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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapters 12–13

Chapter 11

Section in Italics (I)

Summary

Chapter 12

Andrew calls Ralph and tells him that Jay is dead. Ralph feels that he is partly responsible because he is the reason that Jay made the trip in the first place. Since Ralph is an undertaker, he offers to take care of Jay's body, but Andrew insists that things are already being taken care of.

Mary recalls some of the last things Jay said to her—how he asked what she wanted for her birthday and how he heated the milk for her on the stove to help her sleep. Then she remembers that she was angry with him as the day went on for not calling, and that she was suspicious that he was drunk. She glances at Andrew, thinks that he would never keep it from her if Jay had been driving drunk, and puts the thought out of her head.

Suddenly, Hannah tells everyone to be quiet because she hears or feels something. Then Mary begins to sense it too, and then Andrew. Then Catherine asks if someone has come into the house, because she thinks she has heard footsteps (even though she is virtually deaf without the aid of her ear trumpet.) Mary then says "It's Jay," and begins to talk to him.

After a few moments the presence fades, and everyone discusses the event. Joel says he has not heard or sensed anything, and says that even if he had he would have thought it was just a hallucination. Then Mary asks them all to please stop talking about it, but then the presence reappears. Mary senses that it is in the children's room, and she goes upstairs. She feels the presence of "[Jay's] strength, of virility, of helplessness, and of pure calm." She speaks to him and then prays to him, and as she feels him leave she makes the sign of the cross.

Chapter 13

When Mary goes back downstairs the family discusses the presence again, and this time she feels it will be helpful to talk about it. Joel says he is unable to believe in anything that cannot be proven. Mary replies that it takes faith, and replies that faith is what Joel lacks. She says that faith is the only thing that can reconcile inexplicably awful occurrences with a belief in God's overarching plan. Andrew says that perhaps for the night he is willing to suspend his doubt, because he also felt a presence in the house.

Mary asks Hannah to stay the night with her, and Hannah agrees. Mary feels bad for not asking her mother to stay, but Mary is afraid that they would wake the children because she has to raise her voice to speak to her mother. Andrew, Joel, and Catherine leave, while Hannah stays. While they are cleaning up the living room, Mary exclaims over the amount of whiskey she has drunk, and Hannah gives her two aspirins so that she will not wake up with a headache.

As Andrew and his parents make their way home, he keeps thinking of the words to a Christmas song "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Meanwhile, Mary and Hannah make their way to bed. Mary feels a sense of hopelessness, even as she says her prayers, and she grieves for Jay.

Analysis

In these chapters, although Rufus and little Catherine are not present, childish, difficult behavior remains, as we see when Joel he questions the presence of Jay's ghost. At this point, the perspective of children and that of adults appears to intersect, which demonstrates to us that reality is not as clear-cut as it seemed before Jay died. In a time of loss, neither adults nor children have all the answers. Earlier in the novel, Agee speaks of childhood as though it were a sort of sham contrived by adults; now he shows why this is true. There are times in life when everyone feels helpless, regardless of age. In a sense, all the adults in Part Two of the novel are like children in that they must wait, unknowing and unprepared, for what is to come.

Unlike children, though, the adults can fall back on the fact that they have dealt with difficult experiences in the past: Joel has his pessimistic fatalism; Andrew has his agnosticism, Hannah and Mary have their differing levels of religious conviction—the former a sturdy, tried-and-true stoicism, the latter a passionate and slightly overwrought righteousness. Undoubtedly each character gains some solace for beliefs that are reaffirming in the face of devastation. But Agee does not grant any single one of these views any particular authority. The repeated voicing of the different opinions eventually reduces them to a collection of notions that are inconclusive and unsatisfying to all involved.

The family tensions between Mary and her in-laws are exacerbated by Mary's decision not to allow Ralph to act as Jay's undertaker. Ralph's request is slightly ridiculous, but Mary feels bad because she knows that now Ralph will be upset with her. Andrew comforts Mary by saying that her mother-in-law is not stupid, and that she would not let an ignorant complaint of Ralph's change her high opinion of Mary. The tensions between Mary and her father are heightened by the supposed appearance of the ghost. Joel states that he cannot believe in anything that cannot be proven, whereas Mary is comfortable relying on her faith and her sense that Jay is with them. Joel does not want to distress Mary, however, and he is quick to say that he does not know much about anything and that she should not mind what he says.

Jay's much-implied alcoholism surfaces again in these chapters. Mary remembers being angry with Jay because it occurs to her that perhaps he was drunk on the day he was driving home. The thought disturbs her so profoundly that she turns and looks at her brother, but then she believes that if there were any possibility of such a thing, Andrew would have told her. The former severity of Jay's drinking problem becomes clear through the difficulty Mary has in getting the idea to leave her head.

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