James Agee

A Death in the Family

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A Death in the Family Summary

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James Agee’s prizewinning novel, A Death in the Family, is a highly autobiographical account of a Tennessee man’s sudden death and his family’s experience of grief. Rufus Follet, the novel’s central character, is just six years old when his father, Jay, dies in a car crash. To intimately explore the impact of the tragedy on the entire family, the story’s narrative perspective alternates between Rufus, his mother, his younger sister, Catherine, and others. Agee, whose childhood name was Rufus, had been drafting the novel for many years when he died in 1955, leaving it unfinished. David McDowell, Agee’s editor, pieced the book together and published it in 1957.

A Death in the Family, as it appeared in 1957, begins with a short sketch titled “Knoxville: Summer 1915.” A nostalgic reflection on a quiet boyhood evening, it sets a scene much like that in which the novel’s events unfold. Agee had previously published the sketch, and it’s unlikely he intended to include it in the novel. McDowell also used his own discretion with the structure of the book. Dividing it into three parts, he inserted fragments from Agee’s writing notes between the parts. These depart from the chronology of the narrative, serving as flashbacks in the novel.

The first part introduces the Follet family at their home in Knoxville. Having finished dinner, Jay suggests he and Rufus spend the evening at a picture show. Jay’s wife, Mary objects, referring to Charlie Chaplin, the current screen star, as a “nasty” man, but they go nonetheless. On their way home from the movie, Jay takes Rufus into a pub, where he shows off his son with pride. Afterward, Jay tells Rufus to say nothing about the pub stop to his mother. While Rufus falls asleep that night, he hears his parents talking.

In the early morning hours, the phone rings. It’s Ralph, Jay’s brother. He is drunk and unable to speak clearly, but Jay gathers that their father has had a serious, perhaps fatal heart attack. He assures Ralph he will drive over immediately, telling Mary she should stay in bed. She rises, however, insisting on making him breakfast. As he leaves, he affectionately urges her to consider what she would like for a birthday gift. Jay must cross the river to get to his parents’ home, so he wakes the ferryman.

After Jay departs, Mary contemplates their relationship. Her devotion to Catholicism conflicts with his lack of faith; this has troubled their marriage, as has his drinking. Having managed to mostly settle their differences, they are happy together. Jay’s family dislikes her, however, causing additional strife. Mary prays they will soon make peace with each other.

In the morning, Mary tells her children, Rufus and Catherine, that their father won’t be home until evening and that their grandfather may die. Trying to explain death, she speaks of God’s mysterious ways, but the children don’t understand. Meanwhile, Jay arrives at his father’s bedside to find him still very much alive. Ralph exaggerated the situation’s urgency.

Mary’s Aunt Hannah takes Rufus shopping after school. Rufus is fond of Hannah and enjoys spending time with her. He hopes she will buy him a cap. His parents refuse to do so, considering it a frivolous purchase, but Rufus regards a cap as a sign of growing older. Hannah indulges his wish, though she must restrain herself from interfering while he is deciding on his favorite.

The novel’s first part ends with a flashback. It is dark and Rufus is frightened. His father sings to comfort him.

At ten o’clock that night, the telephone rings again, and Mary learns that Jay has been in an automobile accident. She sends her brother Andrew and his friend Walter Starr to the scene of the crash. Fearing the worst, Mary prays, waiting with Hannah for Andrew to return with news. Andrew arrives and confirms Jay is dead. After Mary’s parents arrive, Andrew explains to the assembled family that a cotter pin fell from the car’s steering mechanism. Jay lost control of the car and died instantly from a concussion.

They all drink whiskey. Suddenly, the family members feel a powerful presence in the room. Mary’s mother, Catherine, who is nearly deaf and follows conversations with difficulty, also senses something strange. Mary says it is Jay’s spirit, but Joel, her father, scoffs at such supernatural speculations. Hannah agrees to stay the night, and the rest of the family leaves.

Part two ends with another flashback fragment in which the family takes a trip to visit Rufus’s great-great-grandmother. She is very old but happy to see Rufus.

In the morning, Mary tells Rufus and Catherine their father is dead and will never return home. As the children struggle to grasp the meaning of death, Aunt Hannah frames the discussion in religious terms, saying it is God’s will that their father’s life has ended. This explanation doesn’t reduce their confusion. In fact, the women provide little comfort for the children during the crisis. Mary is overwhelmed by grief and retreats into her religious faith to cope, while Hannah gets busy with practical matters.

Father Jackson arrives the next day. Stern and forbidding, the priest reproaches the children for bad manners before taking Mary aside to pray. Fortunately, Walter Starr also visits the house and heartens the children with his praise for their father. The wake takes place at the home of Mary’s parents, and afterward, the adults attend the funeral and burial.

Remaining in Walter’s care, he allows Rufus and Catherine to watch the funeral procession. Later that day, Andrew and Rufus take a walk, and Andrew describes a “miraculous” moment: during the burial, a butterfly landed on Jay’s coffin right over his chest, and its wings beat like a heart. Then Andrew turns angry, maligning the priest for abbreviating the burial liturgy because Jay wasn’t baptized. Rufus realizes Andrew despises religion and worries he may, therefore, despise Mary and Hannah.

A Death in the Family received the Pulitzer Prize in 1958. Tad Mosel adapted the novel into a play titled All the Way Home (1961), which also won a Pulitzer. In 2007, scholar Michael Lofaro published A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text. Lofaro’s edition arguably reflects Agee’s intentions more accurately than does McDowell’s.