In The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry Anthony Esolen notes that Berry’s longest Port William novel, Jayber Crow, is in many ways a modern day retelling of Dante. Berry’s own language throughout the book suggests the comparison, as his narrator, the novel’s subject and namesake, makes frequent mention of “the Dark Wood of Error.” What’s more, it’s hard not to note the similarities in Jayber’s relationship to Mattie and Dante’s to Beatrice–in both cases the story’s narrator is drawn to God via the love he has toward a godly woman he will only know from a distance. To understand the broader argument, you should just buy the book.
But here I want to focus on the particular question of what specifically brings about Jayber’s conversion and what exactly Jayber is converting to. The setting of the novel is mid 20th century small town Kentucky, particularly the small town of Port William. The novel’s narrator and protagonist, Jayber Crow, is a seminary dropout and barber who is in his early 40s and has been back in the Port William area for about 20 years. In the opening scenes of the novel, we meet a character who embodies the independent spirit we often associate with Kentucky. In one scene he describes sitting in a classroom at the orphanage where he grew up, staring out the window, longing to be out in a field instead of sitting in a stuffy classroom going over boring lessons.
In another scene, the young Crow actually makes a run for it and gets some distance from the school before the headmaster, who bears the the wonderfully Dickensian name “Brother Whitespade,” sees him and chases him down, dragging him back to the school. Crow describes his deep-seated fear of sitting at the foot of a desk staring up at his superior and so “the man behind the desk” becomes a shorthand in the novel for all things modern, bureaucratic, and confining. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the decisions made by Jayber in the novel’s early days are built around resisting the man behind the desk and protecting his own independence and autonomy at any cost
Once Jayber settles down in Port William, he mostly maintains this same independence of spirit. He keeps flexible hours, often going off on long walks or trips into the woods. He leaves a sign in the window that indicates what time he’ll return, except the hands on the clock pictured on the sign are permanently stuck pointing at 6:30. At one point Jayber reasons that this isn’t an altogether bad arrangement, as it doesn’t specify 6:30 am or pm, nor does it specify a certain day on which he’ll be back. The sign allows Jayber to be honest with his patrons, in a manner of speaking, without curbing his independence.
That’s the fundamental tension of the book in many ways. Jayber recognizes the moral duties associated with living within a “membership,” yet he struggles under those duties, which he often experiences as burdens, because they threaten his independence. (The speech he gives in Berry’s much older novel A Place on Earth hints at this same independence–once Jayber gets a drink in him it becomes quite plain that he isn’t like the people in Port William and he doesn’t think much of their religious life. Jayber can make his criticisms of Port William and those criticisms can be precisely right. But the manner in which he makes them, the way in which he understands his connection to the place and the people, can be all wrong.)
And that brings us to the novel’s pivotal scene, which takes place in a bar near Hargrave, a larger town down the road from Port William. Jayber is there with a woman named Clydie, his on-again-off-again romantic partner who we frequently see him with throughout the first half of the book. It’s around Christmastime when they have the party. In order to get to events like this one, Jayber owns a small car–and he takes good care of it so as to avoid having to buy another one or entrust it’s care to a man who will demand money from him to fix it. That car is Jayber’s way of keeping one foot on the road, of protecting himself from laying down roots too deeply in Port William.
His relationship with Clydie functions in largely the same way–they get a consumptive pleasure out of being together, yet there is no sacrificial love involved, no voluntary giving of the self wholly to the other, and no commitment, which implies a sacrifice of freedom or, more properly, autonomy or independence. They have no plans to marry and certainly no plans to have children. Clydie is simply a sexual partner for whom Jayber feels some measure of affection and devotion and is, conveniently, another tie to the world beyond Port William. She, like his car, is a means of saving himself from fully committing to the life of Port William.
But then something happens at the bar that Jayber did not expect. A number of couples are dancing, including Jayber and Clydie. And as they dance, Jayber notices another Port William man across the hall, Troy Chatham. Chatham is the villain of the story, a vain, strutting peacock of a man who married a woman far too good for him, Mattie Keith. And the woman he is dancing with now at this tavern is not Mattie. In a moment, Jayber and Troy make eye contact. Troy then hooks his fingers to signal “it’s OK” at Jayber and then winks at him, as if saying “hey, you have your fun, I have mine.
And the thought that strikes Jayber like a thunderbolt is the horrifying fear that he and Troy are the same. Then Jayber thinks of Mattie, not Mattie at home with the children that evening, but Mattie on a previous day Jayber had seen her, delightedly playing with the children, sacrificially giving herself to them, yet not experiencing it as a sacrifice, but as a joy
I had thought many times of her as I had seen her then, with the children so completely admitted into her affection and her presence—as, I thought, a man might be if he wholly loved her, if she wholly trusted him, a man who would come to her as trustful and heart-whole as a little child. I had thought of a flower opening among dark foliage, and of a certain butterfly whose wings, closed, looked like brown leaves but, opened, were brilliant and lovely like nothing but themselves.
From that day forward, several things changed in Jayber. He ended his relationship with Clydie. He sold his car. And he committed himself to the life of Port William. What Jayber recognized in the aftermath of that night is that in Mattie and Troy he saw two different ways of life embodied.
Troy’s was the way of the dreamer, constantly chasing the next big thing, which was typically either the next big profit or the next big tool to enable him to chase the next big profit. He was restless, always moving frenetically from task to task, building up an empire built purely on money, which functionally meant an empire built up on debt, which, again, functionally means an empire built on obligation and the coercive threats associated with fulfilling those obligations. There is no place left for affection or love in his empire because these are not efficient. There is no place for rest or contentment because they cost money in terms of lost opportunity and lost work.
To borrow from Tree of Life, Troy’s is the way of nature and “nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.” After seeing Troy look at him, grin and signal “OK” to him, Jayber realized he didn’t know that he wasn’t just like Troy.
At the very least, he was the sort of man Troy could comprehend, or at least thought he could comprehend–and that was enough to tell Jayber he had to change. And what did he need to become? He needed to become more like Mattie, Troy’s faithful wife–and faithful in more than just her relationship to Troy. Mattie is defined by one of the great themes of Berry’s fiction, that of fidelity. She is faithful to her husband, but also, as much as her fidelity to her husband allowed her to be, to her father and mother and her children and the land that her family owned and stewarded. Mattie’s tragedy is that these fidelities, which ought to have strengthened and reinforced one another were all too often thrown into conflict by Troy’s all-consuming ambition. Mattie’s is the way of grace. And so as Jayber reflects on who he is and what he must become, landing on the idea that he must become the faithful husband that Mattie has never had.
That idea of being a husband to a woman that is not your wife can sound odd to readers. But it’s actually making a significant point: The world of grace, the world that Mattie lives in, is a world grounded in the imagery and reality of marriage. It is in mutual sacrifice and mutual giving that the mutual good is realized. The entire life of Port William is only possible within the bonds of marriage, the marriages between men and women but also between human beings and the place, through the unreserved, whole-hearted giving of the self to serve the object of one’s love and affection.
The tragedy for Mattie–and for Port William–is that she is married to a person with no regard for (or understanding of) marriage. And so the life of the Chatham family, the Keith family, and of Port William is threatened and harmed by the greedy and ambition of Troy, which literally divorces the community from its place and from each other. By committing himself to be Mattie’s “husband” Jayber is attempting to address that threat. He will never share a home with her, won’t comfort her in her sorrow or repair the damage done to the Keith place by her husband, but through his affection for the things Mattie loves and his fidelity to them, Jayber is able to repair some of the damage, beginning with the damage to himself.
The striking thing about this movement toward healing is how pervasive it truly is. Berry is often dismissed by conservatives as a naive environmentalist crank, but those who read his novels have learned that he is a much deeper, more careful thinker than he is often given credit for. The problem that Jayber perceives is two-fold: First, that he himself might be like Troy Chatham. Second, that Troy Chatham is doing harm to the life of Port William. A less careful—or more stereotypically modern thinker—would look at this problem and likely adopt a few methods of addressing it. First, in seeking personal healing he would go down the road of self help and therapeutic talk, seeking to diagnose the problem in medical terms. Second, he would seek to adopt some sort of blunt, direct (and almost certainly state-sanctioned) method of dealing with Troy. “There oughta be a law,” he would say. And so he would begin the work of writing to his congressman, calling his local representatives on the state level, and seeing a therapist, all in the hopes of being healed individually and seeing the destructive actions of Troy Chatham checked.
But Berry is not taken in by such obvious (and useless) approaches to individual or social renewal. Jayber recognizes that there is a spiritual problem deep within himself. The problem is not even with his theology per se—10 years prior to the scene at the tavern in Jayber Crow there is a scene in A Place on Earth in which Jayber gives a speech that sums up Berry’s theology quite well. So the problem for Jayber isn’t really what he believes. The problem runs much deeper, down to his affections. He cherishes his independence more than anything else—which is why he owns the car, why he keeps a woman outside of Port William, why he refuses to open a bank account and instead keeps all his cash in various places in his small room above his barbershop—which he owns outright.
An orphan from his earliest memories, Jayber is unaccustomed to seeing his neighbors as neighbors. The ones he trusts and love leave—as with the elderly couple that took him in for a time after his parents died—and the other ones try to control him and lord it over him. Early in the novel he describes his revulsion at sitting before a man behind a desk who is able to control him.
To some extent, this approach to life serves Jayber well. If he were easily impressed by the claims of authority or easily cowed into submission by every wing nut who claims to be a Very Important Person then he would never have returned to Port William, would never have found the life that he did. It is a good thing to not be easily impressed by unknown authorities. And yet the dark side of this is that it has made Jayber so independent that he doesn’t fully know his place, doesn’t know the people in it, and doesn’t love them as he ought. What’s more, it has made him, like Troy, a danger to that place due to his refusal to give himself to it while taking a great deal from it. This is why Jayber responds to the problem in the way that he does. He gets rid of his car and his casual sexual relationship he had with a woman that he did, to some degree, really love. He begins to live a quieter life, observing the rhythms of Port William more closely and giving himself to the town more fully, as he ends up doing multiple times for Mattie as the story continues.
In this sense, Jayber Crow is a story of how one man learned to love. That, of course, sounds syrupy and sentimental to us moderns who have grown up on hallmark cards and made-for-TV movies. But it’s the manner of the learning that is important. The love Jayber learns to practice is an extremely physical love grounded in practical acts of devotion that sometimes by their very nature require that he not do things he deeply desires to do. Learning to love Port William and the people in it did not consist of an emotional attachment to it or in being authentic about his feelings toward it. It meant disciplining himself in such a way that promoted the health and life of Port William. That’s a valuable lesson for jaded millennials who have been burned by so many different types of communities—family, small towns, friends, or churches–and who have learned from that that they should keep to themselves and not give of themselves to freely to any group or institution.
There’s a moment in Jayber Crow where Jayber says that Port William will break your heart if you let it. Berry’s novel is in large part an explanation of how one man learned to do that and why it was so vital that he do so.