Thursday, March 31, 2016

Wendell Berry's Use of Language in Jayber Crow

Often, forgetting Uncle Othy’s instructions and warning, I would venture as far into the thick of it as I could go, dodging here and there for a better look, for I wanted to see everything; I wanted to penetrate the wonder. I would be in the way and sometimes in danger. And then Uncle Othy would see me, and under the eyes of the experienced and worldly men of the boat, he would be embarrassed by me. He would speak to me then as he never did at other times: “Damn it to hell, boy, get out of the way! I told you! Damned boy ain’t no more than half weaned, and here he is in the way of working men.” He would be trying to get me thoroughly cussed before the captain could get a chance to do it (Berry Kindle Locations 324-329).

Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow is about an orphaned boy and his journey to and through adulthood.  This scene is set on the boat where Jayber’s uncle works when Jayber was a young boy.  Berry utilizes language in some interesting ways to explore the scene and build the character’s relationships, as well as the characters themselves.  His choice of forgetting here is important. Jayber’s actions were not based on absent-mindedness.  If that were the case, Berry could have used synonyms like fail to remember or not have used a verbal infinitive that implicilty highlights the active nature of his forgetting. But Jayber did make a choice to break ship rules and ignore his uncle.  Even though this were the case, Berry did not use a synonym like ignoring. Berry’s decision to leave ambiguity in the statement highlights the rebellious, yet understandable and non-malicious, aspects of Jayber’s childish actions.  To describe Jayber’s adventure, Berry has his narrator recount the tale with words like venture, dodging, and penetrate to continue this boys-will-be-boys theme.  There is a hint of danger mixed with the desire to explore in these words that fit perfectly in the scene of a precocious child testing, and hoping to expand, the boundaries of his freedom.
That freedom is becoming more and more important because Jayber is half-weaned at this point.  Now, a person is either weaned or nursing, there is no genuine in-between. But Berry utilizes a false “‘middle’ term” (Curzan 215) in order to paint the picture of both Jayber and Othy.  Jayber, remembering this event as an adult, is not an infant and he is not a literal suckling, but he is not a self-supporting (weaned) adult either.  He is in the purgatorial state of adolescence where he must merit his passage from the bondage of childhood to the freedom of being an adult.  Berry’s use also reveals the character of Othy and Jayber’s remembrance of him.  Othy was not the nursing mother of Jayber; he was neither a woman, nor Jayber’s parent.  But he did manifest the protective instincts associated with motherhood.  Berry could have used other words for Othy to refer to Jayber: child, young man, boy (which could have carried enough pejorative connotations to placate the other seamen), but Berry’s use of half weaned says more in two words than he could have in two pages of dialogue and narrative.
Berry puts specific and significant words into the mouth of his narrator, Jayber, in order to create the emotion in the reader that is present in the narrator.  The nostalgia and remembrance are effective tools to guide the reader’s emotions, but they are only made effective through Berry’s word choices and character development. 
Works Cited
Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow: A Novel (Port William).Berkley: Counterpoint, 2001. Kindle AZW3 file.
Curzan, Anne, and Michael Adams. How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. Print