Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 265

All the key Christian issues are explored within the context of the Anglo-Catholicism in which James Agee was raised in the early years of the twentieth century in the American South. Agee particularly examines Mary Follet’s religion as a crucial ingredient in how she faces the sudden death of her young husband. Her reaction to the death, however, indicates that she may be the captive of a mistaken Christianity that fails to cope with grief or loss and instead feeds the sin of spiritual pride.

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In addition to exploring Mary’s religious convictions, Agee uses the novel to explore an entire family that is divided on the issue of religion. Hannah is a stoical believer; Mary is a grandiose believer; and Joel is angry at God. Andrew, in contrast, is angry at the Church but seems to be in touch with spiritual impulses. The individual nature of each family member’s view of religion tells Rufus that beliefs and values ultimately come down to the single self. As Rufus begins to work things out for himself, however, he struggles with the problem of evil, which surfaces within his family in the wake of the death of his father and also in his neighborhood through issues such as racism and bullying.

Even as Agee’s novel explores false or hypocritical religiosity, the novel’s pervasive mood is one that suggests that the ordinary days and hours of our lives possess a sacred aspect. Similarly, Agee also introduces into his narrative a sense of spiritual humility in the face of the mystery of life and death.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1238

Vulnerability

In a way, A Death in the Family stands as an extended meditation on human vulnerability. The story’s figure of strength is the father, Jay Follet, a man who, it is revealed, has lived a hard life, raised himself up from humble beginnings in a log cabin, overcome problems with alcohol and marital instability and come out better for them all. When they find out that he is dead, his children immediately wonder how anybody could hurt him. Jay’s death in a car accident could have been rendered as a bloody and violent, but Agee makes a point of noting frequently in the story that it actually takes very little to kill him: it is not the car careening up an embankment and flipping over on its back that does Jay in, but a mild little bump on the chin, causing a nearly imperceptible mark. Agee’s point seems to be that, despite the sturdiness of the human body and its capacity to withstand a lifetime of pain and suffering, life can be cut short by just about any unexpected action.

Similarly, the family organism is vulnerable to unexpected loss. At the moment when Jay is torn away, his relationship with Mary is on the verge of a new beginning that she finds surprising. Their relationship up to then had been colder: his thoughtfulness about her coming birthday and the sweet gesture of his preparing her bed come as pleasant surprises to Mary. By putting Jay’s death at a point where their love is growing, not fading or staying the same, Agee emphasizes the fact that life is fragile, and that not even love matters to death’s approach.

The most vulnerable character, though, is Rufus, who is six years old when his father dies. Several factors make this loss particularly powerful to him. His sister Catherine, though younger, cannot fully understand the situation the way Rufus can, as Agee shows clearly when their mother first tells them about the accident: Catherine still waits for her father to return, but Rufus cuts through the delicate language about God calling Jay home to ask, “Is daddy dead?” Another reason that Rufus is particularly vulnerable is that, as a son, he has had a strong bond with his male parent, which Agee stresses by opening the novel with father and son attending a movie and walking home together. Although the book looks at the situation from various perspectives, most readers and critics remember it as Rufus’s story, because he is the most vulnerable character, most sorely affected by Jay Follet’s death.

Consolation and Comfort

Although this story is about human vulnerability, it is also about the ways that humans bond together to help make that vulnerability bearable. Part II, in particular, focuses on Mary’s relatives coming together at her house on the night of the death, doing what they can to ease her suffering. For her brother Andrew and family friend Walter Starr, this means action: they are the ones who go to the scene of the accident, so that Mary will not have to face the gruesome details of Jay’s death. For Mary’s Aunt Hannah, the best way to comfort Mary, as she thinks several times throughout the night, is suppressing her own ideas, so that Mary can discover the things that she needs to experience about grief as she is ready for them. Her father waits until they are alone to quietly tell Mary that he will take care of the financial details so she need not bother herself with worldly concerns, and her mother, isolated by her own deafness, allows the conversation to go on around her, despite her frustration, rather than ask people to repeat things that Mary might find upsetting. Collectively, they bend their own values to the situation, as indicated by the fact that they allow Mary to drink too much if that is what she feels like doing, knowing that her comfort is more important than their own skepticism about alcohol.

In general, the adults in this story do little to comfort the children. Mary, when she is with them, tries to make their burden more bearable, but her own grief is so overwhelming that she is kept too busy just truing to convince herself that she is going to cope. When she does talk with them, it is in terms of abstract Catholic theology that is meaningless to them. Aunt Hannah, also, is too busy with practical considerations to be much consolation, despite the fact that Agee establishes a strong personal bond between her and Rufus. The figures most comforting to Rufus are the two male figures closest in age to his departed father, Walter Starr and Andrew. Walter, who is himself a father, speaks directly to Rufus and Catherine about what a good man Jay was, which is just the sort of thing they need to hear; later, he lets them view the funeral procession because he decides that it is what they need. Andrew takes Rufus into his confidence, conferring on him the adulthood that he has been struggling with. This has positive implications, when he talks of the butterfly at the gravesite and Rufus realizes that this is something Andrew would tell to no one but him, but it also brings the burden of responsibility when Andrew rails against religion, detracting from what might have been one possible source of consolation for the boy.

Catholicism

It would be difficult to discuss A Death in the Family without looking at the role religion and particularly Catholicism plays in this traumatic episode in the characters’ lives. There is no denying that the novel has a distinct spiritual vein, and that a belief in the supernatural helps to make Jay Follet’s death bearable. In Chapter 12, the assembled members of Mary’s family feel a presence that they cannot explain in any other way except to say that it is Jay’s spirit walking among them, and Andrew, in the end, observes a butterfly at the casket that he feels sure is a sign of Jay’s continuing on in the afterlife.

Agee is less clear in his portrayal of organized religion. On the one hand, it is shown to be a force for good, in that prayer gives Mary a way of coping with her life, which she feels is being torn apart by a “gulf” and a “widening” even before she suffers her devastating loss. On the other hand, Catholicism is represented in this novel by Father Jackson, a cold man who is shown first badgering the children at the time of their loss because of his focus on “manners” and then denying Mary the full prayer service because Jay, who was not baptized, is not strictly eligible. Father Jackson may carry the weight of the Catholic church, but he is clearly the least admirable character in the novel.

Agee’s own religious belief is reflected best in the skepticism of Mary’s father. When surrounded by the faith of others, Joel Lynch is respectful, and even a little jealous, because he cannot find within himself the faith that supports them. He is not opposed to faith—he says that it would not hurt him to have some, and in fact might do him some good—but he finds himself without any understanding of anything beyond the experience of his senses.

 

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