Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a story that admonishes the consequences of excessive philandering. Infused with profound imageries of the Reconstruction era in American history, Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a revision of life in the rustic South where the law of civiliter mortuus was still extant during Reconstruction and its aftermath.
Civiliter Mortuus was a law promulgated in 1875 that declared Blacks to have no civil rights, so any black man seen without a note indicating that he had a job was liable to be arrested. In fact, Jonah’s Gourd Vine is at once a novel that reveals the dark and the humane, the treacherous and the loyal as well as the good and the diabolic. The novel is also an examination, even an affirmation of the mastery of oral tradition and all its nuances by black preachers. Most importantly, Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a cautionary tale that explores familial relationships and the consequences of adultery, even as the switching of gender roles renders the novel a prequel to Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Depiction of the cautionary elements of the novel is portrayed in the relationship between Rev. John Pearson and his wife, Lucy. A Cautionary Tale is defined as a narration in folklore that warns of imminent danger if forbidden acts are perpetrated. Indeed, a cautionary tale also sees the violator of the forbidden act coming to an unpleasant and grisly end. Rev. John Pearson succeeds in Eatonville with the staunch and unflinching support of his wife, Lucy. At apogee moments of Rev. Pearson’s career as pastor, however, he becomes notorious for his philandering. His womanizing is an open secret at Eatonville, but anytime his wife, Lucy, confronts him about it, Rev. Pearson denies it vehemently. In the end, Lucy gets so worried that she dies prematurely.
However, if a woman leads him to succeed, a woman perniciously contributes to his downfall and eventual demise, as Hattie condones and connives with Deacon Harris to dismantle the fortress of reverence and near invincibility that Reverend Pearson has built for himself among his 700-strong congregation members in Eatonville. In fact, Rev. Pearson fails to establish boundaries of limitations in his role as pastor. His refusal to demarcate the polar binaries of pastor and carpenter and negotiate them successfully brings about his tragic end when he is killed by a freight train in a car he is driving.
Before Their Eyes, There Was Jonah’s Gourd
The hermeneutical and poetic extrapolation of Jonah’s Gourd Vine is profoundly intertextualized in Hurston’s second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, even if she switched gender roles. In Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Lucy’s mother is antagonistic toward her daughter’s marriage to John Pearson, who gives Lucy her first kiss in as much as Nanny is opposed to Janie Crawford having anything to do with Johnny Taylor. The shifting of gender roles becomes poignant after the kissing episodes. Pearson marries three women in Jonah: Lucy, Hattie, and Sally, but in Their Eyes, Janie marries three times to Logan Killicks, Joe Starks, and Vergible Teacake Woods. In Jonah, Lucy dies of colon disease after twenty-two years of marriage to Pearson whereas Jodie Stark dies of kidney failure after two decades of marriage to Janie in Their Eyes. In addition, both protagonists face the wrath of the court system; Pearson is taken to court by his second wife, Hattie, for divorce proceedings, and Janie faces a jury of her peers after inevitably shooting Woods in an act of self-defense.
Both novels have themes of conquest as their protagonists travel to Eatonville where they achieve a measure of success. Finally, while Pearson dies in an accident on his way back home, Janie succeeds in a safe return home where she narrates her adventure to her bosom friend, Pheoby, on the former’s porch. Furthermore, strategically, Hurston infuses Jonah with hymns and sermons to cement the cautionary verve of the novel.
Biblical Allusion in the Gourd’s Vine
Interestingly, Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a biblical allusion that signifies the comfort and pain of Jonah, as John’s vine is infiltrated by Hattie who becomes the wind that blows the leaves from Reverend John Pearson’s vine that results in his fall from grace to mortification. In her characteristic trademark of using death to redeem the pain of her characters, both Lucy and John are redeemed as such. Thus, from its eschatological imaginary through the Reconstruction period to the cautionary thread with which Hurston sewed the fabric of her debut novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine is, indeed, an allegorical African American cautionary tale that warns of the consequences of excessive philandering, especially by those who should know better: preachers.