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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapter 16

Chapters 14–15

Chapter 17

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.

Rufus's inability to truly understand the gravity of the situation becomes clear when he talks with the boys who are going to school. Even though it is his father who has died, he lets another boy tell the story first. It is as though it did not really happen to Rufus himself; he recites the events leading up to Jay's death as if by rote. Rufus's detachment from the events is meaningful to us because we already know that he has a hard time fitting in with his peers; the fact that he is willing to use his father's death to gain acceptance or respect is sad. This tactic for impressing other children probably will not work in the future, either: after Jay's death is no longer news, the children will probably treat Rufus much as they did before. Furthermore, things may be worse, because then the fact that Rufus's father is dead will be one more thing that sets him apart from the other boys.

The problem of alcoholism surfaces yet again in this chapter. The fact that one boy's father thinks Jay was drunk when the accident happened suggests that the broader community—not just Rufus's family—is aware of Jay's drinking problem. The possibility that his father was drunk does not even seem plausible to Rufus, as his father has not had a serious drinking problem since before he was born. Rufus dismisses the suggestion out of hand, and says that his father crashed because he was driving quickly in order to get home sooner.

Aunt Hannah tries to impress upon the children the proper way to behave in light of the events that have occurred. As the children have not fully realized what is going on around them, it is difficult for them to remember to stay in the house and keep from fighting. Rufus feels guilty for making Hannah cry, but he is also confused about the fact that Hannah wants him to help Catherine: since Catherine will not let him color, he is helping the only way he can think of. Later, when Rufus is in the sitting room, he remembers his father's admonitions about bragging, and suddenly he feels as though he bragged about his father's death to the other children. Rufus's guilt, however, cannot be relieved this time, as he can no longer apologize directly to his father.

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