Lessons on Limiting Liberty from Hannah and Burley Coulter


In the last seventy years or so, according to sociologist Eric Klinenberg, there has been a drastic increase in the percentage of people living alone. If you believe that devoted relationships are an integral part of a flourishing life, you might start to wonder why so many people are choosing to live without the daily commitment required by living with another. Joseph Chamie, in an opinion piece for The Hill, suggests several contributing factors for this choice, including economic opportunities, the increase in women’s labor-force participation, delayed marriage, and increased divorce. Many of these, Chamie points out, share a focus on personal and career development, values that living alone buttresses because it “offers more privacy, freedom and independence.” While career development is not an evil in itself, particularly for anyone who has been excluded from that pursuit in the past, the assumptions behind the widespread preoccupation with careerism demand thoughtful consideration.

Forgoing day-to-day life with other people offers increased individual freedom. The thinking goes like this: A person is meant to pursue their personal interests and self-fulfillment. Other people can help secure this self-interest, especially as they prevent feelings of loneliness. But people also demand a lot, so living alone is preferable because it allows a person to engage with others but only when it is helpful to the individual. This sort of thinking means that people should be avoided if they are obstructing personal fulfillment; other people’s needs are relegated beneath the interests of the self. At the root of all of this is a cultural emphasis on personal liberty at the expense of committed relationships with others. (Of course, a person living alone is capable of committed relationships; I will not suggest otherwise. Instead, we should examine the cultural avoidance of commitment, for the sake of self-interest, that may be motivating and motivated by the increase in living alone.)

Discussions of liberty should be clear about the meaning of this word. Liberty means both “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views” and “the power or scope to act as one pleases.” The first concerns political freedom and self-governance. A person should not be oppressively forced to act in certain ways—I do not plan on disputing the need for that sort of liberty in our lives. The second has to do with personal action. A person employs this sort of liberty if they act as they please. Living alone affords the ability to do so. For instance, if I live alone, I can choose to make whatever I want for dinner, with only my taste as the deciding factor. Of course, political liberty gives a person the capacity to cook what they please, because actions are not coerced. The question I want to consider is if employing our political liberty to satisfy our own desires, or to “act as one pleases,” might hinder the strong relationships we need for a flourishing life. More specifically, might limiting our own liberty be required if we are to pursue strong relationships? I believe some of the greatest challenges of today—pervasive loneliness, division, and isolation—come down to valuing personal liberty over relational obligations. Let us consider our own relationships and how they might be rejuvenated by a critical look at the role of personal liberty in our desires and actions.

Wendell Berry’s fiction shows what relationships look like with skin on—how real relationships are enacted between people. As the characters who inhabit the fictional town Port William interact, they demonstrate how individuals can either perpetuate or obstruct meaningful relationships. The lives of two characters in particular, Hannah and Burley Coulter, have a lot to teach us about relationships and liberty. Together, Hannah and Burley demonstrate how caring for people in committed relationships requires moving beyond personal liberty for the sake of the other.

Burley Coulter is inclined toward a liberal lifestyle (as in free and loose… Burley has little care for public policy). Like more and more people today, he never married and lived alone for much of his life. He was known in Port William for wandering through the woods. There he would hunt and sleep, and sometimes just walk.

Through all of Berry’s fiction, Burley spreads a contagious joy to those around him, including Hannah Coulter, who becomes a sort of daughter to him. “Fidelity,” which offers a wonderful chance to get to know Burley, describes the joy he spreads: “Hannah’s world had been made dearer to her by Burley’s laughter, his sometimes love of talk (his own and other people’s), and his delight in outrageous behavior (his own as a young man and other people’s)” (“Fidelity” 156). Burley’s “delight in outrageous behavior” made for great laughter, and that laughter imbued other people’s lives with joy. Further, “Burley was a man freely in love with freedom and with pleasures, who watched the world with an amused, alert eye to see what it would do next, and if the world did not seem inclined to get on very soon to anything of interest, he gave it his help” (155). Burley is a “free spirit” who loves to exercise his liberty for the sake of enjoyment. Out of all of Berry’s characters, I might enjoy Burley the most.

Burley’s life was further defined by his controversial relationship with Kate Helen Branch. Kate Helen lived in Port William in a “paper-sided house on an abandoned corner of Thad Spellman’s farm, not far from town and even closer, by a shortcut up through the woods, to the Coulter Place” (117). By the way of things, the two met, began spending time with each other, and became friends. Before long they became “careless lovers, those two, and Danny came as a surprise—albeit a far greater surprise to Burley than to Kate Helen” (117). This careless love brought about Danny Branch, who becomes a beloved member of that community. However, although she “had been the love of Burley Coulter’s life,” Burley never married Kate Helen (117). In this relationship, Kate Helen and Burley’s careless love runs contrary to the town’s conventions, resisting the expectations of those around them.

Throughout his life, Burley devotes himself to those around him, suggesting that love for freedom and pleasure are not the only motivating factors in his life. Although never publicly acknowledging his relationship to Kate Helen and Danny, Burley remained part of their lives: “[Danny] did not go fatherless, for Burley was that household’s faithful visitor, its pillar and provider. He took a hand in Danny’s upbringing from the start” (117). In the lives of Danny and others, Burley had begun to choose to care for those he loved, and they began to depend on him. At various times, their dependence upon him restricted his freedom to do things he enjoyed, like wandering through the woods. In choosing to care for his loved ones, he puts aside his inclination for freedom to express his love and enjoyment for them.

Burley’s life suggests that relationships necessarily limit an individual’s personal liberty. Burley moves beyond freedom because things are required of him. Fritz Oehlshlaeger, professor of English at Virginia Tech, writes in The Achievement of Wendell Berry: The Hard History of Love, “Fidelity in Burley was not a rigid commitment to an idea of himself, but rather a responsiveness to what was required of him, from moment to moment, by those he loved” (147). In this view, Burley has allowed those he loves to require things of him. For the pleasure of a loving relationship, he has limited his own power to act as he pleases.

Woah, woah, woah, you might be thinking. This sounds all fine and good, except that people are always trying to ‘require’ things of other people to pass along the buck of responsibility. Fair enough. Completely disregarding liberty could lead to coercion, political or otherwise. One definition of “requirement” found in the Oxford English Dictionary suggests a diminishment of the choice that is necessary for a mutual relationship: “Something called for or demanded; a condition which must be complied with.” This use of the word expresses, in legal and religious contexts, what a person must do, often to either follow the law or be part of a religious sect (“requirement” in OED). According to this definition, “requirement” would mean that a party is demanding certain thought or action for the relationship to continue. As for Burley, the question is whether “what was required of him… by those he loved” indicates this sort of coercive requirement in relationships.

As a bachelor (at least in terms of the law), his relationships are uniquely unrequired according to the above use of the term. Instead, Burley’s vibrant relationships depend on what political science professor Kimberly Smith describes as “a basic level of autonomy—the capacity for independent thought and action” required for personhood, which Smith recognizes as something Berry values throughout his writings (Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition 132). This capacity for independent thought and action is akin to the first definition of liberty we considered—free from oppressive restrictions—and healthy relationships require it.

Burley has this capacity for independent thought and action, and he freely chooses to limit his freedom for the sake of others. But a question arises concerning the nature of requirement for others, such as women like Hannah Coulter. Considering her life will refine what it means for personal liberty to be restricted by a relationship, particularly in the context of work.

Jane Smiley, writing for The Guardian, accuses Berry’s fiction of having “the assumption that women are to keep up with the housework but have no inner lives.” Smiley is suggesting that the women of Port William are required to keep up with the housework and have no choice in the matter. This reflects the definition of requirement as “a condition which must be complied with.” Smiley suggests that the women in Port William are being forced, to some extent, to do the housework. This coercion would require a woman like Hannah Coulter, who cooks and cleans while her husband Nathan farms, to free herself from the oppression of this work that has been thrust upon her. And I agree: if a person found themself in such a coercive situation in which individual agency is restricted, of course liberation should be sought after.

But, in the essay “Living Faithfully in the Debt of Love in Wendell Berry’s Port William,” Oehlschlaeger describes how the role of liberation can be expanded and distorted: “American individualism characteristically leads to our thinking that freedom involves escape from restriction or limitation: requirements are something to be avoided, circumvented, or, at best, completed—that is, put behind one” (Telling the Stories Right: Wendell Berry’s Imagination of Port William 106). Limitations are often seen as obstacles to goals. In the freedom-focused view, not only coercion but also anything that restricts, such as living with another person, would ideally dissipate and we would be free to pursue what we please. “Responding to the requirements of others” seems to be at best an inconvenient limitation and at worst a rhetoric of power that seeks to coerce a person, such as Hannah Coulter, into work they do not want to do to serve the greed of others.

A different definition of “requirement” sheds a revelatory light on Hannah Coulter’s work. It reads, “Something which is required or needed; a want, need” (OED). This definition, rather than suggesting rules or expectations, is concerned with necessity. Everyone has needs—biological, relational, emotional, etc.—and Burley shows how being in relationships requires responding to these needs of others when they arise. He is obedient to “what was required of him, from moment to moment, by those he loved” (Hard History of Love 147). But this is not a requirement in the understanding of the first definition; his friends and family do not force him to care for them. Neither do Hannah’s. Instead, their loved ones have needs, or requirements, and Burley and Hannah respond to those needs in order to care for them.

With an understanding of requirement as necessity, Hannah’s and Burley’s restricted freedom becomes caring rather than mandatory. Mutual and chosen care is a “chosen duty.” Oehlschlaeger writes:

Berry is creating in Port William . . . a context in which one can, like Burley, come to understand ‘requirement’ not as something imposed on one and thus resented but rather as the chosen duty of remaining in the debt of love. Berry leads us to see how doing first what others ‘require’ —the land and animals, perhaps, as well as people—can lead us out of ourselves, into habits of responsibility. (“Debt of Love” 107)

In Port William people are not forced to live in a certain way. Instead, they have a choice to either care for the needs of others or not. This understanding of requirement leads to a particular understanding of work.

Work, for Hannah and most inhabitants of Port William, is concerned with the necessity of their neighbors and family, rather than a sole focus on self-fulfillment or influence. Oehlsclaeger notes a difference in cultural factors between the female characters in Port William and his female students: “Port William abounds, too, in deep, intelligent women, but they tend not to be mobile or in search of public power in ways my female students take for granted” (“Debt of Love” 106). Generally speaking, women in Port William do not seek or attain mobility or public power. Some readers, such as Jane Smiley and Oehlschlaeger’s students, might suggest that this is a flaw in the world of Port William, specifically in terms of independence for women. This may be true. But it is worth noting that Berry’s fictional world implicitly, and explicitly, critiques both women and men who pursue mobility and public power through their work. Those who leave the town to pursue a career are generally deemed to be going against the grain of what Berry thinks should be accomplished in a community’s work. To employ the second definition of liberty, characters should not choose work solely according to what they please.

Instead, Berry values those who work, whatever their specific job may be, for the sake of others. Kiara Jorgenson argues that for Berry the call of work, or vocation, does not solely concern personal interest: “for Berry vocation is a given goal shared among intergenerational community members where the needs of the neighbor are paramount and individual fulfillment is necessarily held in check” (Telling the Stories Right 38). Work is not solely an individual choice; it is influenced by those around the person. It responds to the needs, or requirements, of neighbors rather than accomplishing individual fulfillment or public power.

Further work could be done to examine the amount of choice given to male and female characters regarding requirements in Berry’s fiction. (For a beginning to that conversation, see Matt Wanat’s article, “From Jilting to Jonquil: Katherine Anne Porter and Wendell Berry, Sustaining Connections, Re-Engendering the Rural.”) But Hannah is a character who practices the virtue of chosen duty, and a culture obsessed with freedom from obligation for the sake of self-interest has a lot to learn from her. Hannah’s work in the house, as with the men’s work in the field, responds to the needs of those around them and serves the greater end of relationships with others. Rather than a victim of oppressive, gender-based limitation, Hannah is a beacon to a generation aching for meaningful work and loving relationships.

Hannah and Burley Coulter embrace their dependencies upon and bonds to others, even as they might limit personal liberty. They both choose to remain in the debt of love by caring for the needs of their loved ones. You can do this whether you are living with ten people or zero. In whatever living situation we find ourselves, we can learn from these two Coulters. They show the importance of subordinating our personal desires to the needs of others. By checking our fixation on self-fulfillment at the door, we can enter caring homes where relationships require careful acts of love. When it comes time to make dinner, we will not always get to eat what we most prefer. Instead, we learn the joy of making a loved one’s favorite meal and seeing their face light up with delight. It might just be that what truly pleases us is not the freedom to act however we want but the freedom to care for our loved ones.

Image credit: “The Whittling Boy” by Winslow Homer


  1. I read this with interest.
    A few remarks : I feel that there is a great temptation involved in what appears to me as a sacrificial attitude towards other people. By sacrifice, I mean a position of either/or, as in EITHER you, OR me is satisfied, and not both.
    If I mention this, it is because I have noticed how often some people, who are very interested in being… virtuous, are committed to doing their “duty”, and fulfilling “obligations”, but do so in ways that involve sacrifice of themselves, rather than perhaps… compromise ? where both parties can find fulfillment.
    It is as though some people have to sacrifice themselves, sometimes even though others do not demand it of them…They simply cannot fathom that it is possible to find pleasure in doing one’s duty.
    This attitude makes me suspicious of what is going on. I am very suspicious of self imposed sacrifice.
    On independance and freedom… I think that many of us are not looking at the facts of life at this point. By “fact of life”, I mean that a human being entering this world is extremely dependant, and that human beings getting older also regain a heightened sense of vulnerability that they did not have when in their prime, as we say. We are not the same as we travel through life, and we do not have the same capacities all the way through it.
    The Jane Smiley quote ? This is the battleground right now, from my perspective : women from all walks of life have been taught that financial independance is the only kind of independance with value, and this has led to the weakening of interpersonal relationships, at the same time as it has promoted idolatry of money, and work for money. Why does Smiley talk about “inner life” in housework, or homemaking, when staying in the home takes a woman out of the PUBLIC sphere, principally, or did, at least, before the advent of interactive technology ? The big push to get women OUTSIDE has taken its toll on INNER life, and on the home, and has fostered the idea that there is no power to be exercised inside the home. (I am not against exercising power…)

    On leaving the town to pursue a career in order to “become someone”, a thought for Adolf Hitler’s father who did just that, and upon returning, a new and improved bureaucrat, no longer a “peasant”, found that nobody remembered who he was…
    There is a price to be paid for leaving your home town when you do it…best to remember that.

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