Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960
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, Hannah does not impose her ideas on Mary, realizing that she will come to accept Jay’s death in her own time and in her own way.
Mary’s brother Andrew eventually confirms that Jay has died. The family draws together, but each family member reacts to the death and to the meaning of death itself in his or her own way. Mary at first interprets the accident as a punishment from God and then flees into affirmations of determined religious faith, which, ironically, make her appear increasingly heartless. Mary’s brother Andrew disdains organized religion; their father, Joel, goes further by expressing doubts about the nature or existence of God. The division between Mary and Hannah on one side and Joel and Andrew on the other is also suggested by an enigmatic episode in which only Mary and Hannah appear to feel the spirit of Jay returning home to say a last good-bye. In addition to these differing spiritual perspectives, Jay’s sullen brother Ralph is haunted by the guilty feeling that his drunken telephone call to his brother began the chain of events that led to his death. Finally, among this confusion of voices are those of neighboring boys, who taunt Rufus with suggestions that Jay had been drinking or perhaps driving too fast, possibly in a self-destructive way.
Jay’s funeral is the province of a priggish Anglo-Catholic priest, Father Jackson, who visits the house soon after Jay’s death and tells Mary he will not read a full burial service because Jay was not baptized in the Church. Father Jackson emerges as a censorious and insincere man whose purpose is to subjugate the anguished Mary to his authority and who notices the bereaved children only long enough to lecture them on deportment. While Rufus is infuriated by the priest’s sanctimony and his presumptuous attempts to exert paternal authority, he is reassured by the family friend Walter Starr, who remembers Jay as a strong, good man with a natural sympathy for everyone.
As the narrative begins with Jay and Rufus walking together, the novel concludes with Andrew and Rufus taking a similar walk after Jay’s funeral. Andrew expresses deep hostility to the Church and to Father Jackson, taking pains to impress on Rufus that his loving and lively father was neither genteel nor religious. However, although Andrew is not a believer, he tells Rufus about a miracle he felt he witnessed at Jay’s graveside. He notices a butterfly in the coffin as it is lowered into the earth, which he takes as a sign from Jay himself and a hopeful symbol of the soul’s transfiguration. This is the one thing, the bitter Andrew tells Rufus, that could make him a believer; but he will share this story only with Rufus, not with Hannah and Mary, who would of course welcome this spiritual moment. Andrew’s intense but conflicted feelings of real love and resentful hatred for Hannah and Mary act as a mirror for Rufus’s own developing emotional life. As they walk back to the house where the women are waiting for them, Rufus’s conversation with Andrew has defined for him the ambivalent relationship both with his mother and with religion that Rufus understands will trouble him for the rest of his life.
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