A Death in the Family Criticism
by James Agee

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Criticism

(Novels for Students)

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      James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family is primarily, as its straightforward title indicates, about an emotional moment in a closed family unit including its surrounding relations. Agee’s narrative travels from one point-of-view to another, giving his readers a range of perspectives, all used to show the void the death of Jay Follet, husband and father, creates. The book also travels through time, though that might not be a mark of Agee’s artistry as much as it is the work of the editors who, after his death, wove outside material into the book. The story of Jay’s death takes place across the span of just a few days, ranging from the night before it to a few days after, at his funeral; the included material, though, goes back to a time when Jay’s son Rufus, a major character, was barely old enough to understand his surroundings. Adding these out-of-sequence episodes to the ends of Part I and Part II, plus the multi-page prose poem “Knoxville: Summer, 1915” rounds out young Rufus’s experience in a way that a strictly chronological telling would miss.

      It is the story’s geographical breadth, even more so than its chronological depth, however, that adds the most to its effectiveness. This is a story about emotions, but the way that those emotions are most strongly presented is through Agee’s use of places. He shows where people are in relation to one another in the world, as well as in their hearts. Any story has to take place somewhere, but the movement across physical space in this particular novel shows more about the inner lives of its characters, and in particular young Rufus, than the story conveys through just dialog and action alone.

      Though every location in the book is important, it helps, for the sake of understanding their significance, to divide locations into three general categories. One of these categories is homes: since “family” is such an important part of the social dynamic that Agee is examining, it makes sense that this book would be dominated by variations on what family members call home. Another category would be locations that are passed in transition, by characters on the move from one place to another. Throughout the book, Rufus takes several walks with older relatives that radiate significance about what his life has been and what it is going to be, and Jay’s fatal trip across the Tennessee countryside is certainly significant. Symbolically, these two ideas, home and beyond, meet at the corner of the block where the Follets live, which is where the boy becomes a part of the world outside of his family.

      The one setting where most of the book takes place is, appropriately, the Follet house. This is a story about a family, after all, and it makes sense that the book should center around the place where the family gathers. Readers do not see this house as a place of comfort, though. Most of the time, it is the middle of the night, and the house is dark and quiet. Readers get to know Jay when he is preparing to leave for his parents’ ranch out in the country in the dark. The bulk of the novel, the whole middle third, follows Mary’s reactions from the time she is woken by the call to tell her of Jay’s accident to her attempt to go to sleep at first light. There are other scenes in the house, but they are themselves shaded, either by actual night (as when Rufus, as an infant, has trouble sleeping because he fears the shadows in his room) or by the knowledge of Jay’s death. The house is important to the family identity, but Agee does not allow readers to see it in happy times.

      There are also homes of other family members presented. One of them, the house of Jay’s parents, is a mirror image of the way his house is presented in Part II of the novel, with family and friends sitting the night out, offering comfort in the face of death (though in this case they are braced against a death that never comes). Readers’ view of...

(The entire section is 1,808 words.)