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Literature / A Death in the Family

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A Death in the Family is a 1957 novel by James Agee.

It is a slice-of-life tale about, well, a death in a family. Jay and Mary Follett are married and parents of two, six-year-old Rufus and his four-year-old sister Catherine. Jay gets a call from his brother Ralph that their father is dying. Jay knows that Ralph is sort of an idiot and definitely a drama queen but he rushes off anyway. Sure enough, it's a false alarm...but on the way home, Jay wrecks his car and dies. The rest of the novel deals with the immediate aftermath of Jay's death, and how it impacts the rest of the family, ending with the funeral.

A Death of the Family is Agee's autobiographical novel of the death of his father when Agee was six. (James Agee's childhood nickname was "Rufus".) It was later adapted into a stage play, All the Way Home.

No connection to the Batman comic book story, "Batman: A Death in the Family".


  • The Alcoholic: Ralph, who makes transparently phony excuses to duck out from his father's sickbed to swig from a flask, and panics when he empties the flask and realizes he can't leave to drink more.
  • Drama Queen: Jay is hesitant to leave home in the middle of the night, reflecting that Ralph's panicky phone call is probably just Ralph the known Drama Queen making a big deal out of nothing as usual. He's right.
  • Ear Trumpet: Some comic relief with Mary's mother Catherine, who is deaf and uses an ear trumpet. Andrew thinks it looks like a pelican's mouth and is filled with a desire to throw in a fish.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Three days, from the evening of Jay's departure to his father's house, to Jay's funeral.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: Rufus's tale to the Gang of Bullies about his father getting killed is ended by the school bell "weltering on the dark gray air."
  • Foreshadowing: Jay kisses his wife goodbye and is surprised to find the moment very solemn. "It was not really anything of a separation, yet he was surprised to find that it seemed to him a grave one." Of course, he dies hours later.
  • Gang of Bullies: A long section, most of a chapter, is a flashback to the local Gang of Bullies and how they delight in tricking and teasing poor gullible Rufus. There's a Call-Back to this later when he tells them "My daddy died," which causes them to treat him with more respect.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Mary, who doesn't drink, says "I need whiskey" after Jay's death is confirmed. She takes several shots and realizes with surprise that they had no effect at all.
  • Jerkass: Father Jackson, the arrogant jerk of a minister, who chooses to spend his time after his arrival by calling Rufus and Catherine "ill-bred" and "uncivil" and lecturing them on having respect for their elders.
  • Moral Guardians: Father Jackson, the jerkass, refuses to give Jay a full funeral service because Jay wasn't baptized. The novel ends with an enraged Andrew spitting with fury about how Father Jackson in his "black petticoats" wouldn't give a funeral to Jay, a far better man.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Well, it's called A Death in the Family. The story concerns the sudden, accidental death of the patriarch and how the family members deal with the immediate aftermath.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: A discussion about death leads to Rufus asking about his pet rabbits that were mauled by dogs, which leads to a question about why God lets people do bad things. Mary finds herself outpointed on logic so she finally falls back on more or less arguing that God is a troll.
    "God—doesn't—believe—in—the—easy—way," she said, with a certain triumph, spacing the words to give them full emphasis.
  • Re-Cut: James Agee died of a heart attack in 1955 with this novel left as a disorganized manuscript. His editor, David McDowell, edited the book and published it in 1957, complete with a forward in which McDowell said "There has been no re-writing, and nothing has been eliminated except for a few cases of first-draft material." In 2005 Agee biographer Michael Lofaro published a re-worked version of the manuscript that removed the prologue "Knoxville: Summer, 1915" (actually a short story not connected to the novel which had been published in 1938), added a different opening scene (Rufus having a nightmare), and generally re-ordered the novel in a way that Lofaro claimed was closer to Agee's manuscript.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The story opens with Jay taking Rufus to a Charlie Chaplin movie. Agee and Chaplin were good friends.
    • Mary's father Joel likes to quote Shakespeare. When thinking about the random nature of Jay's death he quotes King Lear ("As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,/They kill us for their sport."). Four pages later he's commenting on the meaninglessness of life by quoting Macbeth ("A tale told by an idiot...signifying nothing."). Then when he, Hannah, and Andrew all seem to sense Jay's presence in the room, Joel dismisses it as a hallucination, again quoting Macbeth ("Is this a dagger I see before me?).
  • Slice of Life: There's no conflict or story arc, just a family reeling in shock after the father dies.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Rufus gets more POV than anyone else but the POV bounces around between all the members of his family as well as Mary's sister Helen and uncle Ralph.
  • The Unfavorite: Jay's brother Ralph, and he's acutely aware of it: Ralph is fat and prone to hysterics and he drinks too much and he's weak, quite the contrast to his brother the reliable family man. When Jay and Ralph's father has his attack and Ralph's mother sends Tom the farmhand off to get help, Ralph reflects that his mother even likes Tom more than she likes him.