The most recent natural disaster spreads itself across your news feed while coverage has preempted the day’s programming on NPR. A grizzled, rheumy-eyed man reeking of alcohol sticks out his hand and cobbles together a story of need. A blog post about the refugee crisis sets you to wondering if there’s anything practical your family, your church, or your community could be doing.
Human need on repeat.
By the end of the day, numbness has wallpapered itself over urgency, and a few chapters from a novel or an hour or two of Netflix-valium convinces you it’s impossible for one person to respond to it all. You have work to do, a life to live. Is it even wise to let the stories of others trouble your heart?
In Chapters 21-23, Jayber Crow makes the choice to let his heart be troubled by events in his community. He reaches into the past for backstory while also taking notice of the continual narrative arc of the Port William Membership. He takes a good hard look at his own role in the community and then follows through on a decision to enter into the heartbreak of others.
Who’s the Main Character in this Story, Anyway?
Athey Keith? The eponymous narrator disappears from the action for a time as Chapter 21 follows hard on the heels of Athey’s stand against racism and his soft-spoken conclusion that “if we can’t live together we can’t live atall.” It provides insight to the kind of home that produced Athey’s character, and also sheds light on the awakening of empathy in a young boy who had just had the pudding scared out of him, but still managed to feel sorry for one of his persecutors. We begin to see how Athey became the man who could put a stop to a loafer’s persecution of “Woger Woberts” but who decided to brook the antics of his abrasive son-in-law in order to preserve family harmony.
Troy and Mattie Chatham? Troy’s unfaithfulness to Mattie is chief among the happenings Jayber allows to trouble his heart. In the spirit of “know your enemy,” Jayber has pegged Troy as a man with no margins and is able to pin point with confidence the event that likely precipitated Troy’s adulterous choice. (232) At “the cold downward end of 1954,” the story of Jayber and Clydie’s romantic evening is swallowed up in Jayber’s sickening realization that he is no different from Troy in his philandering ways. The story’s flow returns to Jayber as he repents at leisure on the long walk from Hargrave to Port William, and Part II comes to a close with Jayber’s momentous choice that shapes the remainder of the book.
The Way of Love
Jayber was unsure at the outset whether the way that was opening up before him was more like a door — or a wound. Trying to convince himself that he knew who he was, he devised a dubious syllogism as he ruined his dress shoes while keeping to the “darker side of the difference” on the slushy path home:
(1) Mattie has an unfaithful husband;
(2) She needs a faithful husband;
(3) Jayber will be the faithful husband Mattie deserves.
In effect, Jayber made (and ended up keeping!) a vow of celibacy for Mattie’s sake. When Jayber referred to himself as “an ignorant pilgrim crossing a dark valley” (133), who would have suspected that the bachelor barber of Port William would embark upon a pilgrimage that would, for him at least, transcend time?
[L]ove, sooner or later, forces us out of time…. It includes the world and time as a pregnant woman includes her child whose wrongs she will suffer and forgive…. I saw that Mattie was not merely desirable, but desirable beyond the power of time to show…. Like every living creature, she carried in her the presence of eternity. That was why, as she grew older, I saw in her always the child she had been, and why, looking at her when she was a child, I felt the influence of the woman she would be. (248)
With Jayber’s vow in mind, we begin to see the art behind his choosing when he selected “the proper handful” of story elements from the “granary full of wheat” that comprised the details of his life. (29) This is what he meant when he referred to Mattie as part of his “future,” not yet imagined (62), and when he knelt beside her at her young daughter’s grave and called this “his calling in this world.” (207)
Whatever your opinion of Jayber’s devotion to Mattie, one thing is certain: We become like what we behold. While he was obsessed with Troy’s annoying qualities and his hold over Mattie, Jayber began to realize that he and Troy were brothers in a way that was horrifying. Once his attention was turned truly toward the object of his devotion (rather than his rival), Jayber’s heart opened up to all the things Mattie loved, and he seemed to find a new sense of belonging and a settledness that had escaped him before:
Before, I had yearned for company, especially the company of women, and gone seeking it. Now I no longer went seeking, but taught myself (and not always easily) to make do with the company that came…. Now, finally, I really had lost all desire for change, every last twinge of the notion that I ought to get somewhere or make something of myself. I was what I was. “I will stand like a tree,” I thought, “and be in myself as I am.” And the things of Port William seemed to stand around me, in themselves as they were. (254)
Though I was divided from the female society of Port William as much as before, I did not feel estranged from it as before. I was involved, a participant. The community I lived in and served by my unillustrious yet needful work was Mattie’s community also…. We were thus joined. I lived as I thought she did: hoping for good, reconciled to the bad, welcoming the little unexpected happinesses that came.” (259)
Jayber becomes rooted in the community through borrowed family ties that could never become more than a longing.
Questions to Carry with Us
Has the desire to be different from someone you despised ever served as a powerful motivation for a change in your own life?
A self-giving love that can never be declared to its object is a death to self that would be unthinkable to me. Jayber’s prayer to “know in [his] heart [God’s] love for the world” is his gateway to suffering. Is this why we shelter ourselves, averting our eyes from the pain of the world? How much courage would it take to love the world as God loves? I believe Jayber was on his way to truth with this insight: “. . . [A] man might so love this world that it would break his heart.” (254)
Did you notice that Jayber seized another opportunity to expand upon “barbership” as a “privileged position?” (231) As the man behind the chair, he became privy to details that served as puzzle pieces in putting together the story of the Port William Membership.
I found his observations on the connection between woe and comedy (231) to be particularly poignant, and especially accurate for that post-war era — and maybe our own? Further down the page, he notes that trouble served to bring a tenderness to Athey, “a suffering he neither complained of nor denied.” I confess to being weak in this area, with a low tolerance for suffering, for woe, and, particularly, for silence. Maybe we citizens of the 21st century need to join Port William in savoring our own comedy?
Now It’s Your Turn . . .
I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts as we forge ahead into Part III. Be sure to share links to any blog posts you write on Jayber Crow or related topics. Last week, the conversations were both lively and insightful, and I loved finding threads that continued over at the shared posts.
I’ll be back here next week having read Chapters 24-26.
Here’s the schedule for upcoming discussion posts:
Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32
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24 thoughts on “Let It Trouble Your Heart: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (8)”
Hooray for being featured on Chasing Community. Love reading your posts always.
Thanks, Debbie! That was such a surprise!
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You help clarify the happenings in Jayber’s life, Michele! Thank you!
I’m *almost* past being creeped out by Jayber’s love for Mattie. Keeping it silently, and being so changed by his love for the better certainly help. Piecing together what Jayber was experiencing in these chapters was difficult for me! Your point that “we become like” really helped bring that idea home and give more meaning to the story. I can think of several times someone else’s despised behavior or choices motivated a change in me— but can’t think of any I’d choose to share about apart from private conversation : )
Athey has become one of my favorite characters!
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Yes, I so enjoy Jayber’s admiration and love for Athey. He’s such a great character. The chapter that featured him could have stood alone as a short story, but it also gave such valuable insight to Berry’s development of him. I have such admiration for fiction writers.
Thanks, Bethany, for persevering in this project. I can’t believe how close we’re getting to its conclusion!
Wish I could have read this with you, Michele. It looks like a great read. Thankful for you and your diligence and example to the writing community, friend. You’re a blessing. ❤ Congrats on winning the drawing this week. If you can send me your info, I'll get your journal right out to you! xoxo
PM’ed you on FB with my address. Thanks for the reminder.
Oh, yes, I have realized many times through my life that the very thing that is frustrating me in someone, is the thing that is so similar in my own heart! I am glad that you brought together so many good thoughts here this week. It was a hard section for me! While I so appreciated Jayber’s change of heart toward the depth of love and then God’s Love in the process, I am not sure that I can fully concur with his outcome. My coming alongside those who are suffering must include my sharing of Jesus for them. I felt that Jayber’s love of Mattie contained within it a sort of hoarding into himself. Even though I was so touched by his willingness to finally admit that he was joined with those in his community, I was spurred on and convicted to be more willing to then give Jesus myself. So, yes, I guess you could say that even here, Jayber’s lifestyle brought conviction of the same to me! So, here’s my post this week: https://raseasons.blogspot.com/2017/10/life-life-and-more-life.html
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Me too, Bettie. I’ve had many lessons in the form of “bad examples” chosen against. As I read your words, it occurred to me that the most effective approach for Jayber to have taken would have been to have offered up Mattie and his love for her, to have come outside himself, and invested all the faithfulness in an actual wife — or failing that in some other person or passion. Of course this is not the thing that good fiction thrives on is it? Looking forward to reading and sharing your post, Bettie!
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I appreciate your pulling these thoughts together, Michele, some I also had and some that were new to me. I knew that we become like what we behold, but that hadn’t clicked with me in Jayber and Mattie’s relationship, but I do see it now. In the middle of reading Jayber’s discussion with himself about becoming Mattie’s undeclared faithful husband, it just seemed really weird to me. It was interesting to see how it played out in the long run. One article I saw even proposed that redemption through unrequited love was the theme of the book, much like Sydney Carton’s story line in A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t know if I’d say that’s the whole theme, but it’s certainly an element. Too, he admits he might be idealizing his love for her, in that if they were married, they’d have the same exasperations with each other that any married couple has. Then again, he realizes that God’s love for Port William involves loving it in its imperfections.
I had thought off and on throughout the book that Jayber is just too independent for his own good, like when he left the barber shop he was at to come to Port William without even letting his boss or landlady know, and wondered if that was also part of his holding himself aloof from the community, feeling like an outsider, though it’s clear he has friends.
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Hmmm . . . redemption through unrequited love. Interesting. I wonder what Wendell Berry would say to that? I was really glad when he had Jayber realize that he couldn’t whisk Mattie away (and have her still be the same Mattie) or stay in his state of idealism. I agree with you that there are definitely sections of this plot that give me an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach because I can’t turn off my theological sieve.
Jayber definitely “does Jayber” and marches to his own drummer. I wonder how much of it we can “blame” on his background and how much we can chalk up to his being a bachelor who has been accountable to no one for a number of years. (Of course he was still very young when he left the barbershop in the city.)
I think being an unaccountable bachelor explains a lot. My own self-talk can get quite silly. I’m so glad for a wise husband to bounce it off of. He always sets me straight or points me in the right direction as per the Word! Jayber didn’t have anyone to share his thoughts with. He had to write a book! (Ha)
Yes, I’ve said before that I need to talk to myself MORE than I listen to myself — provided that what I’m saying comes from Truth and not from my warped view of the world.
And it was very kind of Wendell Berry to give Jayber a voice. 🙂
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Ha! “because I can’t turn off my theological sieve”(Thx Michele for that admission that I am not alone!) …I have wrestled all week with my response to this weird marriage…My thoughts are here, after having tamed them with a rewrite! https://dictationbydawn.wordpress.com/2017/10/26/jayber-crow-chapters-21-23/
Looking forward to reading this! So glad we can sympathize with one another.
Though these chapters were a bit of a trial for me God saw fit to use them and the circumstances in which I was reading them to convict me of my want of love for others! God’s way of capturing our thoughts and echoing them back to us can be very convicting! So in the end it has been good to process Jayber’s ephiphany of the man he was becoming…It set me thinking about other epiphanies in literature, chiefly REVELATION a short story by Flannery O’Connor. This is a short but classic O’Connor read with a startling finish! Other ephiphanies came to mind as I was writing my own post: https://dictationbydawn.wordpress.com/
Yes, it does seem true that whoever we focus on whether in love or hate we tend to emulate. There is real value in noting behaviors you don’t wish to copy though, as warnings. Jayber certainly illustrates this, and I wonder whether this revelation gave him also a more loving heart toward Troy…or at least a sense of understanding and compassion…
Did anyone else take issue with Mattie’s parents for the way they handled their estate? It seems to me they put more value on the continuation of the farm than on the strength and health of Mattie and Troy’s marriage. It’s one thing to not like the spouse a child chooses. It’s quite another not to support the marriage once it happens.
I’m going to hunt down that Flannery O’Connor story. Thanks for making the connection.
I had not thought of that issue with the the Keith will, but I think you’re right — especially if Jayber is correct in thinking that this is what set Troy on his wrong path. I sympathize with them, but you’re absolutely correct about supporting the marriage.
Brace yourself. But it’s worth getting through the harsh details! O’Connor is a fascinating author–I read a biography about her–a genteel southern lady, Catholic, desperate to get across to the ‘good’ people that surrounded her that they have indeed a sin nature. She went to quite the lengths!
Yes, I went through a “Flannery Stage” quite a few years ago in which I read everything by her and about her that I could get my hands on. I forget why, and I’ve forgotten most of what I read, so I have to go in search of Revelation. One thing I covet is the ability to write good fiction, short or long form. I think it can sometimes teach as well as non-fiction.
And often, fiction can teach better, or at least more memorably! But I have not got the genes for fiction at all… just trying to get some going in a build-a-story-letter-exchange with my 8 year old grandson. It’s an experiment. Will see. It’s in the mail…
What a wonderful Grammy! (Or . . . what do they call you?)
UGH! I had my reply all typed out and then closed foxfire without thinking and it all went away…
I too am acquiring a fondness for Athey. He is full of wisdom and well respected as a town father of the community. I also get the idea he may be a bit of a funny little fellow. My heart aches for his childhood story…how could a child do a man’s job when liquor was involved? But his father’s homecoming and realization that Athey couldn’t have done anything more than what he had done also tells from where his character comes.
The wake up call of the evilish wink from Troy at the dance. To realize the similarities between him and his nemesis OUCH! No wonder he high tailed it out of there and no wonder that realization sent him away from all things not Port William.
This strange love affair from afar is leaving me befuddled and a bit queasy myself. It seems to be more belonging, yet not belonging, as he can never be belong to Mattie, and she can never know of his admiration for her. Jayber not only idolizes Mattie, but he adulterizes her too in his vow to be her faithful husband. No matter what Troy has done, he is still her husband. I wonder what she would have thought of this whole affair if she had known about it. I also wonder what Athey would have thought…
This affair of the heart does somehow bring him into a morality that he didn’t have prior. But there’s a far difference between morality and religion. I think the statement he makes about Port William lends some insight to his thought process. He doesn’t have any high expectations of Port William becoming more than what it is and he projects his thoughts to what he believes God must think on the matter as well “Why else should he want it (Port William) to be better than it is?” But this is weak theology (a trait often seen in Jayber’s life). God does want us to come as we are, but he doesn’t desire us to stay where where are. With the blood of the Cross and the Holy Spirit we can grow in sanctification and we can always be changed for the better.
Looking forward to continuing…I’m learning and growing from Jayber.
Sorry about the FoxFire snafu. Computers are great . . . until they are not. It was clever of Berry to bring Jayber into the Keith home to care for Athey in the midst of this angst.
There’s no doubt that Jayber has picked and chosen characteristics of God that he prefers. In fact I was reading today (maybe chapter 29) and in one breath he says he supports a plain reading of Scripture, while at the same time advocating for a private faith that doesn’t bother anyone, when Scripture describes a “go and tell” following.
I think Jayber represents the camp of “burned believers” who also hold to an “unorganized” religion because of some negative experience with the church in their past.
That last sentence makes me smile. So glad that good is coming from this reading-together project.
And thanks for persevering in sharing your thoughts here, Christy.
Absolutely agreed Michele, Jayber does seems to represent the camp of “burned believers” and no wonder with his experience at Good Shepherd.
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We were out of town last week so I am just catching up on posts and emails. Love this post and the conversation, but since I am still finding where I am after being away a week I will not muddle into the discussion with my foggy brain!😂
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