The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Hurston takes a stock figure from African American literature and lore, the folk preacher, and imbues him with real human characteristics in a successful effort to show the character as a human being, subject to the same strengths, weaknesses, and shortcomings of other human beings rather than as a godlike being who is unaffected by human frailties. Also, because Hurston relies heavily on details from her personal experience—Jonah’s Gourd Vine is loosely based on her parents’ biographies—the characters are all the more real and compelling.

The characters are presented in a more or less straightforward narrative manner; there are few if any experimental techniques. The central characters, John Pearson and his wife Lucy, are presented as complex, wholly believable characters with tragic flaws that prove, especially in John’s case, to be their undoing.

The plot is likewise developed in a linear fashion. Although the ending—with John’s death after he is struck by a locomotive—seems gratuitous and melodramatic, it is nevertheless believable within the context of the story.

John Pearson is presented as a man with many conflicts; however, it is his uncheckable tendency to be a “man amongst women” that is presented as so incompatible with his role as pastor of a Baptist congregation. His inability, perhaps his refusal, to control his sexual appetite leads to his downfall....

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

John Pearson

John Pearson, a black minister and carpenter. He grows up on a Southern sharecropper’s farm with his mother, his stepfather, and his two younger brothers. Increasing difficulties with his stepfather force John to leave the farm when he is sixteen years old. On the advice of his mother, he goes to Judge Pearson, who employs him and gives him clothes, along with changing John’s last name from Crittenden to Pearson. John is tall and light-skinned, with gray eyes and curly hair. He is powerfully built and handsome. Soon he discovers that he is unable to control his sexual appetite. He has designs on Lucy Potts, the daughter of a well-to-do family. After they are married, John’s philandering does not cease. One night when he is out, Lucy’s brother, Bud, comes to collect a debt. Finding no money, he takes the bed that Judge Pearson gave the couple as a wedding present. When John returns, he whips Bud severely and must flee to escape prosecution and possible lynching. He goes to Sanford, Florida, and soon sends for his wife and children. He becomes a successful carpenter and later feels the call to preach. As pastor of Sanford’s Zion Hope Baptist Church, John becomes a powerful figure in the community and the state. His philandering nevertheless continues. Soon after Lucy dies, John marries Hattie Tyson, who ruins his life, sues him for divorce, and is the catalyst for his leaving the ministry. John then goes to Plant City, Florida, where he meets and marries well-to-do widow Sally Lovelace and becomes the pastor of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church. John lives in relative bliss and prosperity until he visits Sanford at Sally’s urging. While he is in Sanford, John’s sexual weakness leads him to give in to a young woman’s advances. Disgusted with himself, John flees with his guilt back to Sally but is struck and killed by a train...

(The entire section is 764 words.)