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 as Jay prepares to leave before daybreak and his wife, Mary, awakens to cook his breakfast. Once again, the children are asleep the following evening when a stranger calls to tell Mary that her husband has been in an accident. On the way back from the country, the steering mechanism of his car broke and Jay was killed instantly.
The simplicity of the novel’s plot belies a complex exploration of the emotional effect of Jay’s death on family members and the flavor of life in Tennessee during the early decades of the twentieth century. In her grief, Mary turns to religion for consolation. Catherine, Rufus’ sister, is too young to understand her loss or her mother’s sorrow. For young Rufus, however, much about life is mysterious; the death of his father is yet another baffling puzzle that he struggles to understand. Other family members give the novel its texture and regional emphasis, establishing the world in which adults and children confront the fact of death.
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,...
(The entire section is 2,653 words.)