The Morning Watch

by James Agee

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756

As far as outer action is concerned, not much happens in The Morning Watch. The story itself is so short that it is best described as a novella. All of the story’s action occurs within two or three hours during the early morning of Good Friday. Only the most devout could call the action earthshaking: Three boys sleeping in a dormitory are awakened at 3:45 a.m. to take their turns in a religious vigil; they join other worshipers in the silent, prayerful watch at the school chapel; then they wander off together for a cold swim in a nearby quarry, the Sand Cut. By far the longest section of this three-part story is the middle part, devoted to an hour’s watch in the chapel.

Most of the action in The Morning Watch occurs inside Richard, the twelve-year-old whose consciousness the reader shares. For Richard, the Easter season is, like the new year for others, a time of heightened awareness, of taking stock, of awakenings and new beginnings. This particular Easter season is special for Richard because it also marks his transition from childhood to adolescence. It is his one big time of awakening to the prospects of manhood—to sexuality, to independence, to his own nature, and to the nature of existence generally. His life takes a new but fairly natural direction.

Richard’s development and his religion influence each other. Just as the Easter season stimulates his adolescent awakening, so his awakening in turn influences his religious views. With amusement and shame, Richard thinks back on himself a year before, when, as an eleven-year-old religious fanatic, he aspired to sainthood, practiced self-mortification, and even harbored crucifixion fantasies. Getting himself crucified, however, raised certain practical difficulties: In his fantasies, he thought of building a cross in the school’s shop, but since he lacked woodworking skills, he had to settle for being crucified on one of the school’s iron bedsteads.

Now Richard is amazed at the change which a year has wrought in him. His aspirations to sainthood faded during summer vacation in Knoxville, and he became aware of the pride, irreverence, and craziness of his fantasies. Besides, he started indulging in a solitary sex act. Even now, as he imagines Christ’s wounds, he cannot help picturing them in terms of Minnielee Henley’s intimate parts, which he saw when they were climbing a tree together. Richard realizes that, as a saint, he is a washout.

Now Richard sees himself as merely another erring human being, and it seems to be a predicament that he cannot escape. Even as he prays and beats his chest in contrition, the devil tempts him with irreverent and prideful thoughts. He recalls portraits of a simpering and effeminate Jesus, finds the idea of intoxication of Christ’s blood amusing, and thinks Claude Gray’s attitude of prayer is theatrical. Anguished at such thoughts, Richard berates himself more, until he can finally congratulate himself that he is contrite and humble. Immediately he realizes that he has sinned again, in the very process of atonement. So it goes for Richard, in a vicious circle of alternating contrition and pride.

Leaving his soul in the hands of a merciful God, Richard gets on with the business of growing up. After attending the vigil, he and the other two boys, Hobe and Jimmy, assert their independence through a gross violation of the rules. Instead of returning to the dormitory, they go off to the Sand Cut for a swim. Here, when they strip naked, they silently appraise each other’s progress toward manhood. In a daring expression of his budding manhood, Richard dives to the cold, muddy bottom of the Sand Cut. He confirms the results of this test when, on the way back to school, the boys come across a beautiful snake which may or may not be poisonous. Admiring the snake, Richard does not really want to kill it, but when Hobe mortally wounds it, Richard finishes the snake off by smashing its striking head with repeated blows from a rock held in his hand. The other boys, and Richard himself, are impressed by his feats, and the three boys are in high spirits as they return home to their inevitable punishment. Not even the fear of punishment or the thought that the snake will survive until sundown (similar to Christ suffering on the Cross) prevents Richard from secretly exulting over his strong right hand, on which the snake’s blood and saliva have not yet finished drying.

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