A Death in the Family Themes
by James Agee

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Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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.

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.


(Novels for Students)


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.

(The entire section is 1,503 words.)