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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapter 1

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Chapter 2

Summary

The father, Jay, takes his son, Rufus, to the picture show. Mary, Rufus's mother, does not want them to go, as she thinks that the humor in the picture is tasteless—she thinks that Charlie Chaplin is a "vulgar little man." Rufus's father just laughs in reply, and father and son go to the movies. There is a lengthy description of Charlie Chaplin, "the little man with the cane"—how he walks with his legs in a bit of a squat and uses his cane to pick up ladies' skirts for the amusement of the audience. After leaving the theater, Rufus notes that he can read and pronounce the names on the store signs he sees, but he does not mention that he can do this to his father, because he remembers his father telling him not to brag.

Jay (usually referred to as "his father" or "the boy's father") decides to stop in a bar for a few drinks before they go home. At the bar, his father lifts Rufus up and seats him on the bar, proudly telling the other patrons that his boy is only six years old, but can read better than he himself could when he was twice Rufus's age. This boasting makes Rufus feel ashamed, as he thinks his father wishes he were better at fighting: "You don't brag about smartness if your son is brave."

On the way home, sucking on lifesavers, the two pause and sit for a moment on an outcrop of limestone in a vacant lot. Each time they walk home from the movies, father and son sit here for a few moments, and Rufus feels peaceful and close to his father during these brief times. He perceives that his father is not in a hurry to go home, and that his father enjoys spending time with him. They hardly speak at all, but look up at the stars and the leaves of the trees. Rufus's father reaches out with his hand and smoothes the boy's hair from his brow, then pulls the boy's head to his chest for a moment.

Once they have returned home, Rufus hears his father tell his mother that he will "be back before they're asleep", and then he hears feet quickly going down the stairs. Rufus falls so deeply asleep that afterward, when his mother tells them why his father is not at breakfast, he so forgets the words and noises that even years later he cannot not be sure he is not making them up.

Analysis

Mary's reaction to Charlie Chaplin is indicative of her sensitivity and her more genteel sensibilities—traits we see again and again in her throughout the story. Mary does not want her son to be exposed to such vulgar things as men lifting up women's skirts. It is clear, however, that Jay and Rufus really enjoy their outings to the theater, as much to be with one another as to see the shows. Rufus especially looks forward to their walks home, when they sit on the rock in the vacant lot and just silently enjoy each other's company. It is obvious that Rufus is smart beyond his years by his father's comment about his reading skills; it is equally evident that Rufus feels deficient in other regards. He wishes he were braver, a better fighter, because he thinks his father would rather brag about how tough his son is than how well he can read.

A subtle hint of tension within Rufus's family is also presented here. One time after they visit the bar on the way home, Jay asks Rufus not to mention to his mother that they have gone there. The purpose of the lifesavers is to hide the smell of alcohol on Jay's breath; we learn that drinking is something Jay feels he must hide from his wife. The fact that Jay goes out again after Rufus is in bed and the fact that Mary evidently does not want him to go indicate that Jay may have a drinking problem.

The entire novel is written in third person omniscient, but in the first chapter, we are given Rufus's point of view. He is a sensitive boy—a trait he most likely gets from his mother—which we see through the acute intuition the boy has for what his father is thinking and feeling. Rufus can sense that his father achieves an important part of his sense of well being in the moments of silence apart from the home and family life, even though the boy never doubts the father's love.

In moments of intense emotion throughout the novel, Agee links his characters to nature imagery. In the scene when Jay and Rufus sit on the rock, for example, Agee uses images of nature to link the father's and son's human emotions to intransient material things, thereby showing the universality and eternal presence of these feelings in human relations: "he saw that his father's eyes had become still more clear and grave and that the deep lines around his mouth were satisfied; and looked up at what his father was so steadily looking at, at the leaves which silently breathed and the stars that beat like hearts." By personifying images such as leaves and stars, Agee makes everything in the scene appear to have a life of its own. The fact that the boy feels that everything his father sees has its own life behind it highlights the complete adoration he feels for his father.

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