Wendell Berry

Jayber Crow

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Jayber Crow Summary

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Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow is as much a novel of ideologies as it is compelling fiction. The protagonist, Jayber Crow of the title, is a resident of the fictional town Port William, Kentucky, where much of the novel is played out. Crow has abandoned thoughts of entering the ministry, deciding instead to become the town barber. When the narrative begins, Crow has been back in Port William for about twenty years and is now in his mid-40s. He is an independent thinker, a byproduct, perhaps, of losing his parents, his guardians, and being placed in an orphanage at the age of six. The ironclad resolve Berry places in his lead character is indicative in many ways of the kind of drive associated with people from Kentucky.

Despite being taken away as a child, Crow returns to Port William more than a decade later in 1937. What he finds there resonates with him deeply. He is impressed with the spirit of the people he finds there, always willing to lend a hand. The camaraderie compels him to stay despite the solitary nature he developed after years spent in an orphanage. On the other side of that coin, Crow also realizes the effect the postindustrial era has had on Port William and small towns like it. His comments on the subject tend to reflect the thinking of the author himself, “In modern times much of the dong of the mighty has been the undoing of Port William and its kind.” Berry believed this generation’s preoccupation with the innovations of the postindustrial period would adversely affect humanity economically and environmentally. Much of this sentiment is imbued in Crow and the way he conducts himself.

Although Crow abandons the pursuit of the ministry, he doesn’t abandon his faith altogether. He becomes a church official and develops a deep appreciation for nature. He keeps flexible work hours so he can indulge in his love of taking walks in the woods. And he is honest with his customers. Crow keeps a clock on the door of his shop permanently set at 6:30. While the ambiguity of the time was lost on him at first, he eventually began to realize that posting just the time kept him honest. He needs spontaneity, and the freedom to come and go as he pleases.

In many ways, the conflict in the book has as much to do with Jayber himself as it does with the town he lives in. Living in a small community infers a certain kind of order, of polite behavior. Jayber finds himself very much at a crossroads, often having to choose to conform to the norms of his community at the expense of his independence. He struggles to fit in with his neighbors’ expectations, finding them burdensome and tedious. Jayber needs the structure living in a small town provides, but he values his independence just as much. He eventually saves up enough money to by a small car to get him to and from social events at the local bars in town. He keeps it in good condition, and the author makes a point of calling the reader’s attention to the reason. Jayber despises the idea of paying someone to fix his car. He also likes keeping “one foot on the road.” If he’s always got a way out, he will never have to plant himself too deeply into Port William.

Jayber’s experiences in the small town have as much to do with his heart as they do with the social graces of a closely-knit society. He develops a crush on a young woman named Mattie and is devastated when she ends up marrying her high school sweetheart. Troy Chatham, Mattie’s new husband is a less than ideal match for the young girl. Troy uses Mattie’s father for his land and betrays Mattie by cheating on her. The reader observes these events through Jayber’s eyes. So it comes as no surprise that the author uses these observations as an illustration of the breakdown of the family unit and the failing trajectory of small towns in the Midwest. Instead of bellyaching about, he chooses to impart the lessons he’s learned to his customers sitting in his chair, waiting for a haircut or a shave. “The world doesn’t stop because you are in love or mourning or in need of time to think,” Crow observes. His words are a single drop of cold, hard reality—something Jayber understands it is in his best interest to embrace.

The turning point of the story occurs one evening when Jayber is at a local bar with his sometime girlfriend Clydie. On the dance floor, he notices Troy Chatham some distance away with a woman who is not Mattie. The two men lock eyes and Troy gestures to him as if to say “you have your fun, I have mine.” At that moment, Jayber realizes he has more in common with Troy than he thought. While they are definitely not opposite sides of the same coin, they are both trying to eat their cake and have it too. And perhaps the author insinuates a question to the reader, would Jayber eventually end up treating Mattie the same as Troy?

This is the turning point for Jayber. He ends his relationship with Clydie, sells his car, and commits himself fully to life in Port William. Through Troy and Mattie, the author illustrates different ways of looking at life. Jayber can either adopt Troy’s self-serving attitude or embrace Mattie’s faithfulness and commitment. In truth, Berry is making a larger point here about the importance of unity, “marriage” he calls it, the kind between a man and a woman, and the kind between humanity and our environment. Both are of equal importance. Crow’s journey in this narrative, is Berry’s attempt to illustrate just that.