A Death in the Family Additional Summary

James Agee


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Part 1 of the novel’s three parts opens with Rufus (James Agee’s real, and detested, nickname) being taken, joyously, by Jay, his father, to see a slapstick Charlie Chaplin movie, one that is all the funnier for being slightly risqué. Afterward, deciding to “hoist a couple,” Jay takes Rufus into a bar, where Jay brags about his boy’s reading ability, which Rufus, somewhat dismayed, realizes is his father’s way of not embarrassing him about his inability to fight off other boys. Balance is soon restored, the bonding tightens, and the contract between them reaffirms, as Rufus is offered a Life Saver—man-to-man—as Jay uses another to cloak his breath and Rufus grasps that when his father sets out on a slow, contented pace homeward it is because Jay genuinely savors time spent with his son. That gentle night, as Rufus drifts into sleep, he hears his father telling his mother that he will return before the kids are awake and then the grinding sounds of the family Ford being cranked. In the morning, Mary explains why Jay is not at breakfast.

His parents were awakened by a phone call from Jay’s younger brother, Ralph. Ralph and Jay’s ill father lives on a farm miles out of Knoxville, and the message was that their father is dying. Jay decided, chancing that his brother was right, to make the trip. Mary prepared Jay for his journey while Rufus and his younger sister, Catherine, slept.

Rufus imagines his father’s thoughts as he drove to the farm: Jay’s thoughts of home, encounters at the ferry, and the pleasant feel of Jay moving into his home country. Rufus imagines Mary, too, strict and religious,...

(The entire section is 670 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

A Death in the Family is a novel of delightful and deceptive simplicity. As the title implies, it is the story of a man’s death and its effects on the family he leaves behind. Jay Follet is happily married to his devout wife, Mary, and they have two children, Rufus and Catherine, ages six and four. Early one morning, Jay is summoned by his drunken brother Ralph to drive from Knoxville to their father’s deathbed in rural LaFollette. As Jay suspects, the journey turns out to be unnecessary—Ralph exaggerated the severity of the old man’s condition—so he sets out to return home, hoping to arrive before the children go to bed. Formerly an alcoholic, Jay may have had something to drink; apparently, high speeds and a loose pin in the steering mechanism cause his car to go off the road. Jay, with only two tiny bruises on his face, experiences a fatal concussion. His family is first alerted that he was in an accident, and then that he died. His body is returned to Knoxville, and the funeral is held. That, with several interpolated flashbacks (sections in italics which the editors, after Agee’s death, placed where they thought best) is the entire action of the novel.

Within this bare plot, Agee uses careful and subtle detail to create character and emotional movement. The narrative voice is nearly absent; it either describes the external attributes of a particular moment or records the impressions and inner thoughts of any of a number of...

(The entire section is 576 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Knoxville: Summer, 1915

The segment titled “Knoxville: Summer, 1915” was originally published independently of...

(The entire section is 1288 words.)