Jayber Crow Summary
by Wendell Berry

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Jayber Crow

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In this rich, pastoral novel, Wendell Berry tells the story of Jayber Crow, orphan and divinity student, who returns home to Port William, Kentucky, after college to live out a quiet bachelorhood as town barber, church sexton, and gravedigger, witnessing the changes in rural Southern life caused by the decline of traditional farming and the rise of agribusiness. A quiet man and a good listener, Jayber recalls the lives of his friends and neighbors, particularly Troy Chatham and Mattie Keith, childhood sweethearts who marry although they are hopelessly mismatched. Jayber loves Mattie from afar in an old-fashioned, chivalric way, but can only watch as she endures an unhappy marriage.

The major theme in Jayber Crow continues to be the contrast between sustainable agriculture and modern farming practices that destroy both land and community. Berry is especially critical of farmers like Troy Chatham who went heavily into debt during the 1970’s to finance farm expansion, but who got caught in the trap of inflation, high interest rates, and soaring energy costs, leaving them unable to repay their debts. Troy mismanages the farm that his wife Mattie had inherited from her parents, Athey and Della Keith, who represented the best qualities of the traditional agricultural order.

In a parable of greed and environmental destruction, Mattie eventually loses her homestead to Troy’s reckless overexpansion. The loss of the Keith homestead becomes a symbol of what has happened to the American family farm, in the South and elsewhere, through misguided agricultural policies. Despite Mattie’s losses, Jayber Crow presents an elegiac celebration of the redemptive power of love and community.