A Death in the Family

by James Agee
List(s):"Racine Library List"
Category: "Fiction - General"
Year of Publication:1957
Date Added:03/24/2004
Date Read:03/29/2004
Notes:A family's reactions to the accidental death of the father. The novel was praised as one of the best examples of American autobiographical fiction, and it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1958. As told through the eyes of six-year-old Rufus Follet, the story emerges as an exploration of conflicts both among members of the family and in society. The differences between black and white, rich and poor, country life and city life, and, ultimately, life and death are richly depicted. Agee used contrasting narratives as a structural device to link the past and present; italicized passages describing the family's life before the fatal automobile accident are incorporated into the primary narrative of the crash and its immediate effects.
My Rating: 5

Reviews for A Death in the Family

Review - Death in the Family, A

A Death in the Family was at the same time not as bad as I expected and not as good as I hoped. The plot wasn’t terribly uplifting — a young father dies and his wife and two young children cope with it from the time they hear about it through the day of the funeral. But at times, the book actually seemed to be promising something — not joy, certainly, but a strong picture of how a family comes together in grief and supports each other. In the end, however, I thought it fell flat primarily because it ended with a major anticlimax.

Much of the story is told from the perspective of Rufus, a six-year-old boy. After the funeral, his uncle takes him on a walk and tells him of the cemetery service. First he explains how a butterfly that happened by just as the coffin was being lowered almost convinced him that God exists. They he erupts into anger because the priest wouldn’t read the entire funeral service because Rufus’s dead father had never been baptized. The two walk home in silence and the book ends.

Perhaps that’s a reflection of real life, but a life without hope, and therefore a book without hope, has no real meaning as far as I’m concerned.

Rufus’s mother is a devout Catholic, and Agee takes her faith seriously and portrays it as actually helping her deal with the tragedy.

I would have been able to deal with all of that and still get something out of the book except for Agee’s writing style. He supposedly used differing styles to portray different characters aspects of their thoughts, but when someone was thinking, it was hard for me to stay interested. To give an example, here’s a bit of the penultimate paragraph: “He hates them just like opening a furnace door but he doesn’t want them to know it. He doesn’t want them to know it because he doesn’t want to hurt their feelings. He doesn’t want them to know it because he knows they love him and think he loves them. He doesn’t want them to know it because he loves them. But how can he love them if he hates them so? How can he hate them if he loves them? Is he mad at them because they can say their prayers and he doesn’t? He could if he wanted to, why doesn’t he? Because he hates prayers. And them too for saying them.”

There are three sections of the book that Agee had written but not placed in the book when he died. The editor decided to stick them in at the beginning of each of the sections. They, in particular, are constructed of sentences like the ones up above, and they’re printed in italics which make them harder to read.

The book made me think about the way people react to the death of family members, and in particular, the way I felt when my dad died four and a half years ago. But in the end, it resolved nothing. It was just a snapshot without meaningful purpose.
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