As someone who sees perennial bachelorhood as a societal sickness, recommending Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry might seem counterproductive. Jayber, Berry’s main character in the novel, is a small-town barber that finds himself an “ineligible bachelor,” as he puts it. He never marries, never has kids, and in that way is “free” of the burdens of family. However, Jayber’s life unfolds in a priestly and sacrificial way, celibacy included. As a husband following Jayber’s story, I found myself cherishing my own marriage and seeing the gravity of my role more clearly, and valuing more the priesthood associated with masculinity.
Jayber is orphaned at a young age and finds himself in intuitions that are clearly dehumanizing – first he’s in an orphanage and then a seminary. Both places he sees in contrast to the countryside and its river-based economy of his youth. He especially hates men in authority talking over desks to subordinates. Jayber develops an instinctual trust for organic cultural realities like small towns, agriculture, and families, and a mistrust of powerful, self-referential, and overconfident “authorities” like financiers, agri-businessmen, and politicians. He operates a barbershop for decades but retires to a small cabin on the river after a government inspector informs him that his source of hot water (a kettle on a woodstove) is not considered “running hot water,” as stated by some barber-code Jayber’s never read. His trade continues, though, when he and his community work out an arrangement wherein he gives out free haircuts in his bathroom-less cabin and they give him donations. It’s an example of the spontaneous yet organic ability of real people to work out economic sanity. This backwoods barbershop rebellion is but a continuation of Jayber’s refusal to play the games of the expert and the bureaucrat.
Jayber Crow is frequently compared to Dante’s Inferno, because the story is drawn forward by his love for a woman – Mattie Chatham – that he never possesses, as Dante is pulled toward heaven by the beauty of Beatrice. But I think the priestliness of Jayber is also an apt image that helps us understand the power of the story. Jayber’s priesthood, first of all, is through the fact that he takes in the workworn men of his town and sends them back out, “baptized” in a fresh cut and shave. He speaks of his love for them, and willingly fulfills the “position” of a barber, a real vocation, as one customer puts it contrasting that word with a “line of work”. On the other end of life, he also is the local gravedigger for the town church. As with barbering, this is an eminently practical way to love his community in the sacramentality that Wendell Berry sees in common life. Jayber even at one point has a mystical experience in the church (which, institutionally speaking, he is somewhat distant from) wherein he sees his community – dead and alive – raptured in song and belonging.
But Jayber can also be compared to a priest when he embraces celibacy out of love for Mattie Chatham, the love he never possesses. He even makes a vow, which he is inspired to do after he was on a date with his next-town-over girlfriend (he was not celibate before the vow). During that date he sees Troy, Mattie’s husband, with another woman. As Troy catches Jayber’s eye he gives a sign of comradery, almost seeming to brag that he’s with another woman in a freedom like Jayber’s. Jayber knew Mattie to be one of the purest signs of beauty and goodness in the world, so Troy’s infidelity, his assault on the truth of Mattie, repulses him so much that he flees the party by climbing out of the bathroom window, sells his car, and roots himself completely in his own town and in the place of his work. He never parties in the next town again. During this conversion – literally on the drunken walk home – he makes a solemn vow, which he keeps for life, of being “faithful” to Mattie to, in a way, set right the imbalance of unfaithfulness that Troy’s cheating creates. He’s a bachelor for life, but he has given up the false freedom that comes with that and gives himself totally to a love he will likely never enjoy, in an earthly way, in this life.
Jayber never “makes a move” on Mattie, and never explicitly reveals the vow he has taken. He simply transforms his bachelorhood into a sacrificial celibacy, not because he does not believe in marriage, but because he does. And by embracing this self-gift, Jayber finds himself finally and fully rooted in his place, able to grow old and wise in the company of his people. (How many priests, shuffled every few years to new places, never get to feel such things.) Before the vow he was a bachelor, one foot in his town and another in the next (where the women-for-bachelors were), but by his vow he grows up and gives himself totally to his vocation, which, although unique, is real and beautiful.
Wendell Berry’s novels are not kitsch small-town clichés, like Norman Rockwell in print. Rather, they reveal the truth behind modernity’s love-affair with autonomy and false freedom. Marriage points to the future reality of man’s union with God, and it does so by directing our freedom away from self-love toward sacrificial love. Priestly celibacy points us to the same reality, by living that full, sacrificial union with God in this life. Jayber Crow not only pulls the veil on the false freedom of chosen bachelorhood, but displays the mystery of love and sacrifice that, like Dante’s love for Beatrice, is more than just being able to physically embrace one’s love, but to give our total life without the expectation of reward.
This article was originally printed in the quarterly magazine for men, Sword and Spade, which is edited by Jason Craig.
 A particular good essay is Anthony Esolen’s “If Dante Were a Kentucky Barber” in The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, published by ISI Books, Wilmington, DE