A Death in the Family
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On a spring night in 1915 in Knoxville, Tennessee, Jay Follet, a gentle, well-intentioned but financially unsteady father of two, is awakened by a telephone call from his drunken brother Ralph. Their own father, he learns, is having serious heart trouble and may or may not pull through. Follet bids a lingering good-bye to his deeply pious wife, Mary, and drives off into the darkness, little imagining that the death that is soon to occur will be his own.
In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel A Death in the Family, James Agee reconstructs through the lens of fiction the real-life car accident that claimed his father when James was not yet six years old. Leading us from the evening of the phone call that sets the tragedy in motion to the funeral that strives to bring the calamity to closure, Agee offers a plot that is simplicity itself, and the occurrences he describes are perhaps no different from those that would transpire within any family that has had a member suddenly stolen from its midst. Despite its seeming straightforwardness, however, A Death in the Family is a novel of surprising profundity and aching lyricism. With deft strokes of characterization, Agee brings vivid life to Mary, whose loss brings her both to rely upon and to question God as she has never done before. We also come to know Mary’s brother Andrew, whose contempt for religion both adds a sharp philosophical edge to the novel and stirs elemental conflicts among its characters. Deep pathos surrounds both Ralph Follet, the self-pitying alcoholic who struggles to come to terms with the dishonored place he fills in his family, and Mary’s aunt Hannah, whose capacities for indulgent kindness and stinging severity hover in a fitful, unsteady balance. In these characters, the lines between love and hate are finely drawn, and Agee develops their sometimes speechless passions with refinement and understanding.
At the emotional center of Agee’s novel, however, stands his own remembered self, in the form of young Rufus Follet. Awkwardly self-conscious, comically trusting, Rufus has only recently begun to understand the depth of the attachment that can exist between father and son—only to have that connection violently destroyed overnight. His efforts to comprehend his loss exude an unforgettable poignancy, and his recollected moments of closeness to his father rise to a poetic grace seldom encountered in the American novel.
A triumph of literary style and psychological acumen, A Death in the Family excels in its brilliant attention to the too-often overlooked nuances of thought, speech, and action that comprise the true fabric of being. One of the most intensely personal novels ever written, it also transcends its author’s subjectivity to shed clear light on the mysteries of life and death, of faith and unbelief, in which all of us inescapably share.
James Rufus Agee, known to his family as Rufus, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1909. His father, Hugh James Agee, or Jay, worked at a variety of jobs, including construction work for his wife’s family business. When James was nearing six, his father struck an embankment while driving home from visiting his own ailing father. The car flipped over, and Jay was killed instantly. The accident and its aftermath were etched into Agee’s memory. As his teenage years approached, Agee formed a close attachment to an Episcopal priest, Father James Flye, who became his mentor and surrogate father. Agee graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1928 and moved on to Harvard, where he studied literature under the eminent critic I. A. Richards. After graduating, Agee began a productive but difficult tenure with Fortune magazine. In 1936, on assignment with Fortune, Agee traveled to Alabama with photographer Walker Evans to report on the struggles of poor tenant farmers. Although Fortune rejected Agee’s piece on the subject, his collaboration with Evans led to a groundbreaking, though initially unpopular work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941. While working on a variety of fiction manuscripts, Agee wrote film criticism for the Nation and a number of screenplays, including The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. Battling alcoholism and heart disease, Agee worked for years to complete his magnum opus, a novel about his father’s death called A Death in the Family. On May 16, 1955, two days before the thirty-ninth anniversary of his father’s fatal accident, James Agee died of a massive heart attack in a New York taxicab. Published posthumously in 1957, A Death in the Family was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958.
- James Agee was an enthusiastic reader of Sigmund Freud. How, if at all, is this interest reflected in A Death in the Family?
- Although A Death in the Family is a work of fiction, it is highly faithful to the actual events surrounding the death of James Agee’s father. Why do you think Agee chose to present his memories in a fictional account instead of as a nonfiction memoir?
- James Agee died before the text of A Death in the Family could be finalized and it was his editors who decided on the placement of the italicized nonchronological passages that appear at the ends of Parts One and Two. How does the insertion of these passages change the way one reads and understands the novel? Do you think Agee would have approved?
- The first section of the novel’s published text, “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” was published separately in Partisan Review in 1938. It formed no part of Agee’s manuscript for A Death in the Family. Why do you think Agee’s editors chose to commence the novel with this section? How does its inclusion affect the reading of Agee’s novel as a whole?
- Although Rufus and his father exchange relatively few words in Chapter 1, one senses that they are communicating deeply on a nonverbal level. What are the nature and substance of this communication, and what techniques does Agee use to establish the father-son bond in the space of only a few pages?
- What is Jay’s opinion of Rufus? How well does he appear to know his son? How do his views of Rufus differ from how the reader perceives the boy?
- Why did Mary’s family object to her marrying Jay? What effects does their opposition seem to have had on their marriage? Were her family’s misgivings justifiable?
- Assess Jay’s strong and weak points as a husband and father. Is he someone you would like to have had in your family? Why or why not?
- Agee chooses to narrate Jay’s relatively uneventful trip to his ailing father’s house, but he opts not to directly narrate the fatal return trip, choosing instead to describe the crash only through the secondhand accounts of characters who did not witness it. What do you think of this choice, and why do you suppose Agee made it?
- A Death in the Family is a novel about the pre-Civil Rights-era South, written and published just as the civil rights movement was gathering force. How do issues of race influence the novel, especially as they relate to Rufus?
- When the stranger calls to report Jay’s accident, he specifies that his family should “send a man out here” (p. 103). This is just one of the instances in the novel where roles and behavior are strongly dictated by gender. What commentaries are implied in A Death in the Family, and to what extent do you think Agee was aware of making them?
- Much of the philosophical tension in the novel arises because of Mary’s deep religiosity and her conflicts with characters like Jay, her brother Andrew, and her father Joel, whom “God in a wheelbarrow” would not convince to abandon his atheism (p. 172). In general, which side gets the better of the argument in this novel, faith or unbelief?
- What are your thoughts about the scene in which Jay’s ghost is thought to appear (Chapter 12)? How do the characters’ reactions to the supposed apparition reveal aspects of their personalities?
- Agee takes great pains to give balanced portraits of his characters, enabling us both to sympathize with and criticize them and their views. With which of Agee’s characters did you find it most difficult to sympathize, and why?
- One of Mary’s hardest moments comes in Chapter 14, when she must explain Jay’s death to their children. Do you agree with the way in which she does this? How should a parent of children of differing ages and levels of comprehension go about explaining an event like this?
- 16. Rufus struggles to understand whether his father died, as his mother would have it, “because God wanted him” or, as Aunt Hannah explains it, because of a mechanical malfunction with the car (pp. 227, 234–235). Which explanation seems more plausible to him, and does it seem more likely that Rufus will grow up believing or disbelieving in God?
- How does the scene where Rufus discusses Jay’s death with the other schoolchildren (Chapter 16) influence the way in which he comes to terms with the event?
- Analyze the character of Father Jackson. Is he as contemptible as Rufus, young Catherine, and Andrew consider him? If not, why not? What accounts for his inability to relate more positively to the Follet children?
- In Chapter 20, Andrew describes how a butterfly settled on Jay’s coffin just before it was lowered into the ground, a moment that he contrasts violently with Father Jackson’s prim refusal to perform the complete burial service over the unbaptized Jay. What argument does Agee appear to be making about natural versus institutionalized religion?
- At the end of the novel, Andrew’s anti-Catholic screed convinces Rufus that Andrew hates Rufus’s mother. Is Rufus correct about this? If not, what is a better way to describe the unstable cocktail of emotions that Andrew feels toward Mary?