Study Guide

A Death in the Family

by James Agee

A Death in the Family Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

James Agee’s autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, recalls his tranquil childhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the tragic event that hastened his loss of innocence and security—the death of his father, Hugh James (Jay) Agee. The novel’s manuscript, on which its author had been working for years, was left incomplete at Agee’s sudden death in 1955. Edited and published in 1957, it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

A Death in the Family offers a compelling look at the Follet family’s reaction to the death of a young father, exploring the loneliness of the self and contentment brought about by family members. The fundamental differences in the character and personality of Mary and Jay Follet are revealed early in the novel; the mother’s religiosity and serious disposition is contrasted with her husband’s more independent and spontaneous nature. Much of the action is filtered through the experience, perception, and sense impressions of Rufus, their six-year-old son, whose loving relationship with his father is powerfully evoked in the novel’s opening chapter.

In the middle of the night, Jay receives a phone call that summons him to the country and to his ailing father. Rufus and his younger sister, Catherine, are asleep when the telephone rings; their father decides not to wake them for he plans to return in time for supper. The ties of family relationships—trivial, intimate, tender—are evoked...

(The entire section is 405 words.)

A Death in the Family Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

A Death in the Family opens with a poetic meditation that introduces the perspective of Rufus, who is at once both boy and man and is looking back on his childhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1915, as a time of both innocence and mystery. The actual narrative, however, begins as he and his father, Jay, enjoy a companionable evening together at a Charlie Chaplin movie; this and Jay’s stop at a local saloon after the movie are both activities of which Jay’s wife, Mary, does not approve. Other differences between mother and father also surface; Jay is from a poor country family, while Mary is from a middle-class city family. An even greater conflict concerns religious differences that the narrative will develop in the wake of the sudden death of Jay in an automobile accident.

After Jay has rushed out to the family farm in the mistaken belief that his father has died, Mary receives a phone call telling her that her husband has been involved in a serious automobile accident. This news ushers in a central section in the novel, in which Mary and her family gather to await further news. Each member of the family reacts differently to the crisis, but the narrative concentrates in particular on Mary’s reaction. A pious Anglo-Catholic, Mary’s response to the distinct possibility that her husband has died is made problematic by an evasive religiosity. Although Mary’s aunt Hannah is also a deeply religious woman, we see that Hannah finds Mary’s histrionic religious rhetoric disturbing and even malign. When Mary persuades Hannah to kneel and pray with her, what Hannah begins to perceive in Mary is not devout belief but spiritual pride and pretension that, ironically, appears to prevent the development of any true religious feeling. Hannah, however, understands how deeply vulnerable Mary is and how devastating the loss of her husband is to her, and she wisely allows Mary to take her own time in accepting the fact of Jay’s death, a course of action that recalls an earlier time in which she presided over Rufus’s purchase of a cap. The gaudy cap Rufus chose expressed his desire to abandon the babyish identity encouraged by his mother in favor of a more mature identity like that of his free-spirited father. Although the cap was not one to his great-aunt Hannah’s taste, she wisely allowed him to make up his own mind. Similarly,...

(The entire section is 960 words.)

A Death in the Family Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Part 1 of the novel’s three parts opens with Rufus (James Agee’s real, and detested, nickname) being taken, joyously, by Jay, his father, to see a slapstick Charlie Chaplin movie, one that is all the funnier for being slightly risqué. Afterward, deciding to “hoist a couple,” Jay takes Rufus into a bar, where Jay brags about his boy’s reading ability, which Rufus, somewhat dismayed, realizes is his father’s way of not embarrassing him about his inability to fight off other boys. Balance is soon restored, the bonding tightens, and the contract between them reaffirms, as Rufus is offered a Life Saver—man-to-man—as Jay uses another to cloak his breath and Rufus grasps that when his father sets out on a slow, contented pace homeward it is because Jay genuinely savors time spent with his son. That gentle night, as Rufus drifts into sleep, he hears his father telling his mother that he will return before the kids are awake and then the grinding sounds of the family Ford being cranked. In the morning, Mary explains why Jay is not at breakfast.

His parents were awakened by a phone call from Jay’s younger brother, Ralph. Ralph and Jay’s ill father lives on a farm miles out of Knoxville, and the message was that their father is dying. Jay decided, chancing that his brother was right, to make the trip. Mary prepared Jay for his journey while Rufus and his younger sister, Catherine, slept.

Rufus imagines his father’s thoughts as he drove to the farm: Jay’s thoughts of home, encounters at the ferry, and the pleasant feel of Jay moving into his home country. Rufus imagines Mary, too, strict and religious,...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

A Death in the Family Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

A Death in the Family is a novel of delightful and deceptive simplicity. As the title implies, it is the story of a man’s death and its effects on the family he leaves behind. Jay Follet is happily married to his devout wife, Mary, and they have two children, Rufus and Catherine, ages six and four. Early one morning, Jay is summoned by his drunken brother Ralph to drive from Knoxville to their father’s deathbed in rural LaFollette. As Jay suspects, the journey turns out to be unnecessary—Ralph exaggerated the severity of the old man’s condition—so he sets out to return home, hoping to arrive before the children go to bed. Formerly an alcoholic, Jay may have had something to drink; apparently, high speeds and a loose pin in the steering mechanism cause his car to go off the road. Jay, with only two tiny bruises on his face, experiences a fatal concussion. His family is first alerted that he was in an accident, and then that he died. His body is returned to Knoxville, and the funeral is held. That, with several interpolated flashbacks (sections in italics which the editors, after Agee’s death, placed where they thought best) is the entire action of the novel.

Within this bare plot, Agee uses careful and subtle detail to create character and emotional movement. The narrative voice is nearly absent; it either describes the external attributes of a particular moment or records the impressions and inner thoughts of any of a number of...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

A Death in the Family Summary

Knoxville: Summer, 1915

The segment titled “Knoxville: Summer, 1915” was originally published independently of...

(The entire section is 1288 words.)