A Death in the Family
Analysis of Major Characters
Rufus is the protagonist of the novel. The narrator spends more time relating his point of view than any other character's. We learn through a series of stories that Rufus is an intelligent and sensitive little boy. At the end of the novel, we is not entirely sure what he makes of his father's death. Rufus understands that death is a permanent condition, but the full weight of grief has not yet struck him.
Throughout the novel, Rufus questions his mother's and his aunt's faith in God. Whenever the women give him religious explanations, Rufus questions them tirelessly, wanting an answer that makes logical sense. A notable instance of this questioning is just after his father's death, when Mary calls Rufus and little Catherine to her and tells them that God has taken their father. Rufus must ask if his father is dead; the word "dead" has an absolute meaning for him that her religious explanation does not. When his aunt tells Rufus and Catherine the facts surrounding their father's murder, Rufus says that if the concussion killed his father, then it was not God that killed him. Rufus cannot understand how his aunt and his mother believe that it was both God and the concussion that killed his father.
Another aspect of Rufus's character emphasized throughout the novel is his need to fit in with and be accepted by other children. Badly wanting to make friends, he allows children to make fun of him because he feels that there may be a few among them who secretly like him, or else they would not talk to him at all. Rufus cannot understand the concept of teasing for fun; he thinks that the boys would not insist on teasing him over and over unless they liked him. Because he himself is innocent of malice, he cannot perceive it in others.
In many ways, Rufus exemplifies two conflicting views of childhood portrayed in the novel. He is as adult as any other character in the story with regard to what he sees and perceives in other people. The language Agee uses to describe Rufus and his experiences, especially in the italicized sections of the novel, is very poetic and often abstract, more complex than the language Agee uses to describe any other character's point of view. In other senses, however, Rufus is very much a child. His inability to fully comprehend his father's death, for example, is typical of small children; Rufus is not sure what the death is supposed to mean for him personally.
Mary, like her son, is intelligent and sensitive. We can see her intelligence through her enlightened views about black people: throughout the novel, she encourages Rufus not to treat blacks any differently than he would anyone else. Mary is a kind, giving person, and very loving to her children. Her family appears to feel that she married beneath her status; Agee implies that she has a more genteel background than Jay does. However, Mary and Jay, when together at the beginning of the novel, appear to have a happy marriage with relatively little strife. There are allusions throughout the novel to a drinking problem that Jay used to have; Mary herself wonders for a moment if Jay was drunk when he got in his accident, but then she banishes the thought from her mind. Drinking heavily, it seems, has not been a problem for Jay since before the children were born; Agee presents it as a fairly resolved problem, but one that has left lasting fears and uncertainty.
Religion is of the utmost importance to Mary, yet her religious beliefs become a point of contention between her and her husband and the rest of her family. From the beginning of the story, it is clear that she is more religious that Jay, and furthermore that she is afraid of a rift growing between them due to their differing beliefs. The only one in the family who can sympathize with Mary's religious tendencies is Aunt Hannah, but even Hannah is not quite as fervent as Mary. After Jay dies, religion becomes even more important to Mary; she cannot understand how else to cope with the death. We get the sense that religion is something that separates Mary from her children. There is no logical reason for the children to believe in God, and meeting Father Jackson at the end of the story is not likely to make them any more inclined to believe that there is a God—least of all a kind one, if unsavory men like Father Jackson can represent him.
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