Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1808
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...
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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 this home is obscured by the fact that this scene is told through the eyes of Jay’s brother Ralph, who, due to alcohol and insecurity, renders a view of those around him that is skewed at best. Ralph is so self-absorbed, so focused on hiding his drinking problem that readers get little sense of Jay’s mother, Jessie and George Bailey, Thomas Oaks or Sally Follet, who are there with him. As with the other house, this one is the focus of family solidarity, but it is shown in the novel as a dark and foreboding place.
The home that does seem comforting, even inviting, is the “great, square-logged gray cabin” where Jay’s 103-year-old relative lives. Agee describes the house in mythical terms (for instance, the word “great” is used several times in the short descriptive passage, conveying a sense of grandeur). Everything about this ancestral home is shrouded in myth, from the trip there, which is guided by half-forgotten memories, to the unimaginable details of the old woman’s life (born before Abraham Lincoln) to the woman herself, who seems incapable of understanding what is happening until young Rufus kisses her, at which point she reaches out to him, as if waking from an ancient sleep. Agee clearly wants to emphasize this cabin as a trip back in time for Rufus and for Jay, who is later said to have been born in a log cabin. It is a return home for Jay’s father, too, and for his brother. This obscure cabin out in the sunshine is home to all of them, a home that they have traveled from in the varied courses of their lives.
Although homes as places of comfort is a theme in this novel, the next most frequent place for staging events in this novel is in transit, with characters who are passing through the space they inhabit. Three times throughout the novel, Rufus goes walking with adult family members. The first is in the opening chapter, when he and his father walk home from the movies. During this walk there are signs of Jay’s unrooted nature and his looking backward, from his searching in the tavern for people from “back home” in the Powell River Valley (which in itself foreshadows “Powell Station,” the place a man calls from to tell Mary of Jay’s accident) to the comfort he derives from in the big rock they stop by, which offers him a piece of nature in the middle of the city. Jay takes Rufus into his confidence on the way home, telling him to not mention the saloon to his mother, making this walk a rite of passage for the boy as he is treated, in one thing at least, as his father’s peer.
The walk that begins the novel is counterbalanced with the walk that Rufus takes at the end, with his uncle Andrew. Their man-to-man talk reflects the way Jay and his son shared a secret, as Andrew tells Rufus about the butterfly at the grave, which, Agee makes clear, he would not tell anyone else. This walk ends with Rufus saddled with even more adult responsibility as he witnesses Andrew, enraged about Father Jackson, losing his temper, giving him the unusual sight of an adult out of control of his emotions.
Within the story, before Jay’s death, Rufus walks downtown with his mother’s aunt Hannah to go shopping. This trip, like the other, presents Rufus away from home but safely under the guardianship of an adult relative. His trip with Hannah is particularly significant because their comfortable relationship is to become an important element of Rufus’s life, as Hannah will undoubtedly have a central role in helping Mary raise her children.
The one other significant location in the novel is the corner of the block where the Follet family lives. This is the place where Rufus is seen without adult supervision. It is here that he grows up socially and develops his own unique personality.
The corner is first introduced into the story as the place where Rufus, when he was younger, watched daily as his father “waved for the last time and disappeared,” and where he watched each afternoon for his father’s return. Gradually, Rufus went to the corner on his own, and there encountered children who were not as nurturing as his family members had been, mocking him and confusing him with their ill-natured hostility. In full view of his house, waiting while his father is in transit between the outside world and home, he does whatever he can to join that world of outsiders, even though he knows that he is making a fool of himself.
After his father’s death, he is accepted by a few of the other children, at least by the those who pity him and those who defer to his status as a boy who has gone through the unimaginable, magic process of orphan hood. While the novel is mainly about the way family members come together at a time of tragedy, the street corner represents the beginning of the natural growth process of splintering off from the family. The journey of life begins.
The street corner is also where Walter Starr stops his car to let the Rufus and his sister watch Jay’s casket loaded into the hearse and taken away. It shows a tremendous measure of respect on Walter’s part, trusting them to be cope with the sight that no other adults in their lives trusts them to see. Their view from the corner represents both of the main themes present in this novel’s geography: home, and going away from it.
The event that disrupts the Follet family in A Death in the Family is traumatic in itself, especially to a boy Rufus’s age. Still, Agee showed good artistic sense when he avoided telling the story through action and dialog, which could easily tilt the writing toward over-sentimentality. People in this novel behave as if in a daze, shrouded by the dark still of the night or by the sheer weight of sorrow. The significance of this situation is not shown entirely through character interaction, so Agee fills in the missing elements about Jay and Rufus and their personalities by implying a great deal with the setting of each scene. This story is centered around home, in its many various forms, but when there is a death in the family, home is only the beginning.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on A Death in the Family, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.