not one of her more famous works, Jonah's Gourd Vine
earned Hurston enough success to provide her the stability to produce her later novels, including the famous book Their Eyes Were Watching God,
which was written four years later.
The novel begins with the main character John Buddy Pearson, who is raised in a share-cropping family in Notasulga, Alabama. John's parents are Amy and Ned Crittendon, and Ned hates John because he is mulatto and, unlike the other two boys in the family, not his biological son. Ned is also a heavy drinker, and the family lives the life of most share-cropping families after emancipation – one of relative hopelessness, poverty, and struggle. When Ned beats Amy during a bout of heavy drinking, sixteen-year-old John knocks him down. Terrified of his step-father's rage, John is forced to flee.
John finds work and a life of relative comfort on Judge Alf Pearson's plantation. Hurston soon reveals that Judge Pearson is John's biological father, and so John is given responsibility on the plantation that he might not otherwise have received. John uses this opportunity to begin a number of love affairs with women, a trait that will haunt him until his dying day.
During this period, John falls in love with well-to-do Lucy Potts, who encourages him to use his new privileges to go to school so that he can better understand her. The two fall madly in love, and after a month of dating they decide to get married, much to the chagrin of Lucy's parents who can tell that John will cause Lucy trouble. Soon, John returns to his life as a playboy, and his peace is destroyed when Lucy's brother blackmails John after he discovers that he's cheating on Lucy. John assaults his brother-in-law and is forced to flee again, this time to Florida, where he later calls for Lucy and their three young children.
In Eatonville, Florida, the family find short-lived hope again. John finds his calling as a preacher for the Zion Hope Church, and eventually becomes so well-respected in town that he is elected mayor of Eatonville. Lucy supports John's ambitions in the church and in politics, and offers him advice along the way. But John's character flaws again come back to bite him. He begins his philandering again, and is beginning to lose his shining reputation in the community when Lucy passes away, and he loses his only support system. Without her guidance, John falls even further from grace, choosing to marry the woman with whom he had an affair and then divorcing her promptly after he discovers that she believes in and practices Hoodoo folk magic.
The book comes to a close with John's third marriage. By now his place in the community has been utterly destroyed, and he has lost his job with the church. Though married again, John finds another woman to seduce. The book ends after the pair return from their tryst, when John is hit by a train while driving back home to his wife.
In Jonah's Gourd Vine
, Hurston tells the loosely disguised story of her parents, who migrated from their home in Alabama to northern Florida and struggled to find meaning and success in the new South. The book's title comes from the biblical verse Jonah 4:6-10:6, in which God provides Jonah a plant to cover his face and help him sleep, which makes Jonah incredibly happy. In the morning, God sends a worm to eat the plant, and a hot wind blows and the sun beats down on Jonah. Jonah asks God to bring him death, because he is so angry about the loss of his plant. In response, God tells him to be thankful for the bit of peace that was offered him, which he did not work for, and which can and should be taken away as easily as it was given. Like Jonah, John was not appreciative of the opportunities given to him which pulled him out of poverty, and instead chose to be angry over the losses he brought upon himself with his immoral, adulterous behavior.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama and moved in 1894 to Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black town in the United States, which would become the setting for many of her stories and novels. She was educated at Howard University and Barnard College, and was the author of many prominent books of African-American literature. She also studied and published research on African-American folklore and Haitian Voodoo, which she studied intensely in her travels around the Caribbean and the southern United States. Hurston is one of the most prominent African American authors in America. literature, and was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s.