James Agee’s A Death In The Family follows a young family in the early 20th century directly before and after the unexpected, sudden death of the patriarch, Jay Follet. Agee beautifully illustrates how each family member copes with Jay’s death, following their journey from anxiety to anger to confusion to acceptance. But despite the beauty of the language, I struggled to stay engaged with the story. From the beginning, there was little plot, and the novel felt more like voyeurism—watching a family struggle with grief—than a traditional narrative with beginning, middle, and end. Nevertheless, you could claim that Jay’s death affects change in each character, especially six year-old Rufus and Mary, Jay’s widow.
A Novel Published Posthumously
It’s important to note that this novel was compiled and published posthumously by Agee’s editor, so it’s impossible to know if Agee would have made any additional changes. I would be interested, though, to read the 2007 revised edition of A Death In The Family that claims to be truer to Agee’s original outline. In the earlier version, there were several chapters written as flashbacks entirely in italics which were sometimes difficult to follow and didn’t seem to fit into the over-arching timeline of the novel. The ending, too, felt incomplete. There did not seem to be much closure for Rufus, arguably the protagonist, and for an author with such a gift for language and rhythm, the final words of the text seemed off, as if Agee had intended more to follow.
Portrait of a Grieving Family
The text does paint a believable portrait of a family: the inner self-conscious thoughts between family members, the small allowances people make for those close to them, the often fraught relationships with in-laws. The Follet family and their immediate relatives are supportive, loving, and generally good people. There are only a couple of characters that could have potentially caused tension in the story: drunk Uncle Ralph and Father Jackson.
There is a semblance of plot in the beginning, when Ralph insists on acting as undertaker for his brother Jay, but the Follets do not want to use him. Unfortunately, this thread is dropped and the reader never hears from Ralph again. He doesn’t even appear at the funeral. In fact, almost every opportunity for tension is left unexplored. The characters are passive, taking few actions themselves, only accepting what is thrown their way. Because of this passivity, the events of the novel are sad, but not heart-wrenching. The story is interesting in an almost scientific way: an examination of the effects of grief on a supportive and otherwise functional family. It is scientific as opposed to engaging, a simple recounting of events.
I found it interesting that Agee jumped from character to character in perspective, often within a few lines of each other. While the primary perspective he used was Rufus—whose six-year old mind he expertly represented—Agee often jumped in and out of as many as six or seven other characters, with varying degrees of success. Agee was particularly successful writing the scene between Mary’s aging parents as they awaited news of Jay. Catherine, Mary’s mother, is so deaf she must use an ear-trumpet, but her husband Joel is very understanding of her.
“He began to realize the emotion, and the loneliness, behind the banality of what she had said; he was ashamed of himself to have answered as if it were merely banal. He wished he could think what to say that would make up for it, but he could not think of what to say. He new of his wife, with tender amusement, that she almost certainly had not realized his unkindness, and that she would be hopelessly puzzled if he tried to explain and apologize. Let it be, he thought.
He feels much more than he says, she comforted herself; but she wished that he might ever say what he felt. She felt his hand on her wrist and his head close to hers. She leaned towards him. ‘I understand, Catherine,’ he said (pg 130).”
While I cannot say I enjoyed this novel, I admire Agee’s writing and his ability to make everyday events sound poetic. If nothing else, Agee understands how people think and why they act. His deftness at creating three-dimensional characters is on full display in A Death In The Family.