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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapter 16

Chapters 14–15

Chapter 16, page 2

page 1 of 2
Summary

Rufus wanders around the house, turning over in his mind the fact that his father died while he was asleep, and when he woke up, his father was gone. Rufus gets dressed for school, gets his book satchel, and goes to say goodbye to Aunt Hannah, who tells him he does not have to go to school for a few days and that he should stay in the house. At first he feels privileged to escape school, but he also feels disappointed because he knows everyone will treat him respectfully because his father has died.

Rufus decides to go outside anyway, so he sneaks out the front door quietly. He practices saying "my daddy's dead" out loud a few times, and then he says it to a man who is passing by. The man keeps going for a moment and then turns and asks Rufus if he means what he just said. When Rufus says that he does, the man tells him he had better go back inside. Rufus goes inside for a few moments, but then lets himself out again. He goes down a back alley that brings him out on the sidewalk. He sees some boys walking to school.

A bunch of the boys approach Rufus, and he tells them that his father is dead. One boy says Rufus lying, but another states that his dad read the news in the paper. The first boys asks how Rufus's father was killed, and the second boy says that he was driving his "ole Tin Lizzie" and that it hit a rock, ran up a ditch and then fell on top of him and crushed every bone in his body. Rufus tells them that his father was "instantly killed."

Two other boys come up to the group. One of the new boys says that his father said, "that's what you get for driving a auto when you're drunk." Rufus asks what "drunk" means, and the boy says it means "fulla good ole whiskey." Rufus says his father was not drunk, and he proceeds to relate the version of events that Aunt Hannah told him. Rufus tells the boys how his father hit his chin and was knocked clear of the car, but the boys seem doubtful that only a knock on the chin could kill a man. Rufus explains that it was the exact way that it hit his father that killed him, something to do with his brain.

The last school bell rings, and all the boys run off. Rufus goes home and lets himself in the front door quietly just as Aunt Hannah is coming into the room. She yells at him for leaving the house and tells him to go help little Catherine color in her picture book. Rufus finds Catherine and tells her not to color a cow orange, so she goes over it with brown. Rufus tells Catherine she has ruined the picture, and she starts to cry. Aunt Hannah comes in and gets angry with Rufus. She tells him to go read a book by himself, but whatever he does, to be good. Rufus goes into the sitting room. As he looks at his father's chair, he feels guilty for bragging about his father's death. He apologizes to the empty room.

Analysis

This chapter again highlights the fact that Rufus does not know what to do with the knowledge that his father has died. It does not seem a personal concern to him so much as an event that may result in different, more respectful treatment as school. Rufus repeats the phrase "My daddy's dead" over and over to himself, but it does not have any real meaning for him. He realizes that the phrase has importance only when the man on the street hears him and turns, suggesting he go back inside. This episode highlights a difference between adults and children: adults realize the implications of the word "dead"—a word that only gains meaning through experience.

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