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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapters 14–15

Section in Italics (II)

Chapter 16

Summary

Chapter 14

When Rufus wakes up in the morning, the first thing he remembers is that he wants to show his father his new cap. Rufus puts the cap on and runs down the hall yelling, "Daddy! Daddy!" When he goes into his parents' bedroom he sees his mother alone in her bed, and he thinks her face looks wrinkled, "like cracked china." Mary tells him to go wake little Catherine.

When Mary has both children beside her, she puts an arm around each of them and tells them that their father can never come home again because God has taken him. Rufus asks if their father is dead, and his mother says yes, and pulls the children tight against her. Rufus cannot make the word "dead" mean anything for him. Mary smoothes the hair back from Rufus's forehead and says that he and Catherine probably will not understand for a while, but that they should ask her if they have any questions. Then she tells Rufus to help Catherine get dressed, and they go down to breakfast.

Chapter 15

The narration shifts to little Catherine's perspective for breakfast. Everything is so still that it makes Catherine feel uneasy and sad. She eats not because she is hungry but because she can sense how important it is for her to be good on this day, as her father is not home. She thinks that the noise Aunt Hannah makes when she eats her toast and sips her coffee is scary and sad. Catherine wishes her father would walk in the door and eat a big breakfast and make everything all right. She repeatedly wonders why her father would have chosen to go up to heaven instead of coming home.

After Hannah finishes eating, she explains to the children exactly how Jay died: he lost control of the car, hit his chin, and was thrown clear of the vehicle before it went up the embankment and fell beside him. She asks the children if they understand, and she tells them to ask her questions because she knows it is difficult to understand. Rufus asks her what "embackmut," "instintly," and "concussion" mean, and she tells him. Then Catherine asks when their father is coming home. Hannah tells the girl again that Jay cannot come home, and that she knows it is difficult to understand. Rufus asks if it was the concussion that put his father to sleep, and Hannah says yes. Then Rufus says that if it was the concussion, then it was not God that took Jay away.

Analysis

These two chapters illustrate how incomprehensible the finality of death is to small children. Catherine eats her breakfast because she can feel the serious mood in the household, but she herself does not feel a sense of loss. Rufus says that the word "dead" is meaningless to him. The children's lack of reaction and their descriptions of the adults around them highlight, by contrast, how much the loss affects Mary and Hannah. Hannah gets suddenly angry with Rufus for wearing his cap; Mary can hardly stand to use the word "dead" to describe Jay, and she can barely keep from crying when she tells Rufus and Catherine the bad news.

The children apparently have different degrees of understanding what has happened to their father. Catherine thinks he is temporarily gone, as we see in the fact that she wonders when he is coming home. She watches and listens to Hannah with a sense of curiosity; she can tell that something is wrong but she does not connect the feeling with the news that her mother gave her. When Aunt Hannah tells the children that Jay "had an accident," the first thing Catherine thinks is that he soiled himself, because that is what the expression means to her. The innocence of Catherine's thoughts paired with the severity of the situation highlights how difficult the death will be to accept and understand.

This is the only section of the novel in which the narrator portrays Catherine's thought processes—and even these glimpses are brief because the narrator shifts back to Rufus's point of view quickly. When Agee lets us inside Catherine's head, the limited ability of her comprehension highlights the enormity of the emotional complications that always surround a death. Rufus, though he understands the meaning of death more fully, shares a similar lack of emotional reaction or comprehension of the event.

When Hannah describes to the children the way their father died, the foreignness of the occurrence is clear in the fact that the children do not understand many of the words Hannah uses to relate what happened. The words that neither child can understand or pronounce—"embankment," "instantly," "concussion"—create a literal example of the difficulty of explaining death to anyone. Understanding what the words mean does not make the meaning of the event they describe sink in.

The difficulty the children have understanding death is compounded by the fact that Mary and Hannah attempt to explain Jay's death in a religious sense. Mary says that God took the children's father, and that is why he can no longer come home to them. Rufus has to double-check the facts by asking if this means that Jay is dead. Mary's avoidance of the word "dead" in describing Jay indicates that, at this point, the only way she can cope with Jay's death is by trying to understand it in religious terms. If Mary thinks of her husband merely as "dead," the awful reality of the meaning of that word is almost too much for her to bear. But Rufus needs this clarity; he persists in his logical reasoning of the event when he says to Aunt Hannah that if the concussion was what killed Jay en it was not God who killed him. Rufus is unable to understand the leap of faith that allows Hannah and Mary to see God causing the concussion in some way.

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