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In a sense, Wendell Berry's novel is an elegy for that which has been sacrificed and lost, such as respect for the environment, true love of God and fellow man, and an idealization of womanhood.
Jayber Crow, the protagonist, returns from the seminary where he has had a "crisis of faith" to his home of Port William in order to work as the town's sexton, gravedigger, and barber. While Crow's love of God has not diminished, he finds some of the tenets of formalized religion difficult to accept, if not also restrictive.
As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one....out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.
These words of Crow also indicate his love for the community of Port William, Kentucky. Because he truly wishes to help people without the restrictions dictated by belonging to a religious sect, Crow becomes the "listener" to the rural residents after drifting from town to town. For, he knows that no one can follow any "predictable" path. Therefore, Jayber Crow exemplifies the "greatest love" as Christ has termed it, that of Charity. Certainly, his act of returning to his home town with the intentions of staying there indicates that he cares for the area and its residents. As the barber and "listener," especially, Crow demonstrates his charitable nature.
Too good a person to interfere in the marriage of Troy Chatham and Mattie Keith, whom he still loves, Jayber watches from a distance as Chatham destroys the farm that Mattie's father has bequeathed to her through his greed and efforts to expand his profits. In his efforts for increased production, Chatham extends himself financially and cannot repay his debts; instead, he is only responsible for environmental destruction. Having witnessed these errors of Chatham, Crow observes,
The new way of farming was a way of dependence, not on land and creatures and neighbors, but on machines and fuel and chemicals of all sorts, bought things, and on the sellers of bought things--which made it finally a dependence on credit.
Further, Jayber Crow's remark that "[T]o love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain" applies both to his love for the land that he would never have exploited, and to his unrequited love of Mattie. Crow also reflects on his love from a distance of Mattie,
Sometimes I knew in all my mind and heart why I had done what I had done, and I welcomed the sacrifice. But there were times too when I lived in a desert and felt no joy and saw no hope and could not remember my old feelings. Then I lived by faith alone, faith without hope.
What good did I get from it? I got to have love in my heart.
In a further reflection upon life at Port William and the loss of good farm land and loves, Crow observes,
In a sense, nothing that was ever lost in Port William ever has been replaced. In another sense, nothing is ever lost, and we are compacted together forever, even by our failures, our regrets, and our longings.”
Indubitably, the author shares with his character Jayber Crow a tremendous respect and love for the land. He hopes that people will return to the philosophy of former farmers who loved deeply a land on which they depended for sustenance, a land on which they toiled for hours, often using their hands to hold the rich earth which presented them gifts of bounty.
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