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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Important Quotations Explained

Chapters 18–20

Key Facts

He felt that sitting out here, he was not lonely; or if he was, that he felt on good terms with the loneliness; that he was a homesick man, and that here on the rock, though he might be more homesick than ever, he was well. He knew that a very important part of his well-being came of staying a few minutes away from home, very quietly, in the dark, listening to the leaves if they moved, and looking at the stars; and that his own, Rufus' own presence, was fully as indispensable to this well-being.

This excerpt, taken from the Chapter 1, describes the moments on Rufus and Jay's walk home from the movie theater when they sit for a few moments on a rock and enjoy the silence of the night and each other's company. Rufus seems happier in this moment than at any other point in the story. This quote also demonstrates how sensitive Rufus is; he can sense how important these moments are for him and his father to share in silence. Feeling a part of this unspoken completion of something inside both father and son gives Rufus a sense of peace.

"What's tempt?" "Tempt is, well, the Devil tempts us when there's something we want to do, but we know it is bad." "Why does God let us do bad things?" "Because He wants us to make up our own minds." "Even to do bad things, right under His nose?" "He doesn't want us to do bad things, but to know good from bad and be good of our own free choice." "Why?"

This bit of dialogue is taken from Chapter 5. The children are eating breakfast with Mary, and Rufus has been asking why his father is not there. Mary has told them that Jay has to leave to go see Grampa Follet, and has explained that Grampa Follet is getting old and may die soon. This has led into her religious explanation of death and related topics. Rufus tirelessly asks his mother question after question in an attempt to clarify God's intentions, especially about temptation, because these intentions do not make much sense to him. This relentless questioning typifies Rufus's interactions with his mother, and highlights the fact that though he is very bright and occasionally seems wise beyond his years, he is also very young.

He was amused because his son had always mistaken the words "gal and" for "gallon," and because his wife and to a less extent her relatives were not entirely amused by his amusement. They felt, he knew, that he was not a man to take the word "gallon" so purely as a joke; not that the drinking had been any sort of problem, for a long time now. He sang…

This excerpt is taken from the section in italics directly preceding Part Two of the novel. This section describes a memory of a time when Rufus, still a very young boy, is afraid of the dark and yells for his father. It demonstrates two key points that show up throughout the novel: the devotion that father and son mutually feel for one another, and Jay's drinking problem. This is the only time in the novel when Jay alludes to his problem himself; he only says that it is "no longer a problem." His words indicate to us that his drinking was, however, a problem in the past, and the comments that other characters make throughout the novel support this suggestion.

He thought of his daughter: all her spirit, which had resisted them so admirably to marry him, then only to be broken and dissolved on her damned piety; all her intelligence, hardly even born, came to nothing in the marriage, making ends meet and again above all, the Goddamned piety; all her innocent eagerness, which it looked as if nothing could ever kill, still sticking its chin out for more.

In this passage, taken from Chapter 9, Joel is thinking to himself about his daughter, Mary, as he and Catherine wait to hear whether or not Jay is alive. This quotation highlights the religious differences not only between Mary and her father, but between Mary and the rest of her family (save Hannah). Mary's religion is a source of frustration to the family because they feel it is a waste of her energy; she is so intelligent and spirited that they hate to see her spend so much time on something that they do not believe will reward her efforts.

"There were a lot of clouds," his uncle said, and continued to look straight before him "but they were blowing fast, so there was a lot of sunshine too. Right when they began to lower your father into the ground, into his grave, a cloud came over and there was a shadow just like iron, and a perfectly magnificent butterfly settled on the-coffin, just rested there, right over the breast, and stayed there, just barely making his wings breathe, like a heart." Andrew stopped and for the first time looked at Rufus. His eyes were desperate.

This passage is taken from Chapter 20, the last chapter in the novel. Andrew is describing to Rufus the butterfly he saw at Jay's funeral. He begins by saying that if anything could make him believe in God, it would be that butterfly. After the butterfly landed, it stayed on the coffin all the way into the ground before flying away. The butterfly is a symbol of hope; Andrew wrestles with his idea that the butterfly also represents some sort of divine influence that he cannot quite bring himself to accept.

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