Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Knoxville. Tennessee city that is the novel’s main setting, as the home of Jay and Mary Follet and their two children. The novel begins with a short section titled “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” a poetically evocative description of summer evenings that breaks into free verse. After supper, as daylight fades and children run around yelling and playing, relaxed fathers, collars removed and shirt cuffs peeled back, are outside watering their lawns with hoses. This scene competes with the natural sounds and sights of locusts, crickets, frogs, and fireflies, which gradually increase as the night comes on. One by one the men coil their hoses and retreat inside their homes. Not even the man of the house—husband, father, and breadwinner—can hold back the night. Thus the short descriptive section serves as a poetic foreword to the whole novel, which develops the effects on a family of its father’s sudden death.

The opening section also introduces a subtheme of the novel—the social and cultural tensions between the Follet and Lynch families. Jay, Mary, and children live in a lower middle-class neighborhood of similar houses and families, and the Lynches (Mary’s parents, brother, and aunt) live nearby in a slightly older middle-class neighborhood. The middle-class way of life is identified with the city, and the Lynches, who are comfortable, somewhat cultured, and Roman Catholic, assume that their own way of life is the desirable norm. To them, people outside Knoxville are merely hillbillies.

The Lynches admire Jay for having raised himself out of his background (though at first they are aghast when Mary marries him). Jay himself,...

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A Death in the Family Historical Context

One aspect of the novel that is notably different than the way life is in contemporary America is the closeness of extended families, with...

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A Death in the Family Literary Style

Point of View

Some novels maintain a consistent point of view, that is, they tell their story from the perspective...

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A Death in the Family Compare and Contrast

1915: The Ford Model T, or “Tin Lizzy,” revolutionizes transportation by offering affordable, mass-produced transportation to...

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A Death in the Family Topics for Further Study

Research various funerary rites of different cultures and report on what each would have to offer the Follet family in a situation like the...

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A Death in the Family Media Adaptations

A Death in the Family was adapted to the stage as the play All the Way Home in 1960; a film version of the play was made in...

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A Death in the Family What Do I Read Next?

Agee’s only other novel, The Morning Watch (1950), is about a boy at a boarding school in the mountains of Tennessee who has a...

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A Death in the Family Bibliography and Further Reading


Kramer, Victor A., “Urban and Rural Balance in A Death in the Family,” in James Agee:...

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A Death in the Family Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Barson, Alfred T. A Way of Seeing: A Critical Study of James Agee. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.

Bergreen, Laurence. James Agee: A Life. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984. A fascinating biography that discusses A Death in the Family. Many fine photos.

Doty, Mark A. Tell Me Who I Am: James Agee’s Search for Selfhood. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. An interesting study of Agee’s search for selfhood, in which the remembrances in A Death in the Family play a major role.


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