“A Death in the Family” is a novel by the American author James Agee. The novel was written by Agee as a semi-autobiographical piece in the late 1940’s through early 1950’s and was not quite finished when he died in 1955. It was published posthumously by his family two years later. In 1958, Agee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the novel. It has since been adapted into a Pulitzer Prize winning play in 1961 and two different feature films.
The novel centers around a six-year-old boy named Rufus who lives with his mother, father and young sister in Knoxville, Tennessee. One night, his father is called out to visit the bedside of his father as he is dying. On the way back home, Rufus’s father, Jay is killed in a car accident.
The novel deals with the impact of the death of the family and how it affects Rufus’s burgeoning religious views. It is based on Agee’s father’s death under similar circumstances and provides a slice of life during the early 1900’s in Tennessee.
Father, Jay, takes his son, Rufus to the cinema to see a Charlie Chaplin film. Rufus’s mother, Mary sees the humor in the film as being tasteless and does not want them to go. Rufus notes that he can read the signs on the stores they pass on the way to the theater but does not say this aloud as he remembers his father telling him not to brag.
Jay (who is referred to as “his father” or “the boy’s father”) stops in a bar on the way home from the film.
Jay proudly sits Rufus on a bar stool and tells everyone that he is only six years old but can read twice as well as he could at that age. This bragging makes Rufus feel oddly ashamed. He feels that his father would not be bragging about his intelligence if he was better at fighting. Still, Rufus feels that his father is not in a hurry to get him home and that he likes spending time with him.
On the way home, Jay asks Rufus not to tell his mother that they went to the bar and once they get home he hears his father go out again. At 2:37 in the morning, Jay’s brother Ralph calls. Ralph, who is drunk as sounds as though he has been crying, tells Jay that their father is on his deathbed. Jay talks this over with Mary for a while before deciding to drive to his father’s house to see him. As he dresses, Jay remembers how much of a burden his father was with his family when he was a child. This made Jay very angry then, but now he feels that his father was only trying his best and was always generous with him.
Mary prepares breakfast for Jay before he leaves and he makes her some hot milk so that she will be able to get back to sleep after he is gone. Jay tries to eat as much of the food as he can to show his wife that he appreciates it although he is nervous and not hungry. Before he leaves, Jay and Mary debate whether they should wake the children so that he can say a quick goodbye to them. Ultimately, they decide not to. They couple kiss goodbye and Jay gets in their Ford and drives away. Mary drinks her milk and goes back to bed.
Jay leaves Knoxville and must take the ferry to get to his destination. He wakes the ferryman, and he and the man talk as they cross the river. Jay drives off the ferry and into the country, and he begins to feel better as he drives through his “home country.”
Back at home, Mary lies awake worrying about her husband and Grampa Follet. She has never really liked Jay’s father, so it is hard for her to feel how she thinks she ought to about his illness. She has always disliked the man because of the leeway that she feels he gets from his family. This train of thought makes her angry at herself for thinking so poorly of the man when he is on his death bed. However, she still cannot bring herself to like the man as she finds him weak. She realizes that if Grampa dies, she will not have to fight with her husband about him again and then begins to pray for forgiveness for having such a thought.
When the children wake up in the morning, Mary tells them that their father has gone to see Grampa and that he is sick and may die. Mary explains the concept of death to her children as a sort of sleep that one wakes from in heaven. This leads Rufus to ask if his pets who have died are in heaven and Mary says that they are. Mary tells them that death is all a part of God’ great plan that they cannot see or understand but must trust in. Rufus’s little sister Catherine makes a comment about God wanting people to find him being “like hide-and-go-seek, against” and this exasperates Rufus who feels that she shouldn’t be making a game out of something so serious. He yells at his sister which makes her cry and Mary makes him apologize before sending them off to school.
Meanwhile, Jay arrives at the farm to find that his brother has exaggerated the state of their father’s health. At this point, the narration switches to Ralphs point of view. We learn that Ralph woke in the middle of the night and felt panicked. He immediately drove with his wife to his parent’s house while drinking from a whiskey bottle.
When he arrived at his parent’s house, he tried to explain what he was feeling to his mother and hug her. She understood that he was asking for help, more than offering it but the drunken that he was in repelled her and made her push him away. All night Ralph continued to take swigs from the bottle and when he realized that it was empty, rammed hi into the side of the house, making himself bleed. When he went in, his wife and mother: “pretended it was perfectly natural to stumble in a flat clay dooryard” and that “when they agreed that it was a mean lump but needed no further attention, he felt, suddenly, sad, and as little as a child, and he wished he were.” Ralph feels that his mother pities him and does not have any respect for him. Even worse, he feels that his wife is afraid of him and that it is all his fault. He feels that he is a baby instead of a man.
Later that day, while Jay is still away, Rufus’s great aunt, Hannah calls Mary to ask if Rufus would like to go shopping with her. Mary answers yes, but Hannah insists that she ask Rufus whether or not he would like to so he can answer for himself. Hannah then asks if she has heard anything from Jay and Mary says that she has not which both women take as a sign that nothing too serious has happened. Andrew, Mary’s brother also calls to see if there is any news.
After school, Rufus hurries to meet his aunt Hannah to go shopping. As they leave the house, they bump into Rufus’s grandmother Lynch who pats Rufus on the cheek and smiles. Hannah yells into her good ear that they are going shopping. Rufus enjoys shopping with Hannah because she tends to be very efficient and he enjoys her company. Hannah buys some birthday presents for Mary and Andrew and then asks Rufus if he would like a new cap.
For a moment, Rufus is too excited by the idea to speak. This reaction causes Hannah to assume that he does not want one but he refutes this quickly. Rufus, however, does worry that his mother will not want him to have the cap. Hannah assures him that if it something that he wants than his mother will be fine with it. Rufus finally chooses a hat in “jade green, canary yellow, black and white” which sticks out above the ears and covers his face.
End of Part One
Between parts one and two, a section about a memory that Rufus has of when he was a baby. Jay has a bad dream in his crib and wakes up to a storm. He screams for his father and Jay comes in and comforts him, singing him two songs. At this time, Mary was pregnant with Catherine. As the memory shifts forward, Rufus is confused about why his mother keeps getting bigger. She tells him that she is going to have a surprise soon.
One day a large black woman named Victoria shows up at the house to take Rufus to stay at his grandmother’s house. On the way, Rufus asks Victoria why her skin is darker than his. Victoria pauses, and Rufus can tell that he has upset her. She tells him that her skin is darker because that is the way God made her. She then says that she knows that he didn’t mean any harm but that Rufus should not ask black people questions like that as they may take it the wrong way.
Rufus tells her that he didn’t mean to make her mad, and she says that she knows that he didn’t, but that black people have a hard time as it is and that she wouldn’t want him to make anyone feel bad. Rufus says that he didn’t mean to make her feel bad and she tells him that she doesn’t and hugs him. Victoria then brings him to his grandmother’s house.
At around ten in the evening on the day that Jay is supposed to return home, Mary receives a phone call that he has been in an accident. The man on the phone asks her to send out a man from Jay’s family to the scene of the accident. She asks if she should send for a doctor and he tells her just to send “a man that’s his kin.”
Mary asks Andrew to go, and he brings Walter Starr, a family friend. While she waits, Mary makes up the bed and puts on some tea in case Jay is well enough to come right home. As she does this, she thinks about the phone call and tries to squeeze any meaning out of the man’s words that she can. She wants to pray but all she can think to say is, “Thy will be done.” Before he leaves, Andrew brings Aunt Hannah over to keep Mary company. Hannah holds Mary’s hands and prays with her, remembering that she, herself went through a similar ordeal thirty years earlier.
After they pray, she says that she feels that Jay is dead and that he was already dead when the man phoned her. She thinks that Andrew will want to come back and tell her in person. Over in their own home, Mary’s mother and father, Joel and Catherine, await news of the accident. Catherine wonders if they should go be with Mary but Joel tells her that they don’t know what has happened yet and it may be too much fuss for her. He says that he asked her if they should come and she said no. As Joel waits he thinks that he is not personally grieved over Jay’s accident but that he feels bad for his daughter. He never liked Jay and felt that Mary’s spirit and intelligence was wasted on him.
Back at Mary’s house, Andrew returns. Mary asks If Jay is dead and Andrew only nods. He says that he was killed instantly. Walter leaves to go fetch Mary’s parents who arrive soon. Joel embraces Mary and tells her that she is going to go through hell but that she has to carry on for the children. He gives her an encouraging talk and tells her that he will help with any financial difficulties she faces. Andrew gathers the family in the living room and tells them what happened in the accident. He says that no one else was hurt and that the man who phoned Mary was the one who found Jay. Andrew says that the man told him that he heard a car coming up fast behind him and thought the man driving in must have either been in a huge hurry or crazy (Andrew does not say aloud that the man’s actual words were “crazy drunk”). The man heard a loud noise and he turned around to see what had happened. He found Jay lying on his back on the ground, dead and asked the next car that came along to bring a doctor.
The doctor came and said that Jay received a concussion in the crash that killed him on impact. The men deduce that Jay must have lost control of the car and was thrown out as he ran off the road. During the story, Mary starts to cry and Joel tells Andrew to shut up. Mary asks Andrew to call Jay’s family and tell them the news. When Ralph hears the news about his brother’s death he immediately feels responsible for asking him to come out to see their father in the first place. He offers to help with the funeral but Andrew assures him that they can take care of it. Mary thinks over her last, happy conversation with her husband and remembers that, as the day went on she began to get angry with him for not calling her to update her about his father. At the time, she was worried that he was getting drunk but now she feels that Andrew would have told her if he’d been driving drunk and dismisses the thought.
All of the sudden, Hannah says that she feels something and tells everyone to be quiet. Mary begins to sense it, too and then Andrew does. Catherine, who is hard of hearing, says that she heard footsteps come into the house and asks if anyone is there. Mary feels that it is the spirit of her husband and begins to talk to him. This feeling lasts with some of the family for a few minutes and then fades away. Joel says that he didn’t feel anything. Mary asks them to stop talking about it but then she feels that the spirit reappears in the children’s room. She goes upstairs and speaks to him. When she feels him leave she makes the sign of the cross. Mary asks Hannah to stay the rest of the night with her and the rest of the family leave.
End of Part Two
Another flashback section in which Rufus is sitting outside his house and watching the older schoolchildren walk home. Rufus thinks that he likes to watch the children walk by and envies them with their nice school clothes and books. When any of the children look at him, he waves and says hello. Some of the kinder children say hello back, but some of them tease him. The boys tease him about his name, and eventually, the older boys tell them to stop. Later, Rufus hears the older boys making fun of him as well.
Another flashback is present, in which Rufus, Jay, Mary, Catherine, Grampa and Ralph are all travel to see Rufus’s great-great-grandmother. Jay says that the woman is around 100 years old and the family have not seen her in 10 years. They arrive at a log cabin and see two older women sitting on the porch. One of them is great-aunt Sadie, who lives with great-great-grandmother Follet. Sadie tells Rufus that grandma will be especially happy to see him as he is the fifth generation grandchild. However, grandma cannot speak anymore. Jay tells the woman who he is and she makes a croaking noise. Rufus is told to approach and tell her who he is. He does so and grandma appears not to hear at first. When she does, she grabs Rufus’s shoulders and laughs for a long time until her hold can be pulled off. When Rufus is pulled away, he sees a stream of liquid under her chair but no one says anything about it.
For the last flashback, the family is having dinner together with Uncle Ted and Aunt Kate who are visiting from Michigan. Rufus learns that they are not really his aunt and uncle but just close family friends. They take a train together through the mountains and that night at supper Rufus asks Ted to pass the cheese. Ted tells him that if he whistles, the cheese will jump off the table and into his lap on it’s own. Rufus does this but it doesn’t work. Ted encourages him to try harder and Mary gets angry at him for lying to her son. Ted insists that he’s only joking and that Rufus has to learn to employ his own common sense. Mary only gets angrier and says that she thinks the joke is in poor taste.
When Rufus wakes up in the morning, he puts on his new cap and races downstairs to show his father. He yells for Jay but finds only his mother sitting alone on her bed. She tells him to go wake, Catherine. When both the children are awake, Mary pulls them close and tells them that Jay has been called away to heaven. Rufus asks if that means that he is dead and Mary says yes. She tells them that they will probably not understand for a while but that they can ask any questions they like.
The narration shifts to Catherine’s perspective, who, though too young to be aware of what is happening, is aware that something has changed. Things are very still and sad and it makes her feel uneasy. She eats because she feels that it’s important for her to be good that day and wishes that her father would come home, wondering why he has chosen to go to heaven instead. Hannah explains to the children how Jay died. Catherine asks when their father is coming home and Hannah tells her that he isn’t. Rufus asks how God was the one that took Jay away if it was the accident that killed him.
Unsure of what to do after breakfast, Rufus wanders the house. He gets ready for school only for Hannah to tell him that he does not have to go for a few days. At first, he’s happy that he doesn’t have to go to school, but then he felt guilty and disappointed that everyone at school is going to treat him differently now.
Rufus sneaks out of the house to spend some time outside. He tells a stranger on the street that his daddy is dead and the man tells him he should go back inside. Rufus goes down an alley and sees some boys walking to school. He tells the boys that his father is dead and they ask him how it happened. One of the boys said that his father saw it in the newspaper and that Rufus’s father died in a car accident. One of the boys says that his father said that Jay was drunk driving and Rufus asks what “drunk” means. The boy tells him it means “fulla good ole whiskey.” Rufus argues that his father wasn’t drunk and tells them what Hannah told him about the accident. The other boys seems dubious about the concussion killing him but the school bell soon rings and they rush off.
Rufus returns home, and Hannah scolds him for leaving the house. She tells him to go color in a picture book with Catherine. Rufus takes his anger out on Catherine and yells at her. She ends up crying, and Hannah only gets more angry with Rufus. She tells him to read a book by himself. Rufus goes into the sitting room and sees his father’s chair. He feels guilty for bragging about Jay’s death to the schoolboys and apologizes to the chair.
A few days later, Hannah dresses the children for the funeral and Mary explains to them that the are going to see their father one last time. She explains once more that he isn’t going to come back and Catherine seems to understand this time.
The priest, Father Jackson arrives at the house and Hannah asks the children to show him into the sitting room. Confused, the children stare at the priest who becomes uncomfortable and scolds them for staring and their “ill-bred” behavior. Hannah then comes back into the room, and Father Jackson goes with her to Mary’s room. The children sneak up and listen at the door, but they cannot understand anything that’s being said.
Walter Starr arrives later and waits with the children. He tells them many kind things about their father and they are calmed by this. Upstairs, Mary feels that she is doing better and coming to terms with Jay’s death, but when she stands to leave her knees suddenly buckle. Hannah catches her and Father Jackson says a prayer. The body is laid out at Mary’s parent’s house. Rufus sees his father’s dead body for the first time and describes his features in detail.
The family pray with the body and Walter tells them that he has to bring them back home before the funeral. But he lets them watch the procession as it leaves the house. Catherine wanders around her house later that day and sees her mother and Hannah praying. She hides under the bed across the hall and runs into her mother’s arms when she hears her calling for her. Andrew takes Rufus for a walk and Andrew tells Rufus that that afternoon at the burial a single butterfly landed on the coffin and stayed there until the coffin was lowered into the ground. Andrew says that if anything could make him believe in God it would be that.
Rufus is glad to hear this story but Andrew then gets angry and tells him that Father Jackson refused to read the full burial rights because Jay was never baptized. Rufus doesn’t understand how Andrew can hate religion but love Mary and Hannah. He wants to ask but can’t bring himself to. They walk home in silence.
Rufus Follet – the protagonist of the novel. Rufus is a six-year-old boy who suffers a tragedy when his father dies unexpectedly in a car accident. Throughout the novel, Rufus is shown to be an inquisitive and bright boy however he often suffers from naivete about the malice present in the actions of others.
A big part of Rufus personality is his desire to be accepted by the other students in his school. In the sections where Rufus is interacting with his peers he regularly sacrifices parts of his pride to fit in, such as when he tells them that his father is dead. Rufus also questions his mother and aunt’s religious beliefs, wondering how it could have been God that killed his father when they said a concussion was what killed him. Rufus is clearly struggling with his budding religious beliefs in the wake of his father’s death. At the end of the novel he wonders how his uncle Andrew can love his mother and aunt if he does not believe in God and they do. An odd note to end the novel on unless Agee was specifically trying to make a point about religion.
Mary Follet – Rufus’s mother. Mary is widowed when her husband is killed in an accident and must care for her young children and hold her emotions together. Mary is, like her son, a very kind and intelligent person. She seems to have a very enlightened view for the time and is very loving and considerate of her children. Mary had a seemingly happy marriage with Jay, despite some problems but it is implied that she comes from a more wealthy background than him and that her family thinks that she married down.
Mary’s religion is very important to her, although she feels as though she put it on the back burner for her husband and married life. It is clear that she is the more religious of the couple and that her religion has a tendency to cause strife between them. After Jay’s death, religion becomes even more of a fixture in Mary’s life, and she uses it as a crutch to help her cope with his death.
Hannah Lynch – Rufus’s great aunt and Mary’s aunt. Hannah is another member of Mary’s family who is very kind and considerate. Rufus views her as one of his favorite – if not his absolute favorite– adults as she tends to pay more attention to his needs and treat him like an adult. Hannah is very religious like her niece. It is Hannah who is asked to stay at the Follet house after Jay’s death, and Hannah helps to plan the funeral.
James Agee Biography
James Rufus Agee was born on November 27th, 1909 in Knoxville, Tennessee. When he was only six years old, his father was killed in a car accident while returning home from visiting his sick grandfather. Agee and his younger sister, Emma were educated in several different boarding schools for the rest of their childhoods. Agee’s mother, Laura remarried in 1924 to Father Erskine Wright, and the two moved to Rockland, Maine.
Agee continued to live in Tennessee, attending Knoxville High School. He traveled to Europe at the age of 16 with his lifelong friend and mentor, an Episcopal priest, Father James Flye. Upon returning home, he was enrolled in a boarding school in New Hampshire. It was at this school that Agee began writing short stories, plays, and poems which he published in the school newspaper, the Monthly which he was the editor of.
Agee was admitted to Harvard University after high school and became editor of the Harvard Advocate. After graduating he was hired as a reporter and moved to New York City, where he wrote for such magazines as Fortune, Time and The Nation. During this time, he also met and married his first wife, Olivia Saunders in 1933. They later divorced and he married Alma Mailman in that same year. Alma gave birth to Agee’s first child, a son named Joel.
During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, Agee spent eight weeks living with sharecroppers in Alabama for an assignment which he later turned into a novel called, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” The novel was published in 1941 but did not see much success.
During the early 1940’s, Agee also became a film critic for Time. Though he enjoyed this immensely, he quit in 1948 and became a freelance writer and began working on screenplays. Agee is one of the credited screenwriters for two of the biggest movies of the 1950’s “The African Queen” (1951) and “The Night of the Hunter” (1955).
Agee divorced his second wife, Alma in 1941 and later remarried to his third and final wife, Mia Fritsch in 1946. The couple had two daughters. Throughout his life, Agee was a heavy drinker and smoker. Eventually, this led to his death when he suffered a heart attack in a taxi cab on May 16th, 1955. He was buried on his farm in Hillsdale, New York which is still owned by his family today.
Since Agee’s untimely death, his literary reputation has expanded a great deal. His best-known work, “A Death in the Family” was published two years after his death in 1957 and won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the next year. However, there is controversy surrounding the publication as it was said to have been heavily edited from the original manuscript by the publisher. Many of his other works have grown in reputation and are now considered classic novels.