Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688
Rufus Follet, a six-year-old who loves his father and mother but is otherwise fearful about the world of grown-ups. That world is a confusing place where older children ridicule his name (his mother tells him it is a fine old name), adults often use words he does not understand, and his beloved father dies suddenly in a car accident. Rufus compensates for his fears by bullying his little sister. It is a mark of his intelligence that he sometimes understands his motives and usually feels remorseful for tyrannizing her.
Jay Follet, the young husband and father who is killed as he returns home from the bedside of his own mortally ill father. Jay loves his wife, for whom he does many kindnesses, and his children, but he resents his drunken brother Ralph’s weak reliance on him for emotional support. Jay had been a heavy drinker in the past but for the sake of his wife left that behind. A family friend tells Rufus that his father grew up in poverty and against hard odds but turned out to be a man of great kindness and generosity. The priest who conducts the funeral nevertheless notes that Jay was never baptized and thus is not entitled to the full burial rites of the church.
Mary Follet, Jay’s young wife, loving, pious, and naïve. She must begin to face the demands that her new status as widow will place on her. During the few days between her husband’s death and the funeral, Mary leans heavily on her family and her faith as a devout Roman Catholic, but she also exhibits her own strength of character at crucial times. She asks her Aunt Hannah Lynch to spend the first night of her widowhood with her instead of asking her mother, whose deafness makes conversation nearly impossible. She refuses to let Ralph Follet, an undertaker, supervise the funeral, knowing that Ralph’s drinking would surely cause problems. Although she has a tendency toward prissiness and sometimes offers simplistic solutions to Rufus’ problems, she also can call on a psychological toughness that—with the help of her loving family—will see her through the difficult future.
Hannah Lynch, Mary Follet’s aunt, her mother’s unmarried sister. She is direct, intelligent, and devoted to her niece and the Follet family. Before Jay’s death, she takes Rufus shopping for a cap, knowing that his mother considers him too young for this item of grown-up headgear, even though Rufus desperately longs for it. Even before the news of Jay’s death is confirmed, she guesses the seriousness of the accident and exhibits her customary sensitivity and restraint as she waits with Mary for the worst to be confirmed, knowing instinctively that Mary must come to understand the loss in her own way.
Ralph Follet, Jay’s alcoholic brother, weak and self-pitying. Ralph’s rivalry with his brother for their mother’s affections extends back into childhood. In a few moments of honesty, however, he recognizes the pain that his drinking and womanizing cause his mother and his wife, Sally. He acknowledges that they truly love him despite his weaknesses.
Andrew Lynch, Mary Follet’s brother, a skeptic who loves his sister even though he doubts the value of her faith. After the funeral, he invites Rufus for a walk, during which he confesses to the boy his rage at what he considers to be the priest’s smug dismissal of Jay Follet’s worth.
Walter Starr, a simple but sensitive family friend of the Lynches. He goes with Andrew to bring Jay’s body home. The children spend the time of the funeral with him. During that time, he gently chastises Rufus for bullying his little sister and makes sure that the children have a chance to watch the funeral procession. He tells Rufus that his father was like Abraham Lincoln.
Catherine Follet, Rufus’ little sister, four years old. She is almost overwhelmed by the mystery and upheaval brought about by events she cannot understand.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2102
George Bailey is the husband of Jay’s sister Jessie.
Jessie Bailey is the sister of Jay and Ralph.
When he is traveling to LaFollette in the middle of the night, Jay Follet has to wake a Ferryman, whose job is to ride cars across the river on his flat ferryboat. The Ferryman is prepared to charge Jay a double rate but, finding a horse-drawn wagon of people going toward town and paying for the boat’s return trip, can only fairly charge the single rate.
The young daughter of the Follet family, Catherine is frequently unaware of what is going on around her. She does not understand the full implications of her father’s death and expects him to return to the family later. In the last chapter, as she moves around the house unnoticed, Catherine begins to understand the seriousness of what has happened.
See Jay Follet
Jay, also known as James Follet, is the man who dies in the novel. He is stable and reliable. He is shown to have been a favorite of his mother and his great-grandmother. Walter Starr, a family friend, is near tears as he tries to express to Jay’s children his great admiration for Jay, who worked himself up from humble roots.
There are indications that Jay has not always been stable and reliable. After he leaves for his parents’ house, his wife Mary reflects on the difficult times they have had as a couple, and on a “gulf” between them. His great aunt Sadie mentions sending a postcard to Jay and Mary in Panama, indicating that Jay has been a wanderer. Agee hints that Jay has had problems with alcohol in the past. Near the end of the first section, recalling his childhood, Rufus remembers fights between his parents concerning whiskey, an idea supported by the facts that Jay asks Rufus to keep their visit to a tavern a secret and that the neighbor children assume that he died from driving drunk.
Mary is the wife of Jay, and the mother of Rufus and Catherine. She is a devout Catholic, praying for her husband’s safety when he leaves the house in the middle of the night to go to his ailing father, praying even more that God’s will is merciful when she hears that he has been in an accident, and relying most heavily on her faith when she hears that he has died. Throughout the night of her sudden widowhood, Mary drinks more whiskey than she ever would have thought possible, feeling no effect from it. She is constantly surprised that she is able to cope with the whole ordeal as well as she is, though, when it comes time to leave for the funeral, her legs give out under her.
Ralph, Jay’s brother, is an undertaker. He lives near his parents’ house and is summoned over when his father has a heart attack. While relatives wait for the doctor to determine just how serious the danger is, Ralph, an alcoholic, sneaks outside to drink. His weak attempt to hide the fact that he is drinking fails, especially when he hits his head on the door, pretending to go to the outhouse, and returns bleeding. He is alternately humiliated and self-righteous, and both moods drive him to drink more. When he calls in the middle of the night, Jay can tell he is drunk, and his trouble obtaining reliable information is the reason he leaves Knoxville to drive to the family house. Ralph’s alcoholism is so well-known that Mary refuses to talk to him when the news comes out that Jay is dead; her brother Andrew, who has had to tell Ralph that they are using an in-town undertaker, comes away explaining “Talking to that fool is like trying to put socks on an octopus.”
The book is focused on six-year-old Rufus, particularly during the autobiographical sections that the publishers have added at the end of Parts I and II. In these sections, which take place before the death of his father, Rufus is becoming aware of his place in society. He observes the social patterns of his neighborhood in Knoxville, five generations of his father’s family, and the behaviors of his peers. His family showers him with love and his father affords him protection from his childhood fears in these flashbacks. When dealing with other children, however, Rufus finds that he is for some reason ostracized. He believes their interest in them is honest, at first, but the suspicion that they are mocking him grows when he hears them repeating things he has said and laughing.
Before his father’s death, Rufus is anxious to grow up and be treated like an adult. He feels that his parents treat him like a child, and so he makes a point of giving orders to his sister Catherine, who is younger than he. The death pushes him into adulthood in ways that he could not anticipate.
Rufus’s response to his father’s death is less emotional than one might expect. He understands the idea of death and is blunt about stating it. He is saddened, but he also is mystified by the social customs surrounding death: the people coming to the house; the fact that he is kept home from school; the genuine interest and even respect of the children who had made fun of him.
At the end of the book, Rufus is just starting to show anger over the situation. When his uncle Andrew curses about the priest’s refusal to say certain prayers over Jay Follet, who was not baptized, Rufus does not agree with Andrew but instead silently accuses his uncle of hating his devout Christian mother, indicating that, in the future, Rufus might be less accepting, less curious, and more defensive.
Sally is Ralph’s wife. She is ashamed of Ralph’s drinking, a fact that he is well aware of. In his mind, Ralph accuses Sally of wanting other men but then remembers that he is unfaithful himself.
The grandmother of Jay’s father, Granmaw is roughly 103 years old when the family travels out into the unoccupied hills to visit her in a memory that Rufus has at the end of Part II. She does not seem to be aware of the people who have come before her, but she responds favorably when Rufus is sent forward to kiss her and talk to her.
Father Jackson is a Catholic priest who has come from Chattanooga to officiate at the funeral of Jay Follet. He is a stern man who, when left alone with the children, does not console them but instead corrects them on their manners. Hannah is resentful that Father Jackson does not leave the room when Mary is preparing for the funeral and her knees falter. Mary’s brother Andrew is livid with anger that Father Jackson refuses to read the complete funeral service for Jay because Jay was not baptized.
In the memory that Rufus has of staying with his father’s family when he was young, Aunt Kate and her husband, Uncle Ted, come from Michigan to visit. Aunt Kate is the daughter of Rufus’s grandmother’s half sister.
When a man from out of town phones Mary and asks her to send a male family member to the accident scene, she phones her brother Andrew. Andrew takes the situation in hand, making arrangements for the body when he finds Jay dead, instead of calling Mary. He holds the information about Jay’s death until he can show up and tell Mary about it in person.
For most of the novel, Andrew is on the periphery of the action, waiting for ways that he can be helpful to his sister. At the end he takes his nephew Rufus for a walk to talk with him individually. He tells him about a butterfly that landed on the casket as it was lowered into the grave, an event so spiritually uplifting that Andrew feels that Rufus ought to know about it. His wonderment is quickly followed, though, with hatred for Father Jackson, who has refused to read the full funeral service over Jay because he was not baptized. Andrew’s hatred for the Catholic church at that time makes Rufus assume that Andrew hates Mary, too.
Catherine, Mary’s mother, is hard of hearing. As a result, she and her husband Joel are asked to stay home while Mary waits for news of the crash in the middle of the night, because conversation with Catherine would mean shouting into the ear trumpet she uses to magnify sounds. When they do go to the house in the middle of the night, Catherine is often left out of conversations because family members are speaking in hushed tones. This isolation, though, supports the idea that Jay’s spirit has come through the house: while the fact that the others talk about it might be dismissed as just a collective mood, the fact that Catherine had the same sensation independently makes the experience much more real.
Hannah, Mary’s maiden aunt, makes herself available to help around the household during the crisis. She enters the novel before Jay Follet’s death, when he is just away to his parents’ house. She takes Rufus shopping, showing a bond with the boy when she buys him a cap that he has wanted but that his parents would not allow him to have. When news comes that Jay has been in an accident, Mary asks Aunt Hannah to come to her house and wait with her; after it has been determined that Jay is dead, she asks Hannah to stay the night. Hannah watches over the children while Mary is rendered incapable by grief.
Mary’s father Joel works with Jay, though the novel does not specify what their business is. When the family is gathered together on the night of Jay’s death and talking about spiritual matters, Joel is respectful, but he is open and honest about the fact that he cannot believe in God.
Oaks is a handyman on the grandparents’ ranch up in LaFollette.
Great Aunt Sadie
The sister of Jay’s grandfather, she lives in a house out in the hills and tends to her own mother, who is referred to as “Granmaw.” Sadie is an exacting woman, greatly angry with herself when she finds that she forgot Jay’s family had sent her a notice of their new address. She feels that, with her aged mother to look after, she cannot afford to have any slips in her memory.
Walter is a friend of the family who is glad to make himself available during the family’s time of need. He has a car, and drives Andrew out to the accident site in the middle of the night. Later, he takes the children to his house during the funeral, but he breaks the family’s wishes and lets them watch the funeral procession from a hidden place because he thinks it is important for them. He talks to them in a positive, uplifting way.
When he is left alone with the children at the funeral, Walter tells them of the tremendous respect that he had for their father: “Well, I thought the world of him, Rufus and Catherine. My own wife and son couldn’t mean more to me I think.” He goes on to describe himself as an ordinary man, noting that he thought Jay was one of the finest men who ever lived.
Rufus remembers Uncle Ted and his wife, Aunt Kate, visiting and going for a train ride into the Smoky Mountains with his family. Uncle Ted buys him a toy and is funny, but then he jokes that Rufus can make the cheese plate come to him by whistling for it. Rufus is too young to understand this as a joke, and his mother chastises Uncle Ted for taking advantage of the boy’s trusting nature.
Victoria is a midwife who helped Mary through her pregnancy with Rufus and, in Rufus’s memory, returns to help deliver his sister Catherine. She is the first black person that Rufus has ever met, and his parents insist that he treat her with respect, which is not a problem because he has a genuine fondness for her.
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