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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Section in Italics (II)

Section in Italics (I)

Chapters 14–15

Summary

Rufus, Jay, Mary, Catherine, Grampa Follet, Ralph, and a few other aunts and uncles set off to see Rufus's Great-Great-Grandmother Follet. They all pack into the Ford, with Jay driving. They have not been to the old woman's house in over a decade; though Ralph claims to know the way, he has trouble remembering directions. Jay says that their great-great-grandmother was born in 1812 or so, making her 103 or 104 years old. Mary is amazed, telling Rufus that means Abraham Lincoln was only two or three years old when Great- Great-Grandmother Follet was born.

Finally they reach a huge, square, gray log cabin and see two women sitting on the porch. One of them is Great-Aunt Sadie, who lives with Great-Great- Grandmother Follet. Sadie tells them that the old woman will be especially happy to see Rufus, because he is the first fifth-generation grandchild. Sadie walks over to the old woman and tells her she has company, but she makes no sign of hearing Sadie's words. Sadie explains that Great-Great-Grandmother Follet cannot really speak anymore.

Jay leans down and tells the old woman who he is, and she makes a dry, croaking noise. Sadie says that she reckons that the old woman knows who he is. Then they urge Rufus to go over, and he approaches her and says "Granmaw, I'm Rufus." He looks right into her eyes, and she into his, but for Rufus it is like looking into pieces of glass. Then he leans forward again and says, "I'm Jay's boy Rufus." Great-Great-Grandmother Follet grasps his shoulders and begins "smiling so hard that her chin and her nose almost touched and deep little eyes giggled for joy. When at length they disengaged her hands and Rufus was at a little distance, he could see a stream of liquid under her chair. Nobody said anything about it."

The narrative launches into a different family memory. Late one afternoon, Uncle Ted and Aunt Kate come to visit all the way from Michigan. They bring Rufus a book. They are not really his uncle and aunt; they are very distant relatives but close friends. They take a train to go see mountains that Jay refers to as the "Smokies." Mary wakes Kate up so she can see them too, but she quickly falls back asleep. Mary says that Kate is just like little Catherine, and they all begin to laugh until little Catherine's face gets red and it seems as though she will cry.

That night at supper, Rufus asks for more cheese and Ted says that if Rufus whistles, the cheese will jump off the table into his lap. Rufus tries it and it does not work. Ted tells him to try harder, and Rufus tries harder and still the cheese does not move. Then Mary gets angry with Ted for deceiving a small boy, and Ted says he is only joking and that Rufus has got to learn common sense. This comment makes Mary even angrier. She maintains that she thinks the joke is in poor taste, and even Jay cannot convince her otherwise.

Analysis

Rufus's encounter with his great-great-grandmother is a moving scene in a number of ways. Rufus is glad when the old woman finally smiles and takes him by the shoulders, and we thinks it is a wonderful moment of recognition both for the her and Rufus. However, when Rufus stands back, he realizes that during the encounter the old lady is urinating. The fact that she may only have been smiling because of this crude bodily function makes us wonder whether or not she actually recognizes Rufus at all. The narrative leans toward the fact that the old woman is merely expressing relief at urination, as there is no further resolution after the encounter: the scene ends with Rufus noticing the liquid trickling under her chair.

Agee shows again that childhood is merely a construct by demonstrating that in extreme old age, humans are once again like infants. Agee suggests this idea starting with the curious line in the first section of italics in the novel: "so successfully disguised to myself as a child." The rest of the narrative supports the idea that children observe and experience life at least as accurately as—if not more accurately than—adults do. Agee repeatedly uses a child's perspective to relate events because a child's reaction is not shaped by the prejudices that characterize older people—a child is a clear mirror of existence as it occurs moment to moment. In the instance of meeting his great- great-grandmother, Rufus is the most effective narrator to use to describe the scene, as his reaction reflects the true ambiguity of the situation and highlights the poignancy of the possibility that he is, in a sense, more mature than the old woman.

The last memory described in this section—like the boys' teasing of Rufus on their way to school—again demonstrates Rufus' vulnerability. He honestly believes that the cheese will jump off the table, and he becomes frustrated and upset when his efforts have no effect. Mary, who is sensitive like Rufus is, gets upset at Ted for making fun of her son. The event illustrates a key personality difference between Mary and Jay: Jay is easygoing, while Mary is often high-strung.

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