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[375] A Death in the Family – James Agee

” He died last night while I was asleep and now it was already morning. He has already been dead since way last night and I didn’t even know until I woke up. He has been dead all night while I was asleep and now it is morning and I am awake but he is still dead and he will stay right on being dead all afternoon and all night and all tomorrow while I am asleep again and wake up again and go to sleep again and he can’t come back home again ever any more but I will see him once more before he is taken away. ” (III 16:263-4)

In 1915, thirty-six year-old Jay Follet leaves his house in Knoxville, Tennessee during the wee hour for his parents’ to tend to his father, whom he believes is dying. The summon turns out to be a false alarm. Eager to go home to his children before baybreak, he is killed in a freak automobile accident on the way home. Dancing back and forth in time and braiding the perspectives of his wife, brother-in-law, parents, and young son, Agee, in beautiful, quiet, and transparent prose, delivers a nearly perfect treatise on how a family reacts to the death of a member and grapples with the loss.

Yet she could not rid herself: something mistaken, unbearably piteous, infinitely malign was at large within that faithfulness; she was helpless to forfend it or even to know its nature. Suddenly there opened within her a chasm of infinite depth and from it flowed the paralyzing breath of eternal darkness. (II 8:135)

Reveal in natural arcs in the narrative, religion is the most notable theme of this novel and which causes the most prodigious divide between Mary Follet and her husband, as well as with her extended family. It’s religion that keeps Jay from being perfectly content with his family. Mary and Aunt Hannah, who takes care of the children after the tragedy, are the only believers of the Catholic faith. Her religious belief is what six-year-old Rufus discerns to be the cause of his father’s loneliness. Although Jay and Mary are in a loving and stable marriage, Rufus senses that “a very important part of his well-being came of staying a few minutes away from home.” (I 1:19) The discordant view in religion amplifies after Jay’s death, as Mary seeks comfort for her grief and grace for her atheist husband from God. Her blind devotion infuriates her father, who believes she has to rely on her own strength in bereavement, and her brother, whose cynicism is justified in the indifference of the organized church in the character of Father Jackson, who refuses to read the complete burial service over Jay because he had not been baptized. When describing the burial to Rufus, his uncle sees a a butterfly settle on the coffin. Andrew believes that the butterfly “has got more of God in him than Jackson will ever see the rest of eternity.” (III 20:337)

Despite Mary’s grief and her strength, the main focus of A Death in the Family is Rufus. Agee uses childhood as a lens through which to perceive reality. Rufus’s lack of guile also lends greater depth, and poignancy, in life’s complications. It’s extremely disconcerting and sad to be inside Rufus’s mind, as the little boy slowly grapples the meaning of death and how he shall never be with his father, whom he adores. His deep love for and insight about his father are obvious from the beginning, through unspoken but mutual feelings and senses. Whereas his mother learns that all the “apparent kindness was merely deception and meanness” (II 13:219) in the priest’s hypocrisy, Rufus learns the same from the cruel kids who want to be friends only to talk about an event—that is, the death of a parent—that they couldn’t relate. That Rufus is both wise beyond his years and confused to grapple on crises around the house make the strong point that the novel, with a quality of quiet majesty and subdued turmoil, heavily relies on childhood perception and memory to render verisimilitude of family dynamics during hard times.

339 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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6 Responses

  1. It’s been many years since I have read A Death in the Family, but I can quote the preface by heart due to Samuel Barber’s glorious setting of the text for soprano and orchestra known as ‘Knoxville: Summer of 1915″. Such beautiful lines as the one describing people returning from watching the silent movies: “The image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns, in hueless amber.” Unforgettable. It might be time to read it again.

    • Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a beautiful piece full of imagery. It can be read as itself. I find myself immersing in Agee’s contemplative writing profusely. I like how he gets into each of his character’s mind. A Death in the Family has not much of a story because the main story is the death. But I have never found it slow.

  2. I always get this book confused with A Summons To Memphis, perhaps because they both have a Tennessee setting? I want to read both, and I definitely own one of them, so I should probably figure out whether I need to purchase this one or if it’s already on the shelves somewhere!

    • I am going to check out A Summons To Memphis—I believe it is by Peter Taylor? Agee’s book is literary fiction. The writing is absolutely beautiful, but sad. I’ve been making mistakes recently with buying duplicates. I need to check my shelves, my Kindle, and my iPad before I make the move!

  3. This has been on my list to read since high school. Sadly, I have still never gotten around to reading it. As I get older I contemplate the books that I just won’t have time to read. I will make sure that this isn’t one of them.

    • I highly recommend it. This novel will slowly settle in you because it’s as much about form as revealing the mind of the characters. The section on the young son’s perspective is poignant and most tender.

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